At a park that once served as a segregating line in Washington, DC, a unique outdoor theater brought people together for nights of music and poetry under the stars. Structural problems forced the Carter Barron Amphitheater to close in 2017. Can a group of advocates restore and reopen it for a new generation?
Rock Creek Park is one of the oldest national parks in the country. It stretches through the heart of Washington, D.C., and creates a dividing line between neighborhoods to the east and west.
The Carter Barron Amphitheater, a performing arts venue in the park, once brought these communities together with a mix of big-name concerts and creative programs — but structural problems forced it to close in 2017. Can a new alliance of advocates restore this unique venue for the next generation?
In this episode, host Jennifer Errick interviews Rock Creek Park Superintendent Julia Washburn and Deputy Superintendent Brian Joyner and Rock Creek Conservancy Executive Director Jeanne Braha and Senior Manager of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Tony Richardson. They discuss why so many people describe the site as “magical,” some of their favorite performances, the progress that’s taking place to reopen the theater, and ambitious plans for a reopening.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Vanessa Pius.
Special thanks to Alan Spears and Ed Stierli for their invaluable assistance with this episode.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about the Carter Barron Alliance.
Learn more about this podcast at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
Learn more and join us at npca.org.
The Geography That Unites Us
Jennifer Errick: Rock Creek Park is one of the oldest national parks in the country. It stretches through the heart of Washington, D.C. and creates a dividing line between neighborhoods to the east and west of the city. A performing arts venue in the park once brought these communities together with a mix of big name concerts and creative programs, but structural problems forced the theater to close. Can an alliance of advocates restore this unique venue for a new generation? I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
Rock Creek Park is one of the oldest federally managed public lands in the country. Established in 1890, it preserves a ribbon of green space running north to south through the nation's capital along its namesake waterway. The park has expanded over the years to include dozens of additional sites that capture notable aspects of the city's history. There are more than 90 of these protected places altogether. They include a series of civil war forts, a grist mill from 1829 that once used the waters of the creek to grind barley and rye, and tennis courts where a legendary athlete, Arthur Ashe, founded a tournament to make the sport more accessible to people of all races and income levels. There are horse stables, playgrounds, and boat launches. There are hiking and bicycle trails, a golf course, and the only planetarium in the National Park system.
Julia Washburn: It is magical, it really is the lungs of Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Errick: That's Julia Washburn, Superintendent of Rock Creek Park. She's tasked with overseeing the management of these diverse sites covering some 3,000 acres in Washington, D.C., including 1,800 acres of urban forest. And she's the first of several people I speak with who use this same word, magical, to describe the experience of being in the park.
Julia Washburn: It is 10 degrees cooler in the park during the summer than any other place in the city. It plays an important role in the health and wellness of the city and provides really important outdoor recreation space. But it also provides fabulous habitat for wildlife, and creates a little wild center in the city, which is so unusual in urban areas.
Jennifer Errick: In this wild center, behind a series of fences and gates, surrounded by woods and facing more than 4,000 well-worn seats, is a dilapidated stage where Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles and Diana Ross have all performed to cheering crowds: the stage of the Carter Barron Amphitheater. It's where a distinguished theater troupe brought summer Shakespeare festivals to the city year after year — for free. Where up-and-coming local artists, including stars of D.C.'s distinctive musical tradition known as go-go, established themselves. Where young couples and families could afford to enjoy nights of reggae, jazz, poetry, dance and more, because the Park Service intentionally kept ticket prices low. Washburn herself remembers listening to shows at the Carter Barron from her home near the west side of the park when she was a child.
Julia Washburn: I lived on one of the roads that abuts the park. And literally I could look out my bedroom window and see beautiful Rock Creek Park. And so, I was at the bottom of the hill, and the Carter Barron is on the ridge. Every Friday and Saturday night throughout the summer, it was just so nice to be playing outside as a kid and have this music wafting down. My mother will say, “Oh, that's the Carter Barron. There's a concert tonight.” I just loved that, it felt really special.
Jennifer Errick: Deputy Superintendent Brian Joyner also grew up in Washington, D.C. and has fond memories of the Carter Barron.
Brian Joyner: Music is such a big part of the history of Washington, D.C., the cultural history of Washington, D.C. The Carter Barron holds a very near and dear space for people. Getting to see music outside at an amphitheater, it's a fairly special feeling, a special occasion. And the fact that there was this amphitheater almost in the middle upper quadrant of the city that was available to everyone, particularly at a time when not everyone could go to all of the venues in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Errick: The amphitheater originally opened in 1950 as the Sesquicentennial Theater, during a celebration honoring Washington, D.C. on the city's 150th anniversary as the nation's capital. Sesquicentennial is a fancy word that means 150th anniversary; hence the tongue twister of a name. The site wouldn't keep that awkward moniker for long, however.
Motion picture executive Carter Tate Barron was a college football star and a civic leader who agreed to serve as Vice Chairman for the National Commission Planning the 150th anniversary celebrations. Just three months after the venue opened, Carter Barron died of cancer at age 44. President Harry Truman, who considered Barron a personal friend, rededicated the site in 1951 as the Carter Barron Amphitheater.
The site's design was specifically created to stage an original play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, a patriotic tribute to George Washington called Faith of Our Fathers. The production, which ran for the Carter Barron's first two seasons, received lukewarm reviews, and the theater struggled at first to fill its seats. By the mid-1950s, however, staff began booking a variety of performers each summer instead of one exclusive production, and the site began to draw big name musical acts. Soon, sold-out crowds were flocking into the woods for the eclectic shows. Although competition from other venues intensified in the decades that followed, the Park Service began using subsidies in the 1970s to keep ticket prices affordable and to allow students to attend some shows for free.
The theater solidified its reputation as a community space where anyone could go for an artful evening of entertainment. Deputy Superintendent Brian Joyner notes that D.C. had Black cultural and intellectual centers during the Jim Crow era, such as the U Street area of the city known then as Black Broadway. But the reality during that time was that some clubs and theaters only admitted white patrons. The law required, however, that the Carter Barron, cited as it was on federal land, be integrated from the day it opened.
Brian Joyner: You may not be able to go down to the National Theater or Warner Theater, places like that, but the Carter Barron was someplace people could go to and you could see quality acts, national and local acts there on a regular basis.
Jennifer Errick: Superintendent Washburn emphasizes how important it is for the amphitheater to continue bringing people from all over the city together, because segregationists historically used the park as a dividing line to keep people apart.
Julia Washburn: If you're familiar with the city and the geography of the city, while Rock Creek Park is this amazing heart of the city, it was also strategically used by 20th century segregationist to segregate Northern D.C. They actually removed Black communities and communities of color from the west side of the park and built housing areas that were meant for middle class, upper middle class, wealthy white people. They put covenants on those properties so that they would not, could not be sold to Black people, it could not be sold to Jewish people. And so, what it created was the park being the segregation line in D.C.
Jennifer Errick: Although the city has changed a great deal socially and culturally in the last 70 years, the park continues by its very nature — as in, actual nature — to create a boundary between the east and the west.
Julia Washburn: We're still living with that legacy of segregation. But the Carter Barron is where the east side and the west side come together literally and share an experience together and allows the park to be a gathering place instead of a segregating place. We aim to have the whole park really play that role moving into the 21st, further onto the 21st century, that the geography that segregates us can also be the geography that unites us.
Jennifer Errick: Unfortunately, the Carter Baron has been unable lately to serve as a place that unites Washingtonians. In 2017, an engineering firm recommended that staff immediately close the theater after structural tests of the stage found that it was no longer strong enough to support the weight of performers and equipment. It has now sat locked away and unused for nearly six years. Even before the structural problems were discovered, logistical hassles had greatly reduced the number of shows the park service could accommodate in a season. Here again is Superintendent Washburn.
Julia Washburn: We are not a performing arts producing agency. We're a land management agency. Now, we had had success, the Park Service has had success in the past, on and off, but in the past, I'd say 10, 15 years, our internal funding continued to dwindle. The appropriations process, the way it has been working for the past, I don't know, 10, 15 years, we don't even see a budget usually until March, and sometimes later. You cannot run a summer concert series if you don't get money until March to enter into any contracts because everybody's booked, and everyone's already got their summer plans done by the time we're coming to the table.
Jennifer Errick: Since closing, the vacant structures have attracted graffiti and litter. Foxes and raccoons have denned under the stage. Countless artists have lost opportunities to connect with new audiences, and lovers of the arts have lost an important gathering space. For a time, it was unclear what would become of the once-celebrated venue. But according to Washburn, the complicated process to save the Carter Barron began almost immediately after it shut down.
Julia Washburn: My predecessor, Tara Morrison, Superintendent Morrison started that process the minute it closed. It closed In 2017. She moved over to be the superintendent of National Capital Parks East and passed the baton to me. I know that my senior staff and our park and our regional office and our friends who do our construction, contracting have all been working on it since then. I think we're getting closer because we started thinking in the frame of mind of partnerships. The Park Service is not going to be able to do this by ourselves, and we're not going to be able to run it by ourselves either. It's a labor of love and it's a community effort.
Jennifer Errick: Initial work to reopen the site centered on plans to rehabilitate the stage. The renovation process has since expanded to address the more comprehensive needs of the aging theater, which according to the 2017 engineering report has weathered more than it was designed to handle these past seven decades. One of the staff's biggest priorities is making the site fully accessible and bringing it into compliance with modern federal disability laws. The current number of bathrooms, 20, is also outdated and simply not adequate for a performance space serving more than 4,000 people. The plumbing and electrical systems need updating, and workers must conduct all the needed renovations in ways that minimize any disturbances such as light and noise that could affect the parks federally endangered arthropod, that's a shrimp like crustacean that hides out in Rock Creek's subterranean reservoirs, as well as the federally threatened northern long-eared bat, which sometimes roosts in the parks lush tree canopy.
Designs for the refurbished theater must also preserve the building's historic character, a rustic style that was popular throughout the park system in the mid-20th century, often referred to as parkitecture. Yeah, that's a real term, isn't it great? Washburn and her staff have also been looking for an outside partner to help run the ticketing and concession side of the business to avoid some of the previous pitfalls that made it difficult for the theater to compete for talent.
Julia Washburn: We have to get it designed and funded. It's in schematic design process right now. Then we hope to be able to move straight into construction drawings after schematic designs are finished sometime in the spring-summer. But we have to find the money. And so, we think together with the help of our fundraising partner, the Rock Creek Conservancy. We're hoping that we'll be able to get it fixed and open and thriving again. That is the goal.
Jennifer Errick: If that seems like a major undertaking, it is. Fortunately, Rock Creek Park has a new alliance of advocates helping to raise money and harness volunteer energy on behalf of the theater.
Tony Richardson: I think that the Carter Barron Amphitheater as a venue is just such a beautiful melding of performance, arts, music, culture, as well as nature.
Jennifer Errick: That's Tony Richardson, Senior Manager of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the Rock Creek Conservancy, the official philanthropic partner for the park. The Conservancy has been actively involved in the work to restore and reopen the theater, from organizing helpers to pick up litter to facilitating donations to help cover the cost of the schematic designs that are now in process.
Tony Richardson: It's just a really magical spot and it's really unfortunate that it's been closed since 2017. We're hoping to bring it back, reopen it, bring it back to its former glory, and have it be a space that provides benefits for all Washingtonian as well as visitors to the National Capitol area.
Jennifer Errick: Richardson, like Washburn and Joyner, is a D.C. native who grew up seeing shows at the Carter Barron, and you may have noticed he used the same word to describe the space: magical. Richardson remembers a particularly special performance his parents took him to see when he was a child that I feel really speaks to the diversity of programs at the site.
Tony Richardson: I went to the Carter Barron Amphitheater a lot as a kid. For some reason, a thing that really pops out in my mind is I went there and saw a puppet show as part of the Boy Scouts of America. It was just like the type of thing where my parents weren't really into the performing arts, they probably wouldn't typically take me to something like that. But the fact that it was free, the fact that it was during the summer, the fact that it was a beautiful night, just like brought us into the park.
Jennifer Errick: Jeanne Braha is Executive Director of the Rock Creek Conservancy. She emphasizes that the theater not only brings people together, it also serves as a meaningful introduction to the park for many visitors and a gateway to finding nature in the city.
Jeanne Braha: There are lots of people that might not take the time to figure out how to get to Rock Creek Park, which bus to take, or how to ride your bike there to go for a hike or even to do some of the other wonderful things that are available in the park. But if they know the Earth, Wind and Fire is playing or whoever the Earth, Wind and Fire of today is, we'll definitely figure that out especially for reasonably priced tickets, that reels them in and has given so many people over the years an introduction to Rock Creek Park. I say, you come for the music and stay for the bats.
Jennifer Errick: Once visitors find the space, Braha insists, they get hooked.
Jeanne Braha: It is remarkable to me the number of people that I meet who have been touched by performances there. I have tons of friends who went on their first dates at the Carter Barron. They could impress their partner with Shakespeare tickets for a very, very low price that a D.C. intern salary could afford.
Jennifer Errick: In fact, when Tony Richardson's parents found out that he was working with the Conservancy to reopen the Carter Barron, the three of them had a great deal to reminisce about.
Tony Richardson: Both of my parents have seen tons of shows there. I know that when I told them what I was doing and working with the Carter Barron Amphitheater with Rock Creek Conservancy, my mom was yelling out Earth, Wind and Fire. She was yelling out Stevie Wonder. And my dad told me that he saw, of course, Chuck Brown there many times, and he saw BB King there. And then I went there and saw Shakespeare shows. So just talking about the diversity of shows that were performed there and how, to Jeanne's point, how those can really be a way of bringing new audiences into Rock Creek Park and really getting them to think of themselves as lovers of Rock Creek.
Jennifer Errick: The Rock Creek Conservancy through the work of Braha, Richardson, and others, recently launched the Carter Barron Alliance to bring together a variety of advocates to support the amphitheater during the renovations and reopening.
Tony Richardson: So, the Carter Barron Alliance is a network of arts, parks, historical preservation, philanthropic and community groups that are all working together to support the timely complete revitalization of the Carter Barron Amphitheater. Really, we view the Carter Barron Alliance as being some momentum builders, the connectors in their community.
Jennifer Errick: The hope is that these enthusiasts will play an active role in the future of the venue and how it will serve a new generation of theatergoers.
Tony Richardson: We're talking to a lot of different groups, a large diversity of groups, because we understand that this space means so much to so many different communities in Washington D.C. We wanted to create this network to build the momentum to be the cheerleaders, but then also to make sure that those different communities that this means so much to are also having a voice. So I think one thing that we're going to be looking to do is meeting with the alliance and figuring out what are some things that the community wants to see, what are some priorities that the community has, and then sharing those back to the National Park Service and sharing those back to decision makers and NPS leadership and things like that.
Jennifer Errick: Braha shares more detail about how she hopes the Alliance can help influence the way the theater is managed after it reopens.
Jeanne Braha: There are obviously official Park Service processes for making some decisions about the future of the amphitheater, including the public-private partnership that will guide it. But the core values that will govern, the implementation of all of that, the Park Service has made commitments to sticking to those values of access and inclusion. One of the things we've heard loud and clear from the community is that the low ticket prices, or at least the availability of some of those, is really important to making it equitably accessible. I think that there are a lot of differences of opinion and the best types of music to have there. We won't be getting down into the nitty gritty of who should be performing there, but rather making sure that there is a way for the Park S8ervice to hear loud and clear what the community thinks about these key ways it could be used.
Jennifer Errick: The new design will also open up new opportunities for public feedback.
Jeanne Braha: We also would really love to think creatively about how the space can be activated outside of the kind of performance season, if you will. Historically, the amphitheater has done shows more or less for Memorial Day to Labor Day. But it is going to have a beautiful indoor space that creates potentially a meeting room, community venue that could have real benefits. So how does that get used and by whom are all really important questions.
Jennifer Errick: In the meantime, the Conservancy is helping the Park Service to maintain the current site and as best they can keep people up to date on the process.
Jeanne Braha: We've been bringing volunteers in and pouring some sweat equity into that place. It will be restored and revitalized. In the meantime, we're trying to protect the infrastructure in there as best as possible so things like sweeping out the house and removing trash and litter and all the sort of landscaping things that aren't happening because there are not live performances there now.
Jennifer Errick: Braha emphasizes the importance of continuing to connect the community to the theater while it remains closed.
Jeanne Braha: I think most people think once something gets shut down, it's never coming back and we know that the Park Service is working really hard to do that, so we've created a number of different activities that bring people together and connect them with the Park Service so that they can see the progress that's being made in the summertime. The last two summers, we've done a series of programs we call Summer in the Parks, building on that program that the Park Service did in the 60s. We bring a DJ, we have interpretive staff, and lawn games, and we set up in the box office circle. People can come and just have a good time and ask their questions and find out what's going on in the park.
Jennifer Errick: According to Deputy Superintendent Brian Joyner, people have continued to show their love for events at the amphitheater even when they can't actually get in to the venue itself.
Brian Joyner: The number of people who've shown up to some of the events that we've done, the Carter Barron's been closed for five years, but we've done events in the driveway or right around the Carter Barron, and people show up there. You will swear that we had a show going on down on the stage because they're that excited to be in that space. It represents something. It represents community. It represents a sort of egalitarianism that hasn't always existed here in Washington D.C.
Jennifer Errick: In that spirit of egalitarianism, Braha had what I think is a brilliant idea for a first performance to someday celebrate the reopening of the theater.
Jeanne Braha: We've joked occasionally, when the amphitheater opened in 1950, on the occasion of the anniversary of D.C. as the nation's capital, there was this apparently horrible show about the founding of our nation. Sort of in parallel to the Park Service really aiming to tell the full story of the history in their parks, be fun to see that updated. The joke that we have is we'll do Hamilton on stage because that's sort of a more full retelling. So, if Lin Manuel Miranda hears this and wants to commission something, we're all ears. Happy to facilitate that.
Jennifer Errick: Superintendent Julia Washburn and her team have an ambitious goal to reopen the Carter Barron in 2026 on the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States. It's a symbolic mirror to the theater's opening on the city's 150th anniversary as the nation's capital.
Julia Washburn: The reality is that the Declaration of Independence was a vision statement and we've not met that vision. Carter Barron is a place that symbolizes that vision, which is social justice and where all people are created equal. We want to see that in our society. We want to see that in our city, and we want to see that in our parks.
Jennifer Errick: Rock Creek Park is my local national park and I live about a mile from its boundary, but I had never been to the Carter Barron Amphitheater until last June, when a colleague invited me to spend a warm, bright afternoon taking a tour of the closed site with Washburn, Brian Joyner, Jeanne Braha and a small group of local advocates for the park. As we prepared to enter, Washburn evoked some of the wonder of the place we were in.
Julia Washburn: So these are the gates and we will be going, I think of it as a portal. As you go, I invite you to breathe deeply of all the oxygen that is there. It is a beautiful glade of trees and it's very lush. Really, this is like a magical portal that takes you to this amazing clearing in the forest where magical things happen.
Jennifer Errick: As we made our way to the performance area, the dappled sunlight through the trees brightened the path. Birds called out and sang all around us. The temperature, which had felt blistering in the parking lot, seemed almost pleasant.
Julia Washburn: Every national park in this country is a cultural landscape, and certainly Rock Creek Park is a cultural landscape. Our natural, our culture resources, and the human experience and the land are inextricable.
Jennifer Errick: Washburn described some of the concerns the park was facing, and she put the mission to save the theater into the broader focus of her work and the work of so many people to protect this wild heart of Washington D.C.
Julia Washburn: The park is definitely threatened. The forest is absolutely threatened. The streams are absolutely threatened. We foresee very difficult times ahead with our climate change projections, which is why we're working so carefully and closely with the Rock Creek Conservancy because our staff all feel that it's our turn right now to take care of this place. If we do it properly, we can ensure that the streams and the forest will be resilient into the future. We are trying to ensure that there's still a forest here in 50 years, 100 years. We're also trying to make sure there's a Carter Barron Amphitheater here in 50 years, 100 years.
Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 14, The Geography That Unites Us was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, and Vanessa Pius.
Special thanks to NPCA Senior Director of Cultural Resources, Alan Spears, and Mid-Atlantic Senior Regional Director Ed Stierli.
Original Theme Music by Chad Fischer.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
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