Lawrence Halprin’s new outdoor theater in Stern Grove’s Concert Meadow

“To create a mystical place where one would be inspired to reach into oneself.” This was landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s intent in designing a new outdoor theater for San Francisco’s Stern Grove Concert Meadow, a mini-park in the Sunset District created by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the early 1930s. A successful fund-raising drive carried out by the Stern Grove Festival Association allowed construction to begin in the winter of 2004 on Halprin’s design for the new outdoor theater. The new theater opened last June.

THE HISTORIC SETTING

The outdoor theater is located at the end of a road leading from the entrance to the Grove at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard. From the street level the road descends down the steep slope into the ravine. The descent proceeds through a wooded terrain dramatically different from the orderly residential streets surrounding the park.

It was the contrast between the Grove’s wild landscape and the settled area on the streets around it that inspired Rosalie Stern to take the advice of John McClaren, Superintendent of Golden Gate Park, and purchase the property in 1931 for a public park in memory of her husband, Sigmund Stern.

The ravine had been a place for recreational entertainment since the mid-19th century. George Green arrived in San Francisco from Maine in 1847. Joined by family members, he subsequently purchased the land bounded by 19th avenue and Sloat Boulevard that stretched down to the beach. On the slopes of a sixty-four-acre ravine Green planted hundreds of eucalyptus trees. He and his son created a resort area with such popular features as a trout farm and boating pavilion.  In 1892, the Trocadero Inn was built on the north side of the ravine where it still stands and can be reserved for social occasions.

The Trocadero’s late 19th century cottage style with gingerbread and a generous veranda, shown below, recalls its hey-day as a party place. In front of it is a grassy picnic ground, and further along the ravine floor is the theater.

Following her purchase of the property, Rosalie Stern began a decades-long commitment to developing the park property to provide recreation and free concerts for San Franciscans.

A view of the meadow with the new theater structure and its metal canopy on the left.

EARLY CONCERT AND THEATER HISTORY

Finding the site’s natural acoustics to be excellent, Stern and her staff planned the first summer concert for June 19, 1932. One of the park designers, the architect Bernard Maybeck, designed a temporary fabric canopy suspended above a raised stage at the base of the southern slope. The meadow was lined with portable chairs.

Preparation for concerts was difficult and expensive. Portable seats needed to be placed, exit aisles had to be roped off, and temporary barrier-free access created. The rudimentary stage required time-consuming readjustment of each performer’s equipment and the cumbersome installation of a canopy to protect the musician’s instruments from the sun. The limited number of seats meant that many spectators sought precarious perches on the steep slopes, causing soil erosion and damage to the trees.

Yet, except for the creation of paths around the site and low stone walls built by employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) the meadow’s character remained unchanged until the 1950s when the city built a modest backstage.

Lawrence Halprin first visited the Grove in the 1950s when he came to watch his wife, Anna, dance.  “Even then,” he recalled, “it was kind of a mess, with a terrible set-up for the back-stage. And the people sitting on the slope would slide down to the bottom.”

A view showing the new terraced seating of stone opposite the stage.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks, james for the nots about possible new renovations to the Stern Grove outdoor theater. I shall try to find out what is going on,Sally

  2. Robin says:

    Hi Maryanne:

    The Grove is a wondrous wild place for the kid in each of us. I’m grateful to Rosalie Stern that it’s there. The amphitheater’s terraces are supposed to double as erosion control. I haven’t got completely used to it yet. Scarier for me is the vision of replacing the Eucalyptus trees when their time comes. Thanks for looking in.

    Robin

  3. Maryanne says:

    Hi Robin,
    What a neat little site you have! How fun. Stern Grove was a big feature of my growing up years in San Francisco and I will admit to having my bum rolled down many a breathtaking slope at the back. And, I keep asking myself, how often did I see “The Music Man” over the years of lazy, foggy/sunny Sunday afternoons?
    Recently, my husband, Eric, and I were really excited when we found out that Stern Grove was going to get an overhaul by the great Lawrence Halprin. We love Sea Ranch and were excited at the prospect of a similar breezy, naturalistic, but gently contained landscape. At the very first opening event, however, after the new landscaping and theater were installed we decided to swear off Sigmund Stern Grove forever. All the ordered geometries in the park now forcefully constrain the former effusive naturalness where people could sprawl, and folks have no choice but to park themselves into as litle real estate as their bodies can without getting a hernia. I will admit that it is a lovely landscape to look at, but when a popular event attracts thousands, controlling the crowds is like fitting 50 clowns into a VW. It’s a visually appealing place, but falls short on function. Still, I have incredible memories of growing up in this very special San Francisco landmark. Maryanne

  4. James says:

    Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at blackhatbootcamp.com/listofwordpressblogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

  5. Herbs says:

    It also boasts a beautiful garden in the back, especially designed for large outdoor summer concerts. Herbs

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