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How the McIntire Amphitheatre became a parking lot—and found its way back again

McIntire Amphitheatre with cars parked in it
Alumni News photo, September 1974

In 1921, crowds of Wahoos streamed onto the Grounds to commemorate the University’s centennial. The wind-down of World War I had delayed the celebration, but it hadn’t dampened festive spirits: A beauty pageant and a fireworks display in the shape of Thomas Jefferson helped ring in the big birthday.

And a new piece of classical architecture—the McIntire Amphitheatre—made its grand debut as the venue for several centennial events.

Fast-forward 40-some years, though, and the site of former revelry had been paved over and turned into a parking lot. Talk about a fall from grace.

What happened in between is an unsurprising story about logistical concerns and shifting priorities. At its outset, the $85,000 Greek-style outdoor theater—funded by Charlottesville philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire and designed by founding head of the School of Architecture Fiske Kimball—was quite in vogue and only the seventh such theater in the U.S.

Commencement exercises were held there from its opening into the 1940s. But when the space afforded by the theater eventually became a constraint, the ceremonies were held in front of Cabell Hall, explained Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), emeritus special assistant to the president. As the University continued to grow, and the need for parking spaces along with it, the grassy part of the amphitheater grounds was paved over in 1967, creating an eyesore the public immediately decried.

In 1973, petitions from the Student Council, First-Year Council and Association of Resident Councils to return the area to grass sparked a strong response: The parking-space holders were booted elsewhere, the grounds were reseeded, and the structures were whitewashed. Students then began calling for the space to be returned to its roots as an outdoor performance venue.

“Now students can once more relax and study on the grass before the stage,” wrote second-year student Asher Roth (Col ’77) in a March 1975 letter to the Cavalier Daily. “However, such a lovely arena can and should be put to other uses, and soon, lest the administration entertain thoughts of reconverting it once more.”

He pitched the idea of free, open-air concerts in the spring semester, noting how “such a diversion from the normal depression of everyday existence would be more than welcome by most.”

And yet, just as Roth predicted, desires to use the space for other purposes had already begun swirling. Specifically, supporters of a rare books library had set their sights on the site. Plans called for creating a second Lawn of sorts, tearing down the amphitheater and upgrading the area to the level of surrounding Garrett, Minor, Maury, Cabell and Cocke halls. The cornerstone for an $8 million, four-story building and adjacent underground parking garage in its place was to be laid as early as 1976.

A downturn in the economy ultimately delayed the library’s private funding, and the amphitheater lived on. Since the 1990s, it has been used for student gatherings and outdoor performances.

Usually, though, it’s as quiet and peaceful as ever, with students studying and chatting softly in the bleachers and food trucks lining the walkway above. Its paint has seen better days, as have the concrete structures, but it nonetheless brings students together for gatherings of every sort several times weekly.

“In many ways, it is the University’s emotional center,” says Jody Lahendro (Arch ’82), historic preservation architect for the University. “Knowing how important it is in the students’ daily life argues for its continued care.”