Historical Vignette 076 - Army Engineers Supervised Construction of the Arlington National Cemetery Amphitheater

In 1913 Congress approved the construction of an amphitheater and chapel at Arlington National Cemetery. It was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for Congress to appoint a commission to design and build a monument, and the commission often appointed the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds as the executive and disbursing officer. The respective heads of the public buildings and grounds office, engineer Lieutenant Colonels William W. Harts, (1913-17), and Clarence S. Ridley, (1917-21), were responsible for most federal property in the District of Columbia.

The amphitheater plans called for an elliptical structure enclosing an outdoor, 1.5-acre oval seating area capable of holding about 5,000 people. The exterior of the building was a Vermont marble colonnade with entrances at each of the principal axes. The entrance on the east housed a hall leading to the stage, a museum room on the second floor, and a chapel in the basement.


Construction of the amphitheater in July 1916

The colonnade, ca. 1916

Construction of the amphitheater in July 1916 The colonnade, ca. 1916

Construction began immediately after the groundbreaking ceremony on March 1, 1915. Work proceeded rapidly until the severe winters of 1916 and 1917. In the spring of 1917 the U.S. entered World War I, increasing the costs of materials that were becoming scarce and difficult to transport on railroads clogged with war materials. After these delays, the amphitheater was dedicated on May 15, 1920.

Across the Potomac River, the Lincoln Memorial was nearing completion, and Congress was on the verge of appropriating money to build an impressive bridge to connect Arlington Cemetery and the memorial. The amphitheater would join this magnificent array of monuments built to honor those who died in the service of their country.

completed memorial amphitheater
aerial view of the memorial amphitheater

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November 2003