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Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater

Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater was dedicated on May 15, 1920. While Memorial Day ceremonies are held throughout the United States, many consider the services at Memorial Amphitheater to be the nation’s official ceremony honoring American service members. The President of the United States traditionally gives an address during Memorial Day ceremonies at the amphitheater. 

President Barack Obama delivers Veterans Day remarks at the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Nov. 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)



Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1864. Due to the growing importance of the cemetery as well as the much larger crowds attending Memorial Day observances, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs (who was Quartermaster General of the United States Army) decided a formal meeting space at the cemetery was needed. A grove of close-growing trees just southwest of Arlington House Grove was cut down and a wooden amphitheater (today known as the Tanner Amphitheater) constructed in 1873.

By the early years of the 1900s, however, the Old Amphitheater had grown far too small for the large ceremonies which were held there. Judge Ivory Kimball, Commander of the Department of the Potomac chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (or GAR, a veterans’ group for those who fought for the Union in the Civil War), believed that not only should a new and larger facility be built, but also that the new amphitheater represent the dead of all wars in which the nation had fought.

Judge Ivory Kimball May 5, 1843 – May 15, 1916

Kimball and the GAR began their push for a new amphitheater in 1903, and sketches for the amphitheater drawn up by Frederick D. Owen, a civilian engineer working for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Legislation passed in 1908 authorizing the establishment of a memorial commission, but it received only $5,000 in funding. Legislation was introduced again in 1912 by Senator George Sutherland. Sutherland’s bill proposed construction of a 5,000-seat amphitheater with an underground crypt (for the burial of famous individuals) to cost no more than $750,000.

Prospects for passage initially seemed dim. But during the third session of the 62nd Congress, a number of new federal memorials were approved, including the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial to women who served in the Civil War (now the American Red Cross National Headquarters), and a George Washington memorial auditorium. The successful push for new memorials helped supporters win the passage of legislation authorizing construction of Memorial Amphitheater. President William Howard Taft, in one of his last acts as president, signed the legislation into law on March 4, 1913.

Legislation established an Arlington Memorial Amphitheater Commission (AMAC) to oversee the design and construction of the structure. Its members included the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Superintendent of the U.S. Capitol, Judge Kimball (as a representative of the GAR), and Charles W. Newton (as a representative of the United Spanish War Veterans, a Spanish–American War veterans group).

It immediately became apparent, however, that although Congress had authorized the expenditure of $250,000 for Memorial Amphitheater, it had not actually appropriated any such funds from the U.S. Treasury. This left the AMAC without any funds to conduct its business. It was not until August 1, 1914, that Congress finally appropriated money for the amphitheater’s construction.

Ten days later, Colonel William W. Harts of the United States Army Corps of Engineers was elected the commission’s executive director. On October 12, 1914, the AMAC contracted with the New York-based architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings to design the building. The AMAC hired the George A. Fuller Co. to construct it on February 11, 1915.

Colonel William W. Harts

There is some disagreement among sources as to who should receive the majority of credit for designing Memorial Amphitheater. Lemos, Morrison, Warren, and Hewitt specifically name Thomas Hastings, as does the United States Commission of Fine Arts and others. But other sources name Frederick D. Owen, a civilian engineer working for the Corps of Engineers (and who also designed the Flag of the President of the United States). Owen is named by architectural historians Butler and Wilson and by historian Rick Atkinson. The Arlington Memorial Amphitheater Commission is not clear as to who deserves the credit, as it notes that Owen “drew the first sketches for plans for the great Memorial in 1904” and later gave “suggestions and advice as to the form of the Memorial”. Owen’s significant role is made clear by the AMAC in other ways as well: He designed the memorial trowel used by President Woodrow Wilson to lay the cornerstone; he served on the reception committee for the cornerstone laying ceremony; he co-chaired the planning committee for the 1921 dedication; and he chaired the reception committee for the dedication. But the AMAC also said Carrère and Hastings prepared the plans for the building, provided the explanation of the design to the AMAC, and was named by Congress as the architects.

The AMAC’s composition changed somewhat after Congress amended the commission’s authorizing legislation on March 3, 1915. Congress added the leader of Camp 171, United Confederate Veterans of the District of Columbia, to the commission as a full voting member

Construction began on Memorial Amphitheater in 1916. The site chosen for the new Memorial Amphitheater was the top of a hill about 1,000 feet (300 m) south of Arlington House. A gravel pit, opened in the mid-1800s, existed there previously.

Ground for Memorial Amphitheater was broken on March 1, 1915. President Woodrow Wilson laid its cornerstone in a ceremony on October 13, 1915. A copper box placed in a hollowed out section of the cornerstone contained a copy of the United States Constitution, a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Bible, the flag of the United States, one each of every coin and postage stamp then in circulation, a Congressional directory, a telephone directory of the District of Columbia, an autographed photograph of President Wilson, and several items connected with Arlington National Cemetery. Kimball participated in the ground-breaking and cornerstone ceremonies, but did not live to see the amphitheater completed: He died on May 15, 1916.

Cornerstone Ceremony October 13, 1915

Excavation of the foundation was complete by the end of June 1915. Concrete foundations had also been laid and cured, and most of the brick foundation was in place as well. Most of the amphitheater’s foundation was complete by June 30, 1916. The foundation included 629,000 bricks, 24 short tons of structural steel, and 21,644 cubic yards of marble (for the exterior of the structure). The Guastavino tile system, patented in 1885, was used to create arches and vaults in the basement. More than 2,500 square feet of this tile were used. The heating, clean water, and sewage systems were also complete. The Corps of Engineers also finished the architectural drawings for the approaches around the amphitheater as well, and was ready to start work on them.

A major design changed also occurred in June 1915. Originally, plans for the amphitheater called for wooden balustrades, plaster moldings, cement floors and ceilings, and wooden doors. But on June 26, all of these materials were changed to marble. The total cost of the changes was $41,000.

Work on the amphitheater slowed in mid-1916 and throughout 1917 due to a lack of high quality marble available for the work. Severe winter weather also meant that work on the approaches did not begin until late June 1917. The amphitheater was supposed to have neared completion on February 15, 1917, but these lengthy delays meant that the construction schedule was extended for a full year.

The amphitheater was also proving to be much more costly than expected. Bids from contractors were all far above what the Corps of Engineers expected, but work went ahead anyway. By June 30, 1917, much of the amphitheater and its colonnade were done. Skylights and ornamental ironwork stairs were in place, and ornamental plastering and marble carving had begun.The amphitheater, chapel, and most of the entrance hall were finished in 1918.

The advent of World War I had a significant impact on the construction of Memorial Amphitheater. The United States entered the war in April 1917, and by spring 1918 American troops were arriving in Europe. Most skilled workers were diverted to the war effort, although artisans (such as marble carvers) were still available. The Corps of Engineers was able to obtain, after lengthy delays, the high-quality marble it needed for the approaches from the island of Vinalhaven, Maine. But railroads and cargo ships were so congested carrying war materiél and military personnel that the marble could not be transported to Arlington National Cemetery until late 1917. By then, another severe winter had set in. Intensely cold weather continued into the late spring, further delaying work. Only a limited amount of work on the approaches had concluded by the end of June 1918. Some modifications were also made to the structure because of the war. The largest of these changes eliminated the seating planned for the top of the colonnade.

By June 1918, nearly all of Memorial Amphitheater’s exterior was complete. The interior work on the chapel and the first-floor reception hall was also done, leaving only the basement-level kitchen storage areas and the second-floor offices to be worked on. Construction of the concrete floor of the amphitheater also was under way.

Interior work on Memorial Amphitheater ended in June 1919. The remainder of the basement rooms and all of the second floor were now finished, too. All that remained to be done was decoration of the chapel ceiling, some interior and exterior inscriptions, and installation of lighting fixtures. The Corps of Engineers was also ready to connect the water and sewer lines, grade the grounds and roads, and install plantings and sod. During the next nine months, these items were all finished, and the interior painted. The masonry approaches were also completed, and the roadways and sidewalks paved. The G.B. Mullin Co. did the landscape design and work, which involved replanting 20 cedar trees around the three amphitheater entrances. The total cost of the structure and its grounds was $810,812. In total, 87,000 cubic feet of Mountain White marble from the Danby quarries of Vermont were used in its construction.

The work having been completed by the spring of 1920, it was decided to have dedication ceremonies as soon as the weather permitted. The date chosen was May 15, 1920. Retired Lt General Nelson Miles was chosen to be the Grand Marshal for the procession which formed at 11:30 on the Ellipse south of the White House and marched to Arlington. President Wilson, who was too ill to attend the ceremony sat on the south of the White House and reviewed the parade.

The ceremony began at 2:45 with a bugler sounding Assembly. The order of exercises is listed below.

The Corps of Engineers turned it over to the Quartermaster General’s office on July 1.

Dedication Program May 15, 1920
Program from Dedication Ceremony
Program from Dedication Ceremony
Order of Exercises May 20, 1920

There is no listing of the bugler who sounded Taps. It may have been a trumpeter from the US Marine Band or Sgt Frank Witchey.

2 Comments

  1. Paul Sutton Paul Sutton May 14, 2020

    Outstanding overview of one of this nation’s most sacred places.

  2. Mark Zaruba Mark Zaruba May 12, 2020

    Very complete history from the first planning to the Dedication ceremony. Great information on this 100 year old monument that continues to honor our nations Veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

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