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UMW plans to restore iconic amphitheater at its Fredericksburg campus

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Artist's rendering depicts one view of the proposed changes.

Artist’s rendering depicts one view of the proposed changes.

A restoration of the University of Mary Washington’s open-air amphitheater, a long-neglected but iconic spot on the historic campus, is in the works, according to a Friday presentation to the board of visitors.

Torre Meringolo, vice president for advancement and university relations, said the school is seeking $3 million in donations to restore the Sunken Road facility.

“This is a just-in-time restoration,” he said. “The amphitheater in its current shape doesn’t have long in this world.”

The stadium seating, Greek columns and pergolas are a highlight of architecture on the campus, he said. However, the trellis-like pergolas that once connected groups of columns are now gone. Columns have been knocked over, and the concrete seating has been cracked by tree roots and weather.

In fall 2013, the university contracted with Train & Partners Architects from Charlottesville to study and create architectural renderings of the amphitheater and look into how to best use the space.

Alumni have donated more than $1 million for the restoration project so far.

Meringolo said he hopes to have all the funds raised by June 2016. Then detailed architectural planning and building would begin.

The restoration would include fixing columns and adding pergolas as well as weather-resistant benches over the current concrete stadium risers.

“The goal is to be as true as possible to the original design,” Meringolo said.

Board member Theresa Young Crawley called the renovation “long overdue.”

The space has been unused for nearly a decade and has become unsafe for public use.

In 2010, two U.S. Marines-in-training from Stafford County were injured after a column in the UMW amphitheater fell on them when they attempted to string a hammock between a column and a nearby tree.

According to UMW President Rick Hurley, restoration of the amphitheater is a concern he hears often from students.

Student Government Association President Stephanie Preston echoed his statement at the meeting Friday and said, “This is something students want. They want it restored, and they want to use it.”

The amphitheater, built into a natural slope in a grove of trees just below the main campus, dates back to 1913, but has existed in its current form since a renovation in 1923, according to William B. Crawley’s “University of Mary Washington: A Centennial History, 1908–2008.”

This historical, archived photo shows the amphitheater being used at UMW.

This historical, archived photo shows the amphitheater being used at UMW.

The space has played host to operas, graduations and even anti-war protests during the Nixon administration.

But over time, the open-air theater was used less and less frequently. In the early 1990s it was used just once or twice a year because the space had fallen into such disrepair.

According to Crawley, talk on campus of decommissioning the space for campus use incensed the community in 1996, prompting students to form a save the amphitheater committee.

He quoted an editorial in the campus newspaper that stated, “If you consider yourself a self-respecting Mary Washington student, then you will do everything in your power to help the Senate [save the amphitheater]. … To destroy the amphitheater would be to destroy a huge amount of tradition.”

The movement to protect the structure prompted the BOV to to allocate $40,000 in 1997 to make the structure safe, the last time money was poured into the amphitheater.

The money stabilized but didn’t modernize the facility.

At the time, Associate Vice President for Facility Services John Wiltenmuth said, “It [might] have been brand-new and nice and clean, but it would not have been the sort of shaded, secluded little grove it is today,” as quoted by Crawley.

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976