Pruning the Parks: It Took the Park Service Over 20 Years to Get Out from Under the Kennedy Center (1972-1994)

Tickets to Kennedy Center concerts are typically expensive, but not invariably so. On January 27, 2007, these young people gathered from all over the DC area and beyond in hopes of scoring free tickets to a surfjan stevens concert. Photo by poopface productions via Flickr.

When Congress added the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to the National Park System on June 16, 1972, the Park Service acquired a difficult and expensive set of managerial obligations well outside its traditional functions and in conflict with the agency’s basic raison d'etre. Abolishing this NPS unit in 1994 was the right thing to do.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when Congress and public opinion inclined the Park Service to focus on urban recreation and cultural/historical resources as never before, the agency got into the performing arts business in a big way. The 1964-1972 period encompassing George Hartzog’s tenure as NPS Director saw the Park Service acquire managerial responsibility for two performing arts facilities in or near the nation’s capital -- the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Wolf Trap Farm Park. An existing holding, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, was also restored for stage productions.

Interesting things have happened to these three “Hartzog era” performing arts venues. At Wolf Trap Farm Park, which in 1966 became the first national park unit oriented to the performing arts, the Filene Center, the park’s pride and joy, was destroyed by fire in 1982 and had to be replaced. Now redesignated Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Wolf Trap (as it is known to locals) is still an NPS unit – a very popular one -- and will surely remain on the NPS rolls for many decades to come.

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site underwent yet another major renovation, a very expensive one, that was completed just this year. Like Wolf Trap, Ford’s Theatre is assured of NPS management for the foreseeable future.

The Kennedy Center, a visually imposing structure situated on the Potomac not far from the Watergate complex in Foggy Bottom, has also undergone some very expensive repairs and upgrades since it opened its doors to the public in 1971 and became a Park service responsibility the next year. During 1995 to 2005 alone, Congress allocated more than $200 million in federal funds to the Kennedy Center for repairs, capital projects, and upgrades to meet safety and accessibility requirements. But all of this fuss and bother was not a National Park Service concern. Congress relieved the Park Service of its Kennedy Center responsibilities in 1994 when it abolished the NPS unit and turned administration of the facility over to the Kennedy Center Trustees.

Why the National Park Service was ever ordered to administer the Kennedy Center in the first place makes for an interesting study in NPS history and the Congressional way of doing things.

The roots of the process that eventually produced America’s first federally funded performing arts institution can be traced to the National Cultural Center initiative that emerged in the early years of the Great Depression. The campaigning, planning, fundraising, and construction of the center (renamed in 1964 to honor the recently slain President John F Kennedy) can therefore be said to have consumed nearly four decades. Measured as Congress marks time – by the two-year and six-year election cycles, that is – this is equivalent to an entire geologic era.

By the time ground was broken for the Kennedy Center in 1964, construction costs had escalated dramatically from initial estimates in the $25-$30 million range. The final tally was something like $70 million. While big-league donors like the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy family footed a good deal of the bill, the approximately $43 million that Congress put up was clearly the lion’s share.

Along with a strong sense of federal ownership went a strong feeling that there should be federal management – at least for a while. The Kennedy Center’s mission was one of great scope and complexity (see below), and there were some pretty serious political stakes involved in this heavily publicized and widely critiqued first-of-its-kind endeavor. That Congress would want federal control of the Center’s operation is certainly understandable. And from the Congressional perspective it also made good sense to hand management of this new cultural center over to the National Park Service.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Congress was consciously skewing the Park Service’s mission in the direction of serving urbanites with close-to-home recreation opportunities. Elected officials saw this as a way of delivering more goodies to their city-dwelling constituents (thereby enhancing reelection prospects), easing the strain on state and municipal government budgets (when Uncle Sam pays for regional parks and major cultural centers, local taxpayers don’t have to), helping to dampen urban unrest (remember the Detroit and Newark riots of the late1960s?), and achieving other worthwhile goals (such as protecting sprawl-threatened scenery, open space, and wildlife habitat near cities). The Park Service’s own longstanding desire to cultivate more friends for the agency from among the country’s huge urban constituency was an additional, not unimportant factor.

During the 1970s the urban slant engorged the Park System with new historic sites in cities, a bunch of new urban-oriented, mass recreation units (including the two flagship units, Gateway NRA and Golden Gate NRA), and other urban-focused facilities, including Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The Park System’s acquisition of the Kennedy Center in 1972 is appreciably easier to understand in light of the fact that the agency had already entered the performing arts business five years before. Wolf Trap, which primarily functioned as a concert venue for touring performers, had been handed over to the Park Service for management on October 15, 1966.

Managing the Kennedy Center was, and is, a huge, high profile responsibility. Whether the Park Service would be able to do it to the satisfaction of Congress, Washington area residents, and the broader national and international communities was very much open to question. Consider, if you will, these questions posed by Alan Kreigsman, writing in the Washington Post on September 5, 1971, the day before the Center’s public debut:

Could the great touring companies such as England's Royal Ballet, the Vienna State Opera, and other similar large companies afford to play the Center? Are there enough people to supply "a year-round audience for its multiple attractions?" Will there be a proper mix of highbrow and popular attractions? Will the local performing arts organizations suffer or benefit from the Center's attractions? Will the Center be able to carry out its plans for low-cost tickets? Will there be educational and audience development programs? [And most important of all, can an Institution like the Kennedy Center] “…remain viable in the face of turbulent social and artistic currents ….?"

Within a few years, the Kennedy Center established a record that silenced all but the most unreasonable critics. In this sense, the Park Service discharged its heady responsibilities in a very praiseworthy manner. But the agency was never comfortable with this role. No matter how you cut and sliced it, managing the Kennedy Center could not be made to fit comfortably within the Park Service’s broader mission. This was not, to put it mildly, a marriage made in heaven.

It was money trouble that eventually brought the matter to a head. Not all that well designed and built in the first place, the Kennedy Center sustained heavy use and was soon very much the worse for wear (not to mention badly outdated). In the 1980s the projected costs of necessary repairs, renovations, and upgrades began to mount ominously. By 1990 anyone could see that the structure was in very bad shape. It was, in fact, on the verge of becoming a national disgrace.

A legal snafu was the root cause of the crisis. Unfortunately, even though the Park Service and the Kennedy Center Trustees had signed an agreement calling for each party to pay a portion of the operating and maintenance costs (based on the percentage of time the building was used for performing arts activities), the agreement did not make it clear who would be responsible for major repairs and capital improvements. While the two parties fussed at each other, and both parties fussed at Congress, the work didn’t get done.

The federal government finally began allocating serious money for structural repairs and capital improvements in the early 1990s, and in 1994 Congress clarified matters by assigning to the Kennedy Center Trustees full responsibility for capital improvement projects and facility management. On July 21, 1994, Congress removed the Kennedy Center from the National Park System.

It took the next ten years, more than one-fifth of a billion dollars, and a lot of grief to make the Kennedy Center the gorgeous performing arts venue that you see today.

Traveler tip, no extra charge. The Kennedy Center may not be an NPS unit anymore, but it’s still a great venue for the performing arts (if you can afford it) and a place where you can get a wonderful panoramic view at no charge. If you want to enjoy the latter, just make your way to the Kennedy Center’s public terrace. Be forewarned that the terrace is not a top choice for solitude and quiet. It can be crowded at times, and since noise abatement and security regulations channel air traffic along the Potomac River, it can be noisy to the point of distraction.

Comments

Don't forget the Blossom Music Center within Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Akron and Cleveland. It's another major venue of performing arts in the national park system.

I certainly did not mean to imply that Cuyahoga's Blossom Music Center, the theater and amphitheater at Chamizal National Memorial, and other performing arts venues in the National Park System are not worthy of discussion. But on this, the 37th anniversary of the Kennedy Center's addition to the NPS, the spotlight is on the Kennedy Center. The references to Wolf Trap and Ford's Theatre belong in the story because they are contemporaneous (Hartzog era) NPS forays directly into the performing arts (and, in the case of Wolf Trap, a precedent setting foray into that realm).

One surely wonders "why" about the commitment to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (or Blossom Music Center for that matter.) Many major cities in the US have outdoor summer concert venues. Its hard to find anything "National" about Wolf Trap at all, other than that it happens to be located somewhat near Washington, DC. Are there any people in California or Michigan who really ever consider making a "pilgrimmage" to Wolf Trap? I think not. And indeed, surely Wolf Trap brings in enough revenue from concert goers that it shouldn't need any Federal support either...

Many people whose opinion I respect have complained that Congress made a huge mistake when it put the Park Service into the performing arts business at Wolf Trap. I must admit that I lean to that point of view myself.

How about promotion of the performing arts in the parks themselves? Senator Alexander has just performed with the Knoxville Symphony in Cades Cove in the Great Smokies.
http://www.knoxvillesymphony.com/kso.asp?id=179&evt=1283

I know that symphony concerts have been held at the Tall Grass Prarie National Preserve as well. http://www.symphonyintheflinthills.org/

I wonder where else our parks have been used as a venue for the performing arts?

The issue of national versus local significance is very difficult to debate. If the criteria for NPS involvement were to be limited to only those areas with bonafide national significance, it would bring into question many urban recreation areas.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Literally dozens of NPS units have been used as venues for performing arts. If we're going to debate the matter of performing arts in National Park System context, we need to make a clear distinction between those NPS units that were established explicitly to commemorate/preserve/celebrate the performing arts (Wolf Trap being the prime example), and NPS units that were established for other reasons, but which also have performing arts venues (Cuyahoga National Park being a good example). Most criticism centers on the former category, and even that is split. When was the last time you heard somebody arguing that Congress should abolish the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park?