While there are no upcoming events currently scheduled for the storied Greek Theatre, that doesn’t necessarily mean that major elements of a years-long, multiphase rehabilitation project that recently wrapped up at the historic open-air concert and entertainment venue nestled within Los Angeles’s Griffith Park can’t be admired via a socially-distant, walk-by visit. When the 1930 amphitheater does eventually reopen when it is deemed safe to do so, ticket-holders and performers alike are in for a real treat.
Kicking off in 2015, the Los Angele Department of Recreation and Parks-funded rehabilitation of the city-owned Greek Theatre involved guest experience-improving modernization aspects and structural enhancements as well as the painstaking restoration of several of the 5,900-seat venue’s original design elements, including its iconic entry doors and glazed terra cotta tile roof. Other upgrades include new wayfinding signage, kiosks, and marquee along with drought-resistant landscaping, a spruced-up front entry plaza, and modernized dressing rooms and administrative offices.
“Over the years, the site had accumulated a disparate collage of signage, advertisements, and additions that obscured the original Neoclassical features,” explained John Lesak of California-based architecture and historic preservation firm Page & Turnbull in a statement. “We focused attention on conserving the iconic patron doors, and restoring the signature green-glazed clay tile roof.”
Headed by Lesak, a principal and manager of the firm’s L.A. office, the team from Page & Turnbull oversaw all preservation-related elements of the overhaul. Multidisciplinary design firm RIOS (formerly Rios Clementi Hale Studios) worked alongside Page & Turnbull in bringing new—but also historically respectful—life to the grand-but-fading 90-year-old hillside amphitheater that offers one of the most spectacular natural settings of any outdoor urban concert venue in the United States.
Completed just five years ahead of the landmark Griffith Observatory, the Greek Theatre’s stage, in its early years, was mainly, and only just occasionally, used for “operatic music” per the venue’s website. That, obviously, has changed over the years as the amphitheater has hosted numerous top-name performers including Elton John, Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin, and Frank Sinatra. It’s also a popular spot for high school graduation ceremonies and served as barracks during World War II. “The Greek” is only open seasonally, during the late spring, summer and fall, making the ongoing refurbishment project easier to execute during the winter months. The last act to perform at the venue was Thom Yorke, in October 2019, as part of a season that also saw Billie Eilish, Elvis Costello, Maggie Rogers, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, and many other acts grace the stage.
The theatre, complete with a Greek temple-inspired stage, was designed by prolific early 20th-century L.A. architects Samuel Tilden Norton and Frederick Hastings Wallis of Norton & Wallis alongside Frederick H. Heath of Tacoma, Washington-based firm Heath, Gove & Bell. At the time, Heath was considered somewhat of a specialist in the design of scenic amphitheaters including famed 1910 bowl at Tacoma’s Stadium High School, which was featured prominently in the 1990s teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.
In restoring the original design of Norton, Wallis, and Heath, Lesak said that the most difficult aspect came during the second phase of the rehabilitation, which involved, among other things, restoring the aforementioned clay roof tiles. Due to their age and to the elements, only 10 percent of the existing tiles were salvaged, kicking off an effort in which the Page & Turnbull team fabricated new ones that appear to be of authentic vintage thanks to a meticulous glazing and slip-casting process. A carbon wrap was also added to the concrete roof deck to safeguard it against future seismic activity and the existing skylights were upgraded with high-performance glass.
“While it’s a shame that the 2020 season is canceled, the Greek Theatre is worth a visit anyway,” said Lesak. “The architecture and the land are a sensational marriage, making the venue a true American treasure, even when it stands empty.”
As for the next steps, Lesak told AN that while “this round of historic rehabilitation work” is now complete, “replacement of the seating from the 1980s is still in the works—timing for that is unknown,” he explained. “We’ve conceptually discussed with the City taking the stage back to its original open-air configuration, but that would be several years off.”