There’s a lot I find appealing about lighthouses. I like that they exist to guide us through troubled waters, the way they serve as bright beacons of assurance in the midst of a mess. I like their history, the stories of harrowing rescues and narrow escapes from catastrophe, stories of vanished lighthouse-keepers or vivid tales of bravery and independent existences. I like how they all have their own identities, their own stories. They’re all different, all built for some specific sea obstacle in varying sizes, shapes and shades.
Wolf Trap, as it’s full name suggests, is a venue for the performing arts. It’s an outdoor venue, with its main season running April – October, and it hosts a variety of performers, from musicians to dancers, symphonies to comedians. Wolf Trap’s main stage, the Filene Center, is an amphitheater, with room for 3,800 in-house, including 88 pit seats, plus additional space on the lawn. In total, the Filene Center can accommodate 7,000.
A few times a year, during Wolf Trap’s off-season, the park offers guided tours of the Filene Center. Along the way, you get a glimpse into the dressing rooms and the musician’s lounge, the backstage area and finally, the curtain comes up and you get to stand on a stage that’s hosted performers including Ringo Starr, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Billy Idol and a whole host of Grammy-award-winning performers.
WOLF TRAP’S HISTORY
In 1930, a woman named Catherine Filene Shouse, of the same Filene family who founded Filene’s Basement, started buying up land in an attempt to create for herself a refuge from Washington, D.C. She first purchased 53 acres at $100 an acre and by 1956, she’d acquired 168 acres. She used the property as a working farm where she bred horses and dogs, raised crops and other critters.
Years later, as Northern Virginia grew, development started to make her farm less of a refuge. Mrs. Shouse wanted to preserve her land, to turn it into a cultural landmark. She wanted something uniquely American, but also to create something new.
Mrs. Shouse first approached the National Symphony Orchestra to see if they might be interested in developing her land as a venue. They passed, so she went to the National Park Service, straight to the Secretary of the Interior, and in 1966, she donated 100 acres of her land to the federal government.
Wolf Trap was, essentially, an experiment by the National Park Service. They figured if the whole National Park for the Performing Arts thing worked, they’d build more. But that idea never materialized, despite the success of Wolf Trap over the past 50 years.
At the same time the park was created, a nonprofit, the Wolf Trap Foundation, was founded to assist in running the park. Together, the park and the foundation make Wolf Trap work, with federal dollars paying for grounds maintenance and park staff, and foundation money and support managing the performances.
A few years later, in 1971, the Filene Center hosted it’s inaugural performance, featuring Van Cliburn, Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers.
Then, on April 4, 1982, the Filene Center burned to the ground. It happened in the middle of the night, was likely started by an overheated piece of equipment, and wind gusts helped fuel the fire. Nearby residents reported that dinner plate-sized pieces of ash floated down into their backyards.
After the fire, millions of dollars came in from more than 16,000 donors from 47 states and five foreign countries, and included support from President Ronald Reagan and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Despite the fire, the Wolf Trap Foundation said the season would go on, and it did, in a big-ass tent in a nearby meadow, called the Meadow Center.
The new Filene Center opened in 1984 and Mrs. Shouse herself was in attendance to witness the dedication of the new building.
Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and started at the Stage Door, where staff are responsible for getting an autograph from each and every performer who passes by. We learned about the history of the park, about Mrs. Shouse and the first and second Filene Centers. We explored a dressing room, complete with a private outdoor area, and the musician’s lounge, then headed backstage to learn about how the venue works. We learned about the fly system, about the way different parts of the stage are used and moved to accommodate different types of performances, then the park ranger raised the curtain and we headed out onto the stage.
From the stage, the seats feel impossibly close and the view is great. The Filene Center is beautiful, built from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is open every day from 7 a.m. to dusk, except on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to the venues, the park includes several walking trails. For a schedule of upcoming events at Wolf Trap, visit wolftrap.org.