January 16, 2019

Conserving the ‘neo-Judaic’ design of the Ford Amphitheatre

At nearly a century old, the historic John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, which sits in the hills of the Cahuenga Pass, across the 101 Freeway from the Hollywood Bowl, was in desperate need of repair. 

After being closed for nearly two years for renovations, the theater reopened on July 8, with a captivating set of Japanese drumming from Taikoproject and Son Jarocho music from the Chicano rock band Quetzal.

Architect Brenda Levin, known for her exquisite restoration of iconic buildings throughout Los Angeles, including Wilshire Boulevard Temple, L.A. City Hall, Dodger Stadium and Griffith Observatory, oversaw the transformation of the Ford, with a new stage, lighting, sound insulation, catering and other amenities.

“The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, in many ways, was potentially underutilized and underappreciated as a state-of-the-art performing arts venue. And I think it will be neither anymore,” Levin said.

Because it’s built into a hillside, rainwater used to flow into and through the theater, so it needed a new drainage system. In the past, the theater used sandbags. Now, site walls have been replaced with concrete retaining walls clad in stone. 

These hillside walls were redesigned by Mia Lehrer + Associates, the master landscape architecture team behind, among many other projects, the Annenberg Community Beach House and Vista Hermosa Park. Lehrer was recently awarded the commission to design First and Broadway Park in L.A.’s Civic Center.

The Ford’s hillside walls were redesigned by Mia Lehrer + Associates. Photo by Paul Antico

Performers now have a new stage on which to dazzle audiences. Whereas the old one was split-level but off-center and off-axis and made of poured-in-place concrete, which was hard on dancers’ feet, the new stage retains the two levels but now has a sprung floor made of Brazilian hardwood. 

The Ford now also affords dressing rooms, showers and a green room for performers, carved out beneath the amphitheater seating. There will be an added loading dock with direct access to the stage, as well.

An additional 87-seat indoor theater, called “Inside the Ford,” has been replaced with an indoor grab-and-go food market.

And because noise had long bled in from the freeway, as well as from concerts at the Bowl, the architects have added acoustic paneling and a 40-foot-high sound wall above the existing concrete wall, with reflective material on the outside to deflect unwanted sound and absorptive material on the inside to improve acoustics inside the Ford theater.

“In some ways, it’s going to almost be more effective in this sense of enclosure within the canyon with this addition of the sound wall,” Levin said, “because it completes the last remaining facade of the amphitheater with a more effective response than what was there before, which was just some plywood walls.”

About $66 million was spent on these upgrades. The funding came from L.A. County capital projects funds along with the support of private donors.

The Ford’s programming reflects the cultural mosaic of Los Angeles. Owned and operated by L.A. County, it partners with local arts organizations to celebrate L.A.-based artists such as Aloe Blacc and Quetzal. The summer season officially runs through Oct. 15, and will also feature Broadway productions, flamenco, and music and dance from Mexico, the Philippines, India and Africa. 

The renovations are not complete. There’s a picnic terrace and concession stand that are expected to be finished in September. There also will be a full kitchen for the first time, and Crumble Catering will develop a menu that is expected to include full dinners.

The theater is located in a 32-acre park, most of which remains wild. One aspect of the master plan is to create a public hiking trail on the property that would offer views of the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park.

A new transit plaza, which is not yet built, will enable vans and shuttles to drop off visitors. And the current stacked parking system will be replaced with an above-ground parking garage to reduce the traffic jams before and after every performance. 

The Ford, with 1,200 seats, is the smallest of L.A’s three outdoor amphitheaters. The Hollywood Bowl, also owned by the county, has 17,500 seats, while the Greek Theatre, a city-owned facility in Griffith Park, has 5,870 seats. And the Ford has a very different feel inside. Rather than sitting on a hillside looking down at the stage, the Ford stage is framed by the canyon on three sides, with a tree-covered hillside directly behind.

“The Ford is kind of the flip of the Hollywood Bowl, its neighbor right across the freeway,” said Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, which oversees the venue. “At the Hollywood Bowl, you sit nestled in a wonderful hillside and you look at this terrific man-made shell. … And at the Ford it’s just the reverse. You sit in a man-made amphitheater and you look at a wonderful natural backdrop.”

The unique architecture of the Ford also stands out for its style, which has been referred to as neo-Judaic. The outdoor theater first opened in 1920 as a home for the New Testament-themed “The Pilgrimage Play,” and was designed to resemble the gates of ancient Jerusalem. 

Christine Wetherill Stevenson wrote the play and was a key figure in securing the land and building the original theater. The pageant recounted the life of Jesus and ran at the theater, known as the time as the Pilgrimage Theatre, for more than four decades.

The original wooden structure was rebuilt in 1931 after it was destroyed by a fire in 1929. The original towers remain, but the paint has been stripped off, so audiences can now see the concrete.

In 1976, the venue was renamed in honor of John Anson Ford, a Third District county supervisor who was a strong supporter of the arts in L.A. and helped create the county’s Arts Commission and the Music Center. 

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl currently fills that seat, but before her was Zev Yaroslavsky, who was the main impetus behind the Ford renovations.

“We were at a crossroads with the Ford,” Yaroslavsky said. “Either we were going to fix it, or it was going to become literally a historical monument — one where people would be able to come there, look at it and say, ‘There used to be a time when artistic performances were done here, but no more.’  

“What we’ll have now is a theater that’s going to last 100 years and continue to be a major star in the constellation of arts and culture in Los Angeles.”

Among this summer’s programs at the Ford Theatres,