Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


Stern Grove

Stern Grove

View from the Stage, click to enlarge

‘I wanted it to have the feeling of being in one of the great Greek amphitheaters,’ Lawrence Halprin

Last month I went to Stern Grove and took some photos. I’d been there during concerts, but I wanted to check it out without all the crowds. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a great space, with awesome stonework, and worth visiting even when there isn’t a concert happening. I wasn’t expecting to see anyone there, but an impressive number of people passed through the space, even though it was a rainy Sunday morning. I’d always thought of it as a theatre, but it also works quite nicely as a park.

View from the West

The Grove has been a park and concert space since the 1930’s, but the stonework is all from about 5 years ago when Lawrence Halprin led a big renovation. Before the renovation it was just a natural amphitheater, and everyone would slowly slide downhill while they listened to music. Halprin terraced the slope and turned it into a proper Greek theater. My first impression of him when I started to learn about his work was that he tended to just make things up, but the design at the Grove is actually quite true to the style of the Greeks, with appropriate stonework and other detailing. Even the plan, which is rather free-form, is in keeping with the old Greeks’ appreciation for natural topography. From what I can tell, amphitheaters close to the center of the Greek empire tended to have a more regular form, while the ones built towards the fringes tended to be more irregular. Which makes the irregular form of this Greek amphitheater in San Francisco, 6500 miles from Greece, perfectly aligned with that tradition. One theater in particular, Thorikos, has a plan that reminds me of Stern Grove.

Perspective of the Stonework

Perspective from the East

Surfing around the Stern Grove festival website I found a couple of nice watercolors of the design.

Perspective of the Stage

Halprin said somewhere that he based the shape of the proscenium arch on the branching structure of trees, which sounds kind of like the ‘modernist making stuff up’ that I was expecting. It’s nice though. I read somewhere that the earlier Greek theaters were open in the back, and that having a structure behind the actors is the later form.

The Stage

Mortar Backed Wall at Stern Grove

The stonework is done with mortar in the back, but the stones are laid in a somewhat polygonal style that I wrote about last year. Polygonal walls are also called Cyclopean, Mycenaen, Mallorcan, Pelasgian, and probably a few other names, but basically the style comes from the approximate time and place of ancient Greece, when stoneworkers were good at dressing the sides and faces of their stone, but didn’t square off every corner.

Entry at Stern Grove

The entry lintels are also a nice touch. If they were arches, they would be Roman rather than Greek.

Lions Gate, Mycenaen Wall

Entry at the Lions Gate in Greece

Photo from WikiMedia

I’d never seen the stone bleachers without them full of people. They’re my favorite place to sit during concerts.

The parking spaces for wheelchairs might be the coolest ADA feature I’ve ever seen. They remind me of the gaps in the stonework of some of the more crumbling ancient theaters.

The undressed boulders incorporated into some of the stonework also help create the feeling of the ancient theaters as they exist now.

— Update 8/12 — I recently went to a talk by Edward Westbrook who owns Quarryhouse, the company that did the stonework at Stern Grove, Yosemite Falls and other projects designed by Lawrence Halprin. Among other things, he said Stern Grove has 1400 tons of stone and the stonework budget was $3 million. All of the stonework was done by a crew of thirty workers in only eight months, really fast for a project this size. They were able to do it because they shaped and fitted a lot of the stone ahead of time at the quarry site in China. For instance the ziggurat-shaped formation was completely put together ahead of time, then shipped here and reassembled. Also, they drew out 326 specific stones that they wanted and then had the quarry workers scour the boulder fields to find them, looking for a ‘Sphinx-like’ boulder and 5 ‘wedge-shaped’ boulders and so forth. It’s really impressive what they accomplished.

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7 Responses to “Stern Grove”

  1. December 13th, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Buenorific says:

    Nice pics. You really show off the stonework and the design. I’ve never seen the place empty before, and was probably too busy dancing to notice the details. Your historical reference photo makes a nice compliment.

  2. December 15th, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Gayle Madwin says:

    Wow! I’ve never seen the place at all, but it looks amazing in your photos.

  3. December 15th, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    lostlandscape (James) says:

    Very cool. The stonework does look more rustic and ancestral than the hardscape in the few other projects of his I’ve had a chance to visit. It helps give it that old-Greek vibe for sure, even through the setting is a lot lusher than Greece.

  4. December 16th, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    ryan says:

    Well, I needed to see it without a concert happening because of all my dancing, too.

    It is pretty amazing. The free summer concerts are great if you happen to be in San Francisco for the weekend.

    Yeah, he does a good job with stone, but this looks much more organic. Using the polygonal style and the rough boulders really gives the place a timeless feel, even though the stonework is only five years old.

  5. December 18th, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Phil says:

    Yet another brilliant bit of organic design from Larry. The way that he created spaces for people that outlast the people is truly incredible and this one will be there with the redwoods for a very long time. I’m so glad that he “built-to-last” so his legacy will be enjoyed and lived in by so many people into the future.

  6. December 18th, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    ryan says:

    That’s a good description; it is a brilliant bit of organic design. A lot of things that get built these days don’t seem like they will last very long, but the design at Stern Grove will be there for generations, and so will a lot of his other designs.

  7. August 18th, 2012 at 2:06 am

    DryStoneGarden » Blog Archive » Stern Grove Watercolors says:

    […] the company that did the stonework. I added a few details from his talk to the end of the Stern Grove post I did a couple of years […]

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