One with the Greeks

A rendering of the reclaimed amphitheater at Sarah Lawrence College by KSS Architects.

For more than 80 years, something special gleamed through the trees in the backyard of the late architect and sculptor Horton O’Neil. 

At first glance, it might have been surprising. But to the changing cast of dancers, poets and neighborhood children that frequented the O’Neil property over the years, the sunken 400-seat, Greek-style amphitheater of hand-hewn white marble blocks — complete with a stage and six 10,000-pound monoliths — seemed uniquely suited for the Celtic-named enclave of Lia Fail in Cos Cob.  

O’Neil built the grand structure by hand for his father over the course of three years with the help of only four others (including two Italian master stonecutters) from marble he received in barter for designing a house during the Great Depression.

Over the coming decades, his amphitheater drew friends, artists and institutions like the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, Greenwich Academy and even student and future actress Jane Fonda to the stage. 

O’Neil’s amphitheater had become the heart of Lia Fail when in 1993, it was listed on the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places. But that designation wouldn’t prevent eventual demolition by future property owners. So, with Horton and wife Madelyn now deceased, a new steward would be needed to preserve the magnificent structure and pay homage to the lifelong investment of a family driven to support their artistic passions. 

The amphitheater on the O’Neil property in the enclave of Lia Fail, Cos Cob. Photograph by Stephen Schafer.

Enter artist and filmmaker Josie Merck. She and her husband, the late New Yorker cartoonist Jim Stevenson, became neighbors of the O’Neils when they moved to what Merck calls, “the creative, lunatic fringe of Greenwich.” 

Through the years they bore witness to the theater as a hub of creative expression and listened to stories of its heady past. “It was remarkable,” Merck says.

Then what she and others feared might happen did. “The new owners were not interested,” Merck says. The amphitheater was going to be dismantled. 

Merck had an idea. She approached her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. 

Coincidentally, she had seen an early proposal for the $35 million Barbara Walters Campus Center designed by KSS Architects, which WAG covered in its March issue. Kismet seemed at hand.

“Josie’s an alum,” says Stephen Schafer, vice president of finance and operations at Sarah Lawrence. “So, we’re in touch with Josie and she’s in touch with us. A couple of these precedent images had seating built into a hill. It was the timing of it all.”

“Three generations of O’Neils also went to Sarah Lawrence,” Merck adds. “It was meant to be.” She decided to donate $3 million to the college to finance the reclamation project, which will move the amphitheater from Cos Cob to Yonkers. 

“I think we were all enamored of it as a relic,” says Pamela Rew, a partner at KSS. “It was amazing to know that if Sarah Lawrence took this on, they would be providing a continuum.”

Sarah Lawrence College President Cristle Collins Judd agrees the amphitheater needed a second act.

“That’s what adaptive reuse ought to be about,” she says. “Preserving the past in a way that moves it forward into the future.”

“We’re using about 70 percent of the marble for this project,” Schafer says, noting there will be seating for 200. (The new owners of the property decided to keep roughly 20 percent of the marble and “there were 5 monoliths,” Merck adds. “They are going next door to the Montgomery Pinetum.”)

The amphitheater is composed of marble that reportedly came from four different quarries in New York and Vermont. So, A. Ottavino Corp., a stoneworks company based in Queens was brought on board. Its restoration projects include the Statue of Liberty, the Whitney Museum of American Art and on the Temple of Dendur at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

“Ottavino did a thorough documentation of every piece of stone,” Rew says. The company disassembled the marble and numbered each. “It’s cleaned and it’s ready to go,” Schaffer adds. 

Merck wants to be part of that process. “I documented every step of the (marble) extraction,” she says. “It was important for me to see and meet the people. To see what they have done is just amazing….They are extraordinary artisans.”

KSS Architects worked with Sarah Lawrence to resituate this amphitheater on campus. 

“We found the ideal location,” Schafer says — next to the Performing Arts Center on what is currently Sampson Field, used mostly as a cut through to other areas of campus. The amphitheater will allow for a greater connection to the center. “Even if it’s just bringing props out.”

The location reminds the team of an amphitheater in Camden, Maine, that, Rew says, “had this great weaving of earth and stone and natural features that became as much a community space as well as a performance space.” The team decided to spread out the tiers so they were woven into the slope. 

 “You have grass interspersed,” Judd says. “So, it makes for lovely, small gathering places.” 

Adds Rew:  “It weaves the amphitheater into the landscape in a way that starts to tell the future of it and its story at Sarah Lawrence.”

The college will have first use of the amphitheater this fall and full programing in spring. “We know that will be a very quick and active focal point for pop-up readings and poetry fests,” Judd says, “or musical performance and also just as a gathering place.

“It means for us it will be yet another space for public gathering and public conversations. And that thing we do so well at Sarah Lawrence, engagement with the arts.”

As a musician, Judd is excited about reviving the history of twilight performances at the college.

“We are not building in sound systems or lighting systems. It is a natural acoustic space.

“Think of it,” she adds. “This westward facing space on a lovely early autumn evening with a sunset behind the stage as you’re entranced in a performance.”

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