The Harbor Park and Amphitheatre were a magnificent gift to the library in the early 1930’s from Mary Louise Curtis Bok. They are a shared legacy for all to enjoy.
Constructed in 1928, The Camden Public Library, the only library in the village of Camden, Maine, sits at the highest point on Main Street. Architects Parker Morse Hooper and Charles Greely Loring chose to position their building close to the street, under the shade of existing elms and maples – a more direct relationship with its surrounding village environment, rather than being set further back in the landscape.
In July 2013, the Camden Public Library announced the designation of the Amphitheatre and Library as a National Historic Landmark. The announcement came from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Director of the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis. A gala celebration followed the unveiling of the plaque on July 13, 2013.
The grounds of the Camden Public Library create a distinct, highly articulated series of landscape experiences, the centerpiece of which is a public outdoor garden amphitheatre. Designed by the renowned landscape architect Fletcher Steele, this landscape is one of his best works of art. It was designed and constructed between 1928 and 1931, and funded by local patron of the arts, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Steele’s landscape design is an important transitional composition that blends elements of the traditional Neoclassical with the ‘new’ ideas of the French Moderne (Art Deco) and successfully marries the ideals of the Renaissance Italian garden theater with the richness of Maine’s native landscape. The popularity and unique qualities of the amphitheatre immediately led to the christening of the site as the “Camden Amphitheatre”.
The library building is a long rectangular Colonial Revival structure whose primary axis runs southwest to northeast, parallel to Camden’s Main Street. From the rear of the library, the back door opens onto a secondary axis, linking the library to the Amphitheatre’s central lawn at an oblique angle. The primary axis for the Amphitheatre runs north to south, aligned with the primary views to the harbor. Experts have celebrated the use of this bent axis as one of the first steps in landscape architecture’s move from Classical Revival to French Moderne (Art Deco).
Across Atlantic Avenue, the two-acre Harbor Park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers between 1928 and 1931, continues and extends the views from the Amphitheatre toward the harbor and its busy waterfront. This park retains its own, aesthetically distinct design vocabulary, and remains a separate yet intimately connected, companion to the Amphitheatre. The park was designed in concert with the Amphitheatre, though its naturalistic design and informal planting program contrast significantly with the structured design of the Amphitheatre.
The Camden Amphitheatre retains its historic integrity, setting, original materials, and the quality of original workmanship and design. Fieldstone, brick, grass, and native trees and shrubs weave their way throughout the Amphitheatre, and wrought iron rails, light standards, gates, and arches add grace and French-inspired Art Deco overtones to the carefully executed, highly detailed landscape design.
Today the Amphitheatre continues to serve its historic purposes, as a public entertainment space, park, and garden for visitors and residents of Camden. Since the completion of a major preservation treatment plan in 2004, a phased implementation program has restored missing elements in the Amphitheatre, rejuvenated ailing plantings, and established a carefully supervised maintenance program for its long-term management. Camden Harbor Park also underwent an extensive rehabilitation that was completed at the same time. Both were funded by a municipal bond issue, approved by Camden voters, and by generous private donations.
Camden Harbor Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a “Contributing Resource” to the High Street District.