The landscape composition of Camden Library Amphitheatre and grounds was a coup for Steele, won because he shared an office with the library architect. The amphitheatre is a remarkable composition created under a directive to employ as many local laborers as possible and use local and native materials. Shaped from 1929 to 1932, it was a Depression recovery project funded by philanthropist Mary Curtis Bok. In his sole public landscape work, Steele chose local granite boulders and block, spruce, birch and elm as the structural elements. He graded the space into a hollow, aligned on the visual axis of the harbor, centered between distant land masses. This unique organization was the subject of heated exchanges between Steele and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. who was designing Harbor Park across the street.
Steele’s amphitheatre holds claim to the title of first modern landscape in the US. The crisp geometry of arc, line and plane that characterizes this composition is a modernist palette with beautiful custom designed tripod lighting, archways, small service buildings and the compass of the winds. The 1999 historic landscape report we developed with the Steele contribution by Robin Karson noted the historic significance of this public landscape, the green heart of Camden. Heritage Landscapes was responsible for peeling back decades of accretions to restore this powerful organization, completing the work in 2005. We are very happy to see the National Historic Landmark designation of Fletcher Steele’s work at Camden come forward as it is a composition of mastery that stands at the hinge of the Beaux Arts and modern movements.