I recently came across these theatres when looking at National Register-listed properties on colleges here in South Dakota. They are beautiful and fascinating, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to visit, if ever (seeing as one is now part of a prison), so I’ll make use of photos courtesy of the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office. I’m curious about how many campuses had similar theatres, or whether other settings were popular as well.
The Garden Terrace Theater at Yankton College was listed in the National Register as a historic district with other college buildings in 1982. Yankton College was founded in 1881 by a Congregational minister, Reverend Joseph Ward. The college closed in 1984 and was repurposed as a federal prison. The theatre was designed in 1913, by A.R. Van Dyke, of Minneapolis, and landscape architect Phelps Wyman, and built in 1914. It was championed by Professor George Harrison Durand and was funded by local citizens and businessmen for use by the college and the whole community.
The Italian Villa / Renaissance-styled theatre was designed for Elizabethan Shakespeare productions that the college performed during commencement exercises on temporary staging in years prior. It has a 140 ft. stucco garden wall with four square entrances, a center gabled balconette, and larger raised circular balconies at each corner. The ground from the wall is a flat square for the stage, 30 x 60 ft. in area. It has steps down to garden areas either side, large urn planters on sloped low walls at the stage corners, and slopes down sharply at the front. From there, the large seating area rises again and is bordered by a long hedge. It was built wired for electric footlights, bunch lights, and lanterns hung from adjoining trees. The 1982 National Register nomination for the theater mentions that the theatre was rare for a small Midwestern campus and was “a product of the romanticism associated with college life during the first decades of the century.”
The theatre was used for theatrical productions, concerts, coronations, commencements, religious services, film showings, and other events. In 1916, The Pageant of Yankton was performed by 175 students and townspeople at the theatre in honor of Yankton’s 50th anniversary. In 1921, the allegorical drama and dance Masque of the Yankton Bridge was presented at the May Day celebration in honor of the construction, still in-progress, of the Meridian Bridge over the Missouri River at Yankton. One 1922 publication reprinted promoters’ claims that it was the first in the country to be fashioned after the garden theatres in Italy, in contrast to Greek or woodland (sylvan) types. It was featured in several publications after its construction, including the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in January 1917 (volume 5, page 30).
The Coolidge Sylvan Theatre at South Dakota State University in Brookings was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The theater was designed by a Sioux Falls architectural firm, Perkins & McWayne, in 1927 and built in 1928 for $5,000 [South Dakota Library Bulletin (December 1927), 68]. In the 1920s, the firm also designed the adjacent Lincoln Memorial Library (1926) and the Coughlin Campanile (1929) for the university. Different pieces of theatre and its adornments were funded by the graduating classes of 1921 and 1926 through 1932. The design was intended to reference the design of ancient Greek theatres. The stage was placed so that the natural slope of the ground created a theatron for seating 5,000 plus another 5,000 in fringe areas. The lawn stage (Greek orchestra or dancing circle) features a front wall and wing walls of local fieldstone, a back wall or skene of red brick with limestone trim, ornamental plantings, and tail cut rafters that form pergola roofs over the two entrances that flank a central niche. In 1933, there was placed a statue of Tetonkaha of Oakwood Lakes designed by former faculty member M. Krete Kendall Miller. Behind the skene, there was built a two-level structure with a base of thick brick columns below an open square pavilion with pyramidal clay tile roof and paired square columns that was built to rise up behind the stage and had been used as a dressing area for performances. It was used for concerts, plays, lectures and addresses, commencements, talent shows, peace rallies, and campus festivals.
The name Coolidge was given to theatre because of a granite memorial stone laid by President Calvin Coolidge and wife Grace Coolidge during their brief visit to dedicate the theatre on September 10, 1927. A marker of tribute to Ada B. Caldwell was placed on the theatre after her death in 1938. Caldwell was a professor of art at the college from 1899 to 1937 and the marker reads in part: “Hers was the vision which brought this theatre to us… A devoted and inspiring teacher / a skillful and courageous administrator / and an artist who created lasting beauty.”
Garden Terrace Theatre:
Nomination and file for National Register of Historic Places, # 82003949; SHPO ID# YK00100010, CRGRID Survey records, South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.
Yankton College history, includes historic postcard of the theatre. On yanktoncollege.org.
Kathy K. Grow and Lois H. Varvel, Yankton, South Dakota in Vintage Postcards (Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 82.
South Dakota Educator 28 (September 1914), 16.
The Theatre Magazine (December 1915), 300.
G.H. Durand (Yankton College Vice-president), “The Garden Terrace Theatre at Yankton, South Dakota.” The American City 14 (June 1916), 582-584. Includes details on design and images.
G.H. Durand, “Drama and the Garden Terrace Theatre at Yankton College” The Drama (April 1922), 249. Includes details on design, influence, and performances.
Coolidge Sylvan Theatre:
Nomination and file for National Register of Historic Places, #87000224; SHPO ID# BK00001535, CRGRID Survey records, South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office.
Colleen Zweig Poindexter, Brookings (Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 43, 119 (includes aerial view from the newly constructed Campanile, and photos of the Coolidges placing the stone and the crowd gathered for the event).
Color photograph of the skene/orchestra by Jake DeGroot, 2008, on Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Bum Stew feed, Hobo Days 1957; Photograph of Hobo Day event 1965, Hilton M. Briggs Library, SDSU on Digital Library of South Dakota.