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CAMDEN, Maine — Mary Louise Curtis Bok’s dedication to her community and the vision of a renowned early 20th century landscape designer created what has been recognized more than 80 years later as a national landmark.
The Camden Amphitheatre and Public Library complex in Camden was selected March 11 as a national historic landmark. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed off on the designation in his final weeks in office.
Camden becomes the 43rd such landmark in Maine to make the national list.
“This is the highest status of preservation designation. It’s the creme de la creme,” said Christi Mitchell, a historic preservationist for the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
Dave Jackson, the director of Camden Harbor Park and Amphitheatre, said the amphitheatre is an excellent example of the garden theaters constructed in the 1920s and early 1930s. The creation was part of a national beautification movement for communities prevalent at the time by philanthropists and citizens.
More importantly, Jackson said, this was landscape designer Fletcher Steele’s early experimentation with European modern design.
Steele had traveled to Europe and was impressed with what he saw.
The amphitheatre, library grounds and adjacent harbor park have all been part of the High Street Historic District since 1989. That designation, however, only stated that the area was of regional significance.
“The amphitheatre had more significance than it was being given credit for,” Jackson said.
Jackson, who became the director in 2004, joined with other townspeople to work since that time to get the complex recognized on the national level.
In 2006, the Maine Historic District Commission approved seeking the national designation for the amphitheatre complex.
In 2007, the northeast regional office of the National Park Service in Philadelphia offered grants to pay for the cost of research to develop a report to upgrade the designation. Camden obtained a grant.
The submission first went to the state historic commission, which gave its backing. The proposal then went to the regional office of the National Park Service, and the national office.
Library Director Nikki Maounis and Jackson went to the national landmark commission in Washington, D.C., in November and made a presentation. The commission recommended the designation later that month and it was referred to Salazar.
The amphitheatre is important to the library and its programs, Maounis said. There are musical events, movies and occasional plays held at the amphitheatre. There are also weddings held on the grounds. Thirty weddings are held during the summer.
The Camden library has been named a star library by the industry’s leading periodical, Library Journal, for the five years the Journal has published the rating system. Maounis said this was due, in part, to the availability of the amphitheatre, she said.
“This is the jewel of the community,” she said. “Not only exquisite but unique.”
The amphitheatre’s landscaping was simple, with native plants and trees, Jackson noted. The idea was not to have a lot of color but simply greenery and white birches.
Steele’s design was a marked departure from previous designs of public properties, he noted, that had been parallel lines. Fletcher used what is known as a bent axis for the positioning of amphitheatre’s grounds compared to the adjacent library, which had already been constructed. Jackson said the 45 degree angle of the amphitheatre to the library allowed the people seated in the amphitheatre to have a direct view of Camden Harbor.
Bok purchased the property in 1917 at the site of the Ocean View Hotel, which had been destroyed by fire, the library’s research shows. She donated the land to the town with the stipulation that it be used as a library.
Townspeople began raising money for the library but that was slowed significantly by World War I.
The library was eventually constructed, with it being completed in 1928.
Bok had purchased more land behind the library and commissioned Steele to design grounds to serve, in the broadest way, all activities suitable to a town library, according to information provided by the library.
The local philanthropist also bought multiple waterfront lots and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to design Harbor Park.
The library has been managed since its inception by an independent board of trustees which reports to the town’s select board.
The Camden Amphitheatre is one of Steele’s few public commissions, according to the library.
National historic landmarks are nationally significant historic places that possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States, according to the program website at www.nps.gov/nhl.
The program, established in 1935, is administered by the National Park Service on behalf of the secretary of the interior. Currently there are 2,540 designated national historic landmarks, including 43 in Maine.