The Memorial Amphitheater Centennial

Dedicated on May 15, 1920, the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery is a stunning visual feature of the cemetery. ANC is celebrating the centennial of Amphitheater's dedication during the month of May. The centerpiece of the 100th anniversary commemoration is ANC's first online exhibit. While Arlington National Cemetery remains closed to visitors, this online exhibit allows the public to virtually explore these hallowed grounds. Featuring original photographs depicting Memorial Amphitheater's construction and evolution during the past century, along with interpretive text and a short video, this exhibit narrates the story of the building's origins, design and ongoing preservation. Through the story of the Amphitheater, the exhibit explains how Americans have honored and remembered military service and sacrifice, from 1920 through today.

Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Amphitheater, lecture and publication by historian Benjamin Brands
Brands ABMC ProfileBenjamin Brands provides an audio lecture on the history of the Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His report for the Historic American Buildings Survey is available for download here.

The design of Memorial Amphitheater symbolizes the national meanings of sacrifice and references important aspects of American history. Click on the links below to learn more.

1. Ceremonial Chair
Sculpted out of marble, the ceremonial chair forms the focal point of Memorial Amphitheater’s lower stage.
2. Army Generals
The names of 14 U.S. Army generals are inscribed above the north side of the stage.
3. Navy Admirals
The names of 14 U.S. Navy admirals are inscribed above the south side of the stage.
4. Apse & Stage
The Amphitheater’s two-level, marble proscenium stage has elaborate sculpture and architectural ornament.
5. Box Seats
During ceremonies, the monumental arcade and boxes provide elevated viewing for senior military and civilian leaders.
6. Decorative Urns
Stylized urns, funerary symbols since the ancient era, sit atop neoclassical pedestals.
7. West Portico
Dignitaries are greeted here before laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
8. 44 Battles
Inscriptions surrounding the arcade commemorate 44 important battles in American history.
9. West Portico Inscriptions
Other inscriptions above the West Portico reflect the Amphitheater’s Greek and Roman influences.



10. Viewing Terrace
The east side of the reception hall building opens on to an extended viewing terrace, added in 1973-1975.
11. Replica Cornerstone
The building’s cornerstone – a replica of the 1915 original placed by President Woodrow Wilson  contained a memorabilia box, or “time capsule,” that was recently opened.
12. Frieze
Greco-Roman sculptures adorn the frieze over the east entrance of the reception hall building.


1. Decoration Day, 1919
In 1919, some 50,000 people attended the last Decoration Day ceremony held in the 1873 amphitheater (now known as the James Tanner Amphitheater).
2. Altar
The original amphitheater featured a marble altar designed by architect John L. Smithmeyer.
3. Vines and Trellis
Grapevines and wisteria graced the trellises on its perimeter, providing shade for dignitaries.
4. Canvas Roof
A canvas roof also provided shade for guests who crowded into the structure.



Memorabilia Box

Untouched for over a century, the memorabilia box was recently removed by experts at Arlington National Cemetery, as part of the centennial commemoration of Memorial Amphitheater’s dedication. The group included myself, a conservator and facilities maintenance staff. We gathered in the basement of the Amphitheater to carefully open the copper box, whose contents included:

  • - maps and plans of Washington D.C.
  • - six coins (one of each cent)
  • - uncirculated stamps with images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin
  • - an American flag (with 46 stars, although there were 48 states in 1915)
  • - copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
  • - a Bible (signed by Thomas Hastings, architect of the amphitheater)
  • - a signed photograph of President Woodrow Wilson
  • - local newspapers (Washington Post, Washington Times, Washington Herald and The Evening Star)
  • - an advance copy of the dedication ceremony program
  • - a Congressional directory
  • - Civil War veterans’ pamphlets
  • - the Boyd’s Directory of the District of Columbia, an annual directory of city residents

Read more about the memorabilia box and what our historian found inside at our blog.