“Built in a public park in 1931, the Sylvan Theater Historic District reflects a movement that took place throughout the United States in the 1930s. It was a movement to expand the facilities of parks beyond the passive enjoyment of natural and cultivated landscape, and playground and sports activities, to include facilities for pageants, drama, music, and other cultural interests. The outdoor theater was the natural solution to providing such facilities to all citizens at a minimum cost, and many, like the Sylvan Theater in Des Moines, were built in this period. In Des Moines, as elsewhere, its outdoor theater was very popular and attracted large crowds in the time of its flourishing in the 1930s and early 1940s.
The Sylvan Theater Historic District is also representative of the outdoor theater movement in that federal funds through emergency relief programs aided in the construction of the theater (replaced seating in 1934) and in programming (the operetta in 1037). Many authorities agree that the federal relief agencies, which were initiated to relieve unemployment, also resulted in a great stimulus to public arts programs and the development of outdoor theaters in the 1930s.
As a designated historic landscape, the Sylvan Theater Historic District represents an implemented concept plan and master plan, prepared by professional landscape architects, whose work introduced a new type of landscape architecture in Des Moines – the outdoor amphitheater.
The three categories entered on this form as areas of significance – social history, the entertainment/recreation, and landscape architecture – are all relevant to the outdoor theater movement in America. The changing social attitudes toward entertainment and recreation in parks, the federal assistance to fund the construction of such facilities, and the ability of landscape architects to promote and design inviting environments for these activities, brought about the outdoor theater movement in the 1930s, and ultimately the Sylvan Theater Historic District in Des Moines.”