Central stairway and fountain at Woodminster - Oakland CA
Woodminster Amphitheater and Cascade is an astonishing feature of Joaquin Miller Park in the Oakland hills. The large complex was constructed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1940.
Initial work began in late 1935 after $128,000 in federal funding was approved for Woodminster stairway and amphiteather, as part of a million dollars WPA effort across the city of Oakland (Chronicle 1935). Further funds and more work came with a larger disbursement of almost $700,000 for “a master mountain park project” in 1938, out of a total $1.5 million for Oakland parks.
The mountain park in question was then called Sequoia Park, which was later merged with the Joaquin Miller homestead park to form the present Joaquin Miller Park. Woodminster lies just off Joaquin Miller Road above Highway 13.
Atop a hill is a beautiful, 2000 seat outdoor theater graced by dramatic bas-relief sculptures on its southern facade. The cascade begins at the base of the amphitheater with a set of three large pools. From there, water plunges down 100 feet over an elegant cascade of irregularly placed, thin slabs of slate. Paths and stairways follow the sides of the cascade down to a large, mid-level decorative fountain, below which is a long central stairway climbing still farther down the hillside to a reflecting pool and plaza. All are bordered by low stone walls in native rock. Stone planter beds and benches flank the lower pools, from which side paths trail off to the edges of the park.
The cascade and theatre were conceived by Juanita Miller, daughter of Joaquin Miller, Oakland’s famous first poet, whose property became a city park. The amphitheater was designed by Edward Foulkes, who was also the architect of the Oakland Tribune Tower. The cascade was designed by Howard Gilkey, who also designed the Cleveland Cascade at Lake Merritt in Oakland. The overall layout and landscaping were done by William Penn Mott, who was just starting with the Oakland Parks & Recreation Department; he would go on to design Children’s Fairyland on Lake Merritt and later became head of the National Park Service.
Joanne Romeo fills out the history of Woodminster:
“Woodminster Amphitheater and Cascades were dedicated in 1940 as a memorial to California writers. The trees and other vegetation along the Cascades, planted by horticulturist and design team member Lionel Sprattling, are designated Writers Memorial Grove, and individual plantings are dedicated to California’s great authors, including Joaquin Miller as well as Bret Harte, Jack London, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammet, Ina Coolbrith, and many others. This is a fitting tribute, since so many of them visited this spot when the famously eccentric ‘Poet of the Sierras,’ Joaquin Miller, lived.
Woodminster Amphitheater is a city-owned venue, and from the beginning was used for a variety of concerts and other performances. In the 1950s, the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department began producing musicals and operettas in the amphitheater, and continued into the mid-1960s, when the program ended for a variety of reasons. Around that time, Jim and Harriet Schlader moved to the area — after Broadway careers — to raise their growing family in California. They were approached about lending their expertise to reinvigorating Oakland’s summer theater under the stars, and Producers Associates was born and produced its first show in 1967. This nonprofit arts organization has now been presenting the Woodminster Summer Musicals continuously for 50 years. Producers Associates presents at least 3 big Broadway-style musicals in the facility each summer, with shows running in July, August, and September, and is Oakland’s longest continually running live theater.
Oakland has been one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country for decades, but in the 1970s, racial segregation was still a fact of life in the city. The Schladers fought that attitude with art, producing shows that would challenge the status quo, such as No Strings (which dealt with an interracial romance) in 1970, and an Oklahoma with African Americans in leading roles in 1975.
A uniquely American art form, American musical theatre has evolved considerably over the decades. Producers Associates has always remained true to its mission of presenting big, entertaining musicals from various eras. For many Oaklanders, Woodminster was their first exposure to live theatre, and they remember being brought there as children for a picnic supper and the summertime magic of music under the stars. Some of these families have been sitting in the same seats for 3 generations, and evenings at Woodminster are an annual tradition.”
Woodminster has long suffered from deferred maintenance by the perennially underfunded city of Oakland. The fountain and cascades have not worked for some years.
|Federal Cost||Local Cost||Total Cost||Project #'s|
"WPA funds for park project," Oakland Post-Enquirer, December 12, 1935.
"Oakland park to be built as WPA job," San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 1935.
"City to seek $1,500,000 for parks," Oakland Post-Enquirer, February 23, 1938.
"Oakland park project voted," Oakland Tribune, June 21, 1938, p. 7.
"City park work costing million, half will start," Oakland Post-Enquirer, June 21, 1938.
The Architect and Engineer. January 1939.
Project originally submitted by Joanne Romeo on July 3, 2008.
Additional contributions by Richard Walker.
We welcome contributions of additional information on any New Deal project site.SUBMIT MORE INFORMATION OR PHOTOGRAPHS FOR THIS SITE