Marion Mahony Griffin was the driving force behind the establishment in the early 1930s of the Haven Valley Scenic Theatre, an open-air theatre for the community created in the natural glen at Castlecrag beside the foreshore reserve and the waters of Middle Harbour, Sydney. Local sculptor and stonemason Bim Hilder, along with the Griffins and other members of the community, built the amphitheatre by creating seating out of sandstone blocks on the western side of the glen.
As Marion Mahony Griffin describes in her memoir The Magic of America:
“No man-made imitation of indoor theatre here but every fairy creation carefully, religiously safeguarded; wattles, different kinds, so golden blossoms for each month in the year…”
“The rest of the valley is the stage, trees and bush and blossoms and rocks to meet any dramatic requirement. To the North a steep rock wall with a long terrace – a road in fact above the eye running East and West. Above it terrace on terrace of spectacular rocks and shrubbery and grand trees. To the East a flat terrace above the eye so scenes can appear and disappear across it, mysterious or spectacular. Then the little stream flowing down to the sea, its head and its further bank offering a rich range of settings – terraces, huge boulders, exquisite varied shrubbery – dainty Lily of the Valley trees and majestic Angophoras…” (page 430)
Following Walter Burley Griffin’s death in 1937, Marion Mahony Griffin’s return to Chicago in 1938 and then World War II (with the requirement for complete blackout at night) performances ceased.
In 1943, three reserves including the amphitheatre were given to Council by Marion Mahony Griffin in trust for the community.
In 1976 the amphitheatre was resurrected by the community and a timber stage, designed by local architect Robert Sheldon ‘that touches the earth lightly’, was built by the community. The design received a Royal Australian Institute of Architect NSW Chapter Commendation Award in 1977. The timber stage was extended in 1992, again to a design by Robert Sheldon.
In 2012, the Haven Amphitheatre Committee prepared a concept that proposed building a new stage in concrete. Concerned about this, the Walter Burley Griffin Society sent a detailed illustrated letter to the Haven Amphitheatre Committee and Willoughby City Council.
In 2014 Willoughby City Council commissioned an independent report on the timber stage which revealed that the existing timber structure is generally in a sound condition but that the structural members of the stage are undersized and need strengthening/rebuilding to achieve Australian Standards load rating for the stage capacity. Despite the favourable report by structural engineers, it was decided to close the stage and prepare new design options for stage improvements.
The Council published these reports on its website and called for comments. Attached is the Walter Burley Griffin Society’s letter dated 7 March 2014 to the Council.
The Council organised a site meeting and the Walter Burley Griffin Society documented its concerns and important aspects of the Deed in a letter to the Councillors dated 23 July 2014.
During 2014, the local community groups-the Castlecrag Progress Association, Castlecrag Conservation Society, the Walter Burley Griffin Society and the Willoughby Environment Protection Society-prepared a joint perspective of the elements they wished to see incorporated into any new stage design. Willoughby City Council called for nominations to a community consultative group that will meet three times during the design preparation process. Experienced planner and Griffin Society committee member Margaret Petrykowski represents the Society on this group. In mid-February 2015, Council appointed Craig Burton from CAB Consulting to prepare design options for the stage improvements. Members of the community consultative group will provide local insight and knowledge into the design preparation process.
It is the unconventionality of the Haven Amphitheatre that makes it so special. Its uniqueness, irregularities, idiosyncrasies and natural bushland beauty need to be preserved and not damaged in any way. There is no other amphitheatre like it in the world.
Any proposal for redeveloping the Haven Amphitheatre needs to completely respect the natural landforms, rocks, creek, trees and bushland of the site, and ensure they are not damaged in any way. In 100 years time when any new structure has decayed, it should be able to be removed leaving the glen uncompromised in its natural splendour.
The Haven Amphitheatre is a community resource that should remain understated, in keeping with the original aims of the Griffins.