Lou Henry Hoover Amphitheater

Lynn Smith

Program for the dedication of the Lou Henry Hoover Amphitheater.
Program for the dedication of the Lou Henry Hoover Amphitheater.

Sitting on a hillside in Burlingame, California is Hoover Elementary School. Originally founded in 1932, the neighborhood school closed its doors in 1979 due to declining enrollment. The school district sold the building to Buddhist monks. In 2010, the school district purchased the building back and after extensive renovations and the construction of an addition, reopened it to students in 2016.

During its first life as Hoover Elementary, it was selected for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in the late 1930s. The WPA started to build an amphitheater in the back of the school building in 1937. At the time, terraces were built for seating, but nothing more happened with construction. Eventually weeds took over the unfinished project. After a few years, the students themselves stepped up to fix the neglected space. It’s important to note that the city of Burlingame is about 20 miles north of Palo Alto, the place where Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover called home for many decades.

On May 12, 1945, Hoover Elementary School student Virginia Burns wrote to Herbert Hoover with a plan. Writing on behalf of the seventh-grade class, she explained what they had in mind for the WPA’s unfinished project. The students planned to clear the weeds, build a large stage, and use the existing terraces to construct seating for five hundred people. Such a big project would take money which, as Virginia explained, “we raised the necessary funds ourselves by movies, dances, hot dog, candy, and ice cream sales.”

By the time Virginia wrote to Hoover, their project was nearly complete. Only one thing was missing, a special name for the new amphitheater. Virginia’s letter asked Mr. Hoover for his permission to call it the “Lou Henry Hoover Amphitheater,” and complete the project by having a dedication ceremony to be in held late May or early June 1945. The students invited him to attend the ceremony.

Suffice to say, Hoover was deeply moved by the plan of the students. He wrote back to Virginia on May 20th giving his approval to the proposed name. “Of course you can.” wrote Mr. Hoover, “And it is doubly touching because of the hard work and zeal which created it.” He added that he would not be able to attend their dedication ceremony, but he hoped to visit the school in the future.

On September 29, 1945, Virginia wrote to Hoover again, now on behalf of the eighth-grade class, inviting him to the dedication of the Lou Henry Hoover Amphitheater on Sunday October 7th and asked him to make a speech.  A few days later, Hoover’s secretary replied that Mr. Hoover was unable to attend, and she offered to find someone who knew Lou Henry Hoover to take his place. Lou’s longtime secretary, Dare Stark McMullin, was subsequently invited by the students to attend the ceremony and give a talk. In addition to McMullin, the ceremony VIPs included the Mayor of Burlingame, the County Superintendent of Schools, and opera singer Alexandra Kovaleff. The ceremony featured music by the school orchestra and the unveiling of a plaque.

A few days after the big event, Dare Stark McMullin wrote to Hoover about the festivities. She explained that, while uncomfortable with public speaking, “public speaking is not scary when one’s subject itself is the interesting thing, . . . So I just told them for ten minutes why the Lady would have liked the amphitheater they had just finished themselves, with stories of how she loved the out of doors and had always arranged some around herself and family, . . . You would have liked the committee reports. Never more than two sentences. . . . It was all a darling event, the Lady would have loved it.” Not long after receiving McMullin’s letter, Hoover sent a congratulatory letter to Virginia Burns congratulating her for, “a job well done.”

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