Chrysalis amphitheater to open as first new structure at Merriweather Park

For the Columbia Flier

As the luminous green shell of the new Chrysalis amphitheater comes into view amid the towering poplars high above South Entrance Road in Columbia, it's impossible not to be intrigued.

The $6.6 million structure in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods — which will be dedicated at a public ceremony on Earth Day, April 22 — has a ridged, undulating surface covered with 4,000 aluminum shingles, and its tubular steel ribs curve around a central arch and eight asymmetrical openings like the loops of a fingerprint.

Observers can easily forget that they're looking at a high-performance stage on par with the critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, which lies just 200 yards away.

But the Chrysalis, designed by New York architect and artist Marc Fornes to be one of a kind, is also a park pavilion accessible to visitors by day and a lighted public sculpture by night.

"We've created an icon that people identify with and own," said Michael McCall, president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, a nonprofit formed in 2013 by the Columbia Association to design, develop and manage the proposed $30 million, seven-phase park project that is projected to unfold over the next decade.

The amphitheater will be officially opened for business on Saturday at the Grounds for Celebration Festival. Community tours will take place at 11 a.m., followed by speeches at noon and the opportunity to meet the design team at 1 p.m.

Afterward, a dozen musical performances by eight regional bands will take place from 2:30 to 11 p.m. Tickets cost $20, with children under 16 admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

The official debut of the Chrysalis coincides with 50th birthday celebrations of Columbia and the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"The Chrysalis has become the symbol of Columbia's next 50 years," McCall said of the venue, which is named for the casing from which a larva emerges on its journey to becoming a butterfly.

The new amphitheater will certainly benefit from the vaunted reputation of its cousin: Merriweather Post Pavilion was named by Fodor's Travel magazine as one of the top 10 outdoor music venues in the U.S. in 2016 and was ranked fourth in the country in 2013 by Rolling Stone magazine, among other honors.

Noting the Chrysalis "will draw the same sort of audiences as the Pier 6 Pavilion in Baltimore and Wolf Trap in Virginia," McCall said negotiations are underway to book acts for its inaugural season and concert announcements could be forthcoming.

While the neighboring amphitheaters' high-performance stages are both about 5,000 square feet in size, events at the new venue will be geared toward smaller audiences, he said.

The Chrysalis' main, or alpha, stage can be viewed by 2,000 people sitting on blankets or in bring-your-own foldable chairs and standing-room only crowds of as many as 7,000 people, he said. The smaller beta stage at the right is designed for audiences of up to 1,000 people.

Some event-holders may decide to set up rows of chairs beneath the trees to accommodate more seating, he said.

The new amphitheater will be introduced to concert-goers when it's put into service during music festivals at Merriweather Post Pavilion, such as the M3 Rock Festival at the end of April, the Capital Jazz Fest in June and the 2017 Summer Spirit Festival in August.

"In no way is the Chrysalis intended to be competitive with Merriweather," McCall said. "It's a synergistic relationship."

Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, which assumed ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion from Howard Hughes Corp. in December, said the commission is "excited about the opening of this amazing new space."

"But we're most excited that we're starting to see this critical mass of programming that will make downtown more vibrant and full of energy and life," he said.

Performances booked at the Chrysalis will complement the 40 shows scheduled at Merriweather this season, but coordinating the amphitheaters' use is a "big and ongoing question, and there's a little bit of 'we'll just see what works' going on," he said.

"The Chrysalis isn't the first venue that needs to find its niche in the world," Kennedy observed, noting it was nearly a decade before Merriweather Post Pavilion realized its full potential. "By 2027, who knows how the Chrysalis will be used."

The new amphitheater, with a stage that can seat 400 people, is also available for lease by the Inner Arbor Trust for $1 to county nonprofits and quasi-governmental agencies, McCall said. These organizations will be required to cover any additional expenses incurred by their events.

Some entities have already included the Chrysalis in their plans, he said.

It will play a role at Wine in the Woods in May, which is run by the county recreation and parks department, and in June it will host the Howard County Library System's inaugural book festival and a concert by the Columbia Orchestra.

When the Chrysalis isn't booked, it will be accessible to park visitors.

"I've been asked how we're going to keep people out of the Chrysalis when there's nothing happening there," McCall said.

"The short answer is: We're not," he said. "People are free to spread a blanket or set up chairs inside to enjoy nature, have a picnic or read a book. It's a place to go to escape."

Next phases

The Chrysalis was primarily funded by three county grants totaling $6.5 million – between the administrations of former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and current County Executive Allan Kittleman – and is part of a seven-phase design plan for Merriweather Park that was approved by the county in 2014.

Proposed additions to the park include the Butterfly, a food pavilion, restroom area and gallery; the Caterpillar, a botanical berm with pocket parks; musical features called Skyhorns, Land Horns, Song Cycles and Tone Reeds; and Merriground, a children's playscape.

McCall will turn over his duties as president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust on May 1 to Nina Basu, who currently serves as the trust's general counsel. As planned from the outset, he will return full-time to his job at Strategic Leisure Inc., the planning and development firm he founded in 1992.

A Howard County native and trial attorney, Basu said the trust believes that the Butterfly, with a price tag of $8 million, should be the next capital project. It will cost an additional $2 million for reforestation and stream, lawn and turf restoration in the park, she said.

Regarding the county's commitment to the remaining park phases, Kittleman's press secretary, Andrew Barth said, "We simply have not made any decisions about future funding."

Basu said her focus upon taking the trust's reins will be launching the next phases of the park by giving a full presentation to the county and ramping up fundraising efforts.

"The trust realizes there are competing projects. There's a lot going on downtown, such as Merriweather still being revitalized. And the Ellicott City flood took everyone by surprise fiscally.

"While private donations have been successful, they don't build capital projects," she said. "I am confident as we move forward we will get support from the county and the Columbia Association. I'm not at all nervous about that."

McCall, who has lived in Columbia for more than 30 years, is optimistic the county will commit to funding Merriweather Park in its entirety.

"Columbia used to be special and the suburbs learned a lot from us and from Reston, Va.," as planned communities, he said. "But for the last decade or so there's just been stasis — no evolution, no progress. There's never been a park downtown until now, just woods.

"The trust is going to let the Chrysalis do the talking for a while," McCall said. "It's the proof-of-concept for the whole park plan. If people like it, there will be more money."

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