Two words come up in conversation consistently when discussing concert amphitheater Merriweather Post Pavilion: unique and iconic.
Nestled in the woods of Columbia, Merriweather is considered the Holy Grail of Maryland concert venues by fans, artists and agents alike. It’s large enough to host acts such as Jack White, Jack Johnson, The Flaming Lips and Bob Dylan, but small enough to still feel somewhat intimate, with most concerts capping at about 18,000 attendees. With its sloping lawn, rustic atmosphere and world-class sound, it was ranked the fourth-best amphitheater in the country by Rolling Stone magazine last year.
Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., which operates Merriweather and the 9:30 Club and produces concerts at several other Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-area venues, can list a number of factors that set the venue apart from others, but at the end of the day, what makes it unique is still intangible.
“It’s probably a good thing that there’s no formula or way to describe it,” Hurwitz said.
In June, Hurwitz, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and musician Jack Johnson unveiled a $19 million renovation plan for the venue, which will take place during the next five off-seasons. The renovations include new seating, a raised main roof, new restrooms and concessions, new artist dressing rooms, a new stage and environmental improvements.
“I knew the next important step was to make sure there was some reinvestment into the venue to keep the character of the venue, but bring 21st-century amenities into the venue,” said Ulman, who was part of an effort to save Merriweather after its previous owners threatened to close it in 2003.
The challenge is updating the building in a way that maintains its character and history. Merriweather stands out from the venues built during the “gold rush of amphitheaters,” Hurwitz said, which tend to be uniform in look and were “designed to maximize the number of people and how much beer you can sell in a short time” without any attention to aesthetics.
“Merriweather was different and needs to stay different, so you don’t want to do anything that looks like anyone else,” Hurwitz said of the upcoming renovations. “There were a lot of cookie-cutter concrete-and-steel places built, and we are the antithesis of that, and we need to remain so.”
Merriweather Post Pavilion was built in 1967, and was named after philanthropist, socialite and Post Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. In the venue’s early days, it hosted legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and a concert that featured both Led Zeppelin and The Who. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is known for his unorthodox projects.
These days, the venue hosts a number of unique festivals: Sweetlife, which featured Lana Del Ray, Foster the People and more this summer; the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, which did not occur in 2014; the Mad Decent Block Party, an electronic music festival; and the Capital Jazz Festival, which brings top jazz acts to the venue each summer.
Merriweather remains a destination for touring artists, said WME agent Seth Seigle, whose agency has booked Gary Clark Jr., Trombone Shorty, Eric Church, John Legend and a plethora of multi-genre artists at the venue in recent years.
“Merriweather has become a place we want to see on our tours, and it’s something many artists aspire to,” Seigle said. “I think our work says it all because you have options, and we like competition and the idea of differentiation, but historically, our clients go back there.”
Many of those aspiring artists start out at I.M.P. venue the 9:30 Club in Washington and later go on to play Merriweather. To commemorate artists who took such a path, the 9:32 Club, a bar at Merriweather, now features an exhibit with side-by-side displays of show posters from artists who played the 9:30 Club and then Merriweather. It even features a needlepoint creation by an I.M.P. employee.
“That’s just an example of something you wouldn’t see at the steel-and-concrete places. They wouldn’t have the history,” said Audrey Schaefer, I.M.P. spokeswoman. “It’s really about connecting in the beginning, and that feeling of a honeymoon continues.”
Merriweather has also expanded its food offerings through a kitchen expansion, added a music pinball arcade and tripled bathroom facilities in recent years. But it is other changes that have kept at least one musician coming back to perform.
Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who works to make his tours and shows environmentally friendly, has encouraged and applauded such measures Merriweather has made over the years as the installation of solar panels that power the house lights, composting and building new structures according to LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) standards.
Merriweather’s greening efforts will be further enhanced by the renovations, which include capturing all storm water runoff for irrigation use, expanding solar capacity 12-fold, replacing all lighting with LED lights and rebuilding restrooms and concessions to meet high-efficiency standards.
The Howard County Council is providing a loan of $9.5 million for the renovations, and the Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns Merriweather, will provide the other $9.5 million. When the renovations are finished, Howard Hughes will pass off ownership of the venue to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.
The developer is in the planning and design phases, trying to figure out the best way to get the renovations done in the projected time, said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at the Howard Hughes Corporation.
Fitchitt said the company has Merriweather’s “iconic brand” in mind as it nears the beginning of construction.
“It’s got a great, funky, rustic, agricultural feel to it,” he said. “Preserving that is really important to us.”
The Merriweather renovations are at the center of greater development in downtown Columbia. Howard Hughes plans to eventually build 13 million square feet of new development, but is currently in planning discussions with the county over about 4.9 million square feet that would include residential, office, retail, civic and cultural space as well as a 250-room hotel.
“We want Merriweather to be more woven into the fabric of the Columbia Town Center and waterfront,” said Ulman, who is running for lieutenant governor on Anthony Brown’s ticket. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening at Town Center, and Merriweather really is at the heart of the entire master planning around creating a special place where folks will want to live, want to work and shop and go there for entertainment.”