Memorial Amphitheater was designed in 1913 as a replacement for the older, wooden amphitheater near Arlington House, (A grove of close-growing trees just southwest of Arlington House Grove was cut down and a wooden amphitheater constructed in 1874.) ground was broken for its construction in March 1915 and it was dedicated in May 1920. In the center of its eastern steps is the Tomb of the Unknowns, dedicated in 1921.
By the early years of the 1900s, however, the Old Amphitheater had grown far too small for the large ceremonies which where held there. Judge Ivory Kimball, Commander of the Department of the Potomac chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic believed that not only should a new and larger facility be built, but also that the new amphitheater represent the dead of all wars in which the nation had fought.
Breaking ground for Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington, Va., March 1, 1915
Kimball and the GAR began their push for a new amphitheater in 1903, but legislation failed to pass Congress in 1905, 1907,and 1908. Legislation passed in 1908 authorizing the establishment of a memorial commission, but it received only $5,000 in funding.
Pres. Coolidge delivering his patriotic address at memorial services in amphitheater at Arlington Nat'l Cemetery, May 30
Legislation was introduced again in 1912 by Senator George Sutherland. Sutherland's bill proposed construction of a 5,000-seat amphitheater with an underground crypt (for the burial of famous individuals) to cost no more than $750,000.
During the third session of the 62nd Congress, a number of new federal memorials were approved, including the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial to women who served in the Civil War (now the American Red Cross National Headquarters), and a George Washington memorial auditorium. The successful push for new memorials helped supporters win the passage of legislation authorizing construction of Memorial Amphitheater. President William Howard Taft, in one of his last acts as president, signed the legislation into law on March 4, 1913.
The site chosen for the new Memorial Amphitheater was the top of a hill about 1,000 feet (300 m) south of Arlington House. A gravel pit, opened in the mid-1800s, existed there previously.
Ground for Memorial Amphitheater was broken on March 1, 1915. President Woodrow Wilson laid its cornerstone in a ceremony on October 13, 1915. A copper box placed in a hollowed out section of the cornerstone contained a copy of the United States Constitution, a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, the Bible, the flag of the United States, one each of every coin and postage stamp then in circulation, a Congressional directory, a telephone directory of the District of Columbia, an autographed photograph of President Wilson, and several items connected with Arlington National Cemetery.
Above the west entrance of the amphitheater is a quote from the Roman poet Horace: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country").
Under the colonnade are 300 crypts, which were intended for the burial of important people.
Steps lead from the main doors of the entrance hall down to a small plaza. Hastings designed a series of short steps to lead from the plaza down to a landing, and then a series of monumental steps to lead from the landing to the eastern formal garden below. In the center of the short steps was a pedestal for a statue. No artwork was ever placed there. This pedestal was later removed, and the Tomb of the Unknowns took its place in 1921.
An Easter sunrise service has been held at Memorial Amphitheater every year since 1931. The first such service was held in 1931 and organized by the Knights Templar, a group of Freemasons. Music was provided by the United States Marine Band. President Herbert Hoover attended the service, along with several thousand people. Along with Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, it is one of the annual and most well-attended events in the amphitheater.