From Skylawn to Swimming Pool: Behind-the-scenes tour of renovations at Merriweather Post Pavilion

Inside Merriweather Post Pavilion's $65 million facelift

This year marks the 20th anniversary of I.M.P. Concerts taking over the operation of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

WTOP got a behind-the-scenes tour of new renovations to the iconic amphitheater in Columbia, Maryland.

“Twenty years ago, we got the opportunity to operate this gem,” I.M.P. Communications Director Audrey Fix Schaefer told WTOP. “The 9:30 Club was the only venue that we ran then, so Howard County took a chance on us and we took a chance on them. We are a rare breed in that we are independently owned and operated.”

When I.M.P. took over in 2004, Merriweather was certainly rich in history, but wasn’t in the best condition.

“It was old when we got it,” Schaefer said. “It needed a lot of updating to bring it into the next century of entertainment. Our owner Seth Hurwitz saw it as an incredible opportunity to bring more live entertainment to Maryland and others all around. As it turns out, people come from all 50 states every year to see shows here. We’ve invested $65 million in renovations to make it not just state of the art for fans, but also for artists, too.”

Visitors will notice the festival grounds covered in art, including a mural of headliners through the decades, as well as unique sculptures of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis, Robert Plant and Dolly Parton by French artist Bernard Pras.

“We tell him that we would like a sculpture of a particular artist that has meant a lot to Merriweather in its history, then he goes and finds all sorts of materials that have nothing to do with normal sculptures and creates that artist,” Schaefer said. “Also what we’ve done is (a mural) by the decade featuring artists that were important for the amphitheater. It’s a place where I see people coming and pointing and saying, ‘Oh, I was at that show!'”

WTOP's Jason Fraley tours Merriweather Post Pavilion (Part 1)

You’ll also notice plenty of new food options, and a brand new bar called the 9:32 Club.

“We know that sometimes people want a break or a different place to have a beverage, so we created something that has got a bit of an homage to the 9:30 Club,” Schaeffer said. “We’ve added brand new concessions around the venue. We wanted to expand what we offer, everything from the traditional hot dogs, nachos and chicken tenders, to steak frites, falafel, grilled chicken sandwiches or wraps. We have a 70% faster ability to serve people now.”

The renovations include seating upgrades from the lawn to the covered pavilion and beyond.

“There are all new chairs, they’re comfortable, they’re wider, they’ve got cupholders,” Schaefer said. “Another thing we’ve done is to regrade the lawn, so it is now pitched in such a fashion that you can see into the pavilion so much better. (The Skylawn) elevates an area that anybody who bought a lawn ticket can go to. It allows them to be many stories up and look down at the stage. It’s just a really cool, fun freebie that you can opt to go to.”

Of course, the performance stage itself is updated from the roof to the rotating floor.

“We raised the roof on the stage by several stories,” Schaefer said. “For us to lure bands to come play here, we’ve got to have a really monster-sized stage. On the stage floor is a circle that looks kind of like a record turntable. It’s mechanized so that we can turn it 360 degrees. When we have a festival, when one band is done, all we have to do is turn it and the next band is ready to go.”

The artists rave about the backstage experience, from the dressing rooms to the swimming pool.

“The artist dressing rooms are really five-star locations; they don’t want to leave here and go on to the next location because they’re so comfortable,” Schaefer said. “We also put in a pool for the artists, a backstage pool. It had never been done before. We are competing for artists to come play with us instead of other amphitheaters, so we thought, ‘What will make them remember us?’ They think of Merriweather, ‘Oh, that’s the place with the pool.'”

Today, I.M.P. operates a handful of venues in the area, all building in capacity to the biggest at Merriweather.

“It was really trying to figure out how to get the right sized venues for artists at each stage of their career,” Schaefer said. “Our latest venue, The Atlantis, is our smallest at 450 capacity. That’s important for us to get in with artists at the very beginning to help them grow so that maybe one day they will develop and play at the 9:30, which is a 1,200 capacity, then at The Anthem, which is 6,000, then one day at Merriweather at 18,000.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley tours Merriweather Post Pavilion (Part 2)

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up