The roof of Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion—under which millions of music lovers have jammed to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Willie Nelson throughout the years—caved in suddenly around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 13. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the incident has left many wondering about the future of the iconic venue, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last July.
“I woke up to the news on Saturday morning and I was in shock,” says Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission (DCACC), which took over ownership of Merriweather from the Howard Hughes Corporation in 2016. “Then I went to the venue and it was even more shocking.”
The collapse occurred in the midst of Merriweather’s five-year renovation project, which began in 2015 and has since yielded an updated box office, additional bathrooms, a stage expansion, new concession stands with increased food options, and two backstage swimming pools. As part of the revamp, the roof of the amphitheater was being hydraulically lifted 20 feet over a period of months.
Officials from I.M.P., the management company that operates Merriweather, say that the process was nearly finished, and the roof was almost at the point where it was ready to be permanently secured when it unexpectedly fell.
“Last night, in the middle of our months-long roof-raising operation, the winds of fate prevailed,” I.M.P. chairman Seth Hurwitz said in a statement following the incident. “They decided that, instead of simply raising the roof, we should just go ahead and build a new one.”
Despite the setback, Hurwitz assures that Merriweather’s season will resume as planned in the spring. Officials have commissioned a team of experts to investigate the reasons behind the collapse (some are speculating it was caused by strong winds), and plan to debut a new roof in time for the first show of 2018.
In an effort to maintain some of the pavilion’s history, crews from Columbia-based Costello Construction are hoping to reclaim pieces of wood that survived the collapse and use it in the new design.
“Seeing all the support gave me a tremendous amount of hope. There is a sort of clarity that comes in moments of crisis, and that has strengthened our resolve,” Kennedy says. “We’re going to rebuild it in a way that preserves what everyone loved about it.”
Kennedy, a longtime Howard County resident, happens to be an expert on the resilience of the beloved concert destination. Back in 2003, he co-founded the Save Merriweather Campaign—a crusade to preserve the pavilion after then-owners General Growth Properties threatened to downsize the venue and turn the rest of the property into a retail and residential development.
“We have saved Merriweather before, and we’ll save it again,” Kennedy says. “It was built as Columbia’s beacon—to show folks from around the region, and ultimately around the country, that Columbia was all about the idea of bringing people together. It’s always been more than just a concert venue.”
Although the physical structure has been damaged, Kennedy says that the spirit of Merriweather remains.
“We have signs posted that say, ‘Welcome to Merriweather, make yourself at home,’” he mentions. “That speaks to the feeling of the place, and that is the backbone of our resilience. This isn’t about a structure, or a roof, or the midnight blue seats, or any of the physical pieces of it. It’s the soul of the place, and that will always be there.”
Kennedy expects the upcoming concert season to be one of his all-time favorites, with the only announced act so far being Sugarland with Brandy Clark and Clare Bowen on Saturday, July 14.
“It’s interesting that last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary, and we’re starting out our next chapter of Merriweather’s existence with this,” he says. “But we’re fully invested in saving it, and that is exciting in some ways. Over the past few days my thought process has gone from a little bit of despair, to certainly some sorrow and sadness, and now it’s of hope and resolve.”