If You Build It They Will Come: A Glimpse at Massive Wooden Amphitheaters

Multiple large scale amphitheaters were built at the beginning of the 20th Century to host one-day boxing matches and many times they were dismantled starting on the day after the fight. This blog highlights three of these unique historic structures.

Apparently at the beginning of the 20th Century it was not considered unusual to build a wooden amphitheater for one day that seated up to 90,000 people to view a single world heavyweight championship fight.  This I find quite amazing.  Especially how quickly the structure is erected and taken down.  

I am going to highlight three examples from: 1919 in Toledo, Ohio, another in 1921 in Jersey City, N.J., and another out in the plains near Shelby, Montana in 1923.  All three involved Jack Dempsey:

From left to right: Toledo, Ohio(1919), Jersey City, New Jersey (1921) and Shelby, Montana (1923).

Even though I think the construction of the remote Shelby, Montana structure is more interesting given its location, there is much more information about the construction of the Jersey City version of the wooden amphitheater archetype.  Often called the “Pine Bowl”, it had over91,000 seats, believe it or not, and was promoted at the time as the largest amphitheater ever built.  The venue was constructed a mile or so from Manhattan on what was called Boyles 30 Acres(currently the site of Montgomery Gardens), a vacant piece of land belonging to, you guessed it, a man named Boyle, a man who manufactured paper boxes.  Yes, the arena was for a boxing match.  The map below shows its relation to the New York/New Jersey area as published in one of the New York papers to help people commute to the Dempsey/Carpentier World Championship Heavy Weight fight on July4, 1921:

1921, Jersey City

Construction began on April 28 that year.  The contractor was C. S. Edwards, the governor’s brother.  The configuration was an octagonal plan of yellow pine that was assembled in 64 days and seated 91,613 persons.  It is said the last row was at a height of 35feet, but I am not able to find a cross section of it to verify this.  It did, however, cover over 300,000 square feet in the plan view, and was composed of 2,250,000 board feet of lumber and60 tons of nails.  600 carpenters and 400laborers were employed at a cost of $325,000. Although the other two wooden amphitheaters that I am highlighting in Toledo and Montana were dismantled starting the next day after the fight and the materials were recycled, the Jersey City arena stayed in use until 1927.  The fight itself was a mismatch, Dempsey winning in the 4th.  Movies of the fight can be found online.

Construction photos of the Jersey City temporary wooden amphitheater, 1921.

In 1919, two years prior in Toledo, Ohio, a similar temporary amphitheater was built, in the same octagon configuration for the World Heavyweight fight between Dempsey and Jess Willard. The fight was promoted as part of a of Chamber of Commerce type event for the city.

Left, a promotional poster for the fight at  "The Octagon" in Toledo, 1919. Right, a photo of the Jack Dempsey/Jess Willard fight.

Dempsey won, of course.  The wooden octagon was said to seat 97,000, a bit larger than the 2 years later “largest in the world” octagon in Jersey City.  Films of this fight can also be viewed online.  It was particularly bloody as described by attendees and the 97,000 seat wooden structure was dismantled immediately afterward to never be heard from again.  Until now, when a small reconstruction of the arena seating was completed as a part of the historical legacy of the site:

1919 Bleachers reconstructed in Toledo, Ohio

What got me interested in these 3 “temporary” wooden sports arenas though, was the one in Shelby, Montana, built for the one day fight event between Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons on July 4, 1923.  Again, Dempsey won.  But the real story is that it bankrupted the town.  Built for 80,000,only 8,000 or so paid for tickets, and another 10,000 or so were simply let in for free.  The Shelby amphitheater was built the same way as the Jersey City one and it too  was dismantled immediately afterward.  

An architect, E.H. Keane, from Portland, Oregon designed it. I really would like to see the drawings for this project, but I have not been able to find any information about him or his practice.   The impression I got from running onto the aerial image below of the completed structure sitting out on the Montana prairie was striking to me:

The Wooden Octagon built for the Dempsey/Gibbons fight in Shelby, Montana, 1923.

It’s remarkable that such a structure was built for just one day.  And that it was constructed out of wood.  Not surprisingly, it was structurally shaky and was said to creak and rock.  In the end though it is quite beautiful -at least from the air.  Below is a strip of stills of a movie (YouTube) shot the day of the event:

And finally, almost as a postscript, there is a wooden structure next to the freeway in Morgan Hill, California, that is called Rancho Grande de Morgan Hill.  Unlike the temporary wooden structures that were dismantled the day after an event, this facility has had a long and sustained life.

I have passed it many times traveling 101 South, and until now only assumed its use, but Rancho Grande has always caught my eye. It is a multi-use facility for rodeos and live music and has served the area for quite a while. Rancho Grande de Morgan Hill was built and operated by the Pena family, and has been host to many charreadas for the last few decades.  A daughter of the family, Ofelia Pena McCain, has memories of polishing her father’s spurs and belt buckles to continue the vaquero horsemanship tradition at the “green rodeo”.

What is remarkable I think is its simplicity: a circle in plan {below}, wooden bleachers in a ring, and a circular roof structure supported by a simple colonnade of wood 8x8’s.  All green.  Freeway architecture at its best, however these photos though do not do it justice, it needs to be seen in person:

Rancho Grande de Morgan Hill from the Freeway, US 101 South
Rodeos and Music at Rancho Grande de Morgan Hill

And finally, real bull riding:

Blog Post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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