MERRY WEATHER:  Noah Kahan sold out Merriweather Post Pavilion in June 2023, helping lead the venue to be the top-grossing amphitheater of the year. (William Cox)

Once destined for demolition, Merriweather Post Pavilion celebrates 20 years and $65 million in renovations since Washington, D.C. promoter I.M.P. took over operations of one of the most active outdoor venues in the country.   

Since 2004, the 19,300-capacity verdant musicscape in Columbia, Maryland, has hosted 2,378 artists, 632 shows, 132 festivals and nearly 6 million patrons with a $1 billion economic impact. 

Over the years, a combination of public and private money has funded amphitheater improvements. Seth Hurwitz, owner of I.M.P, took over operation of the facility in the fall of 2003, amid talk of the venue closing due to impending development. The amphitheater is owned by the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, a local nonprofit. 

In 2023, Pollstar ranked the pavilion as the highest-grossing amphitheater in the world.

Hurwitz said he was brought on to run the amphitheater because of his early success booking bands at the 9:30 Club in Washington. I.M.P.  also owns The Anthem and The Atlantis, and operates The Lincoln Theater.

“Now, everyone wants to play here,” Hurwitz said in a statement. “Artists love it, and they tell their agents, their representatives, that they want to come back. I love coming here to see shows because the audience is happy and the bands are happy.”

 When first developed in 1967, the Frank Gehry-designed pavilion was a bandshell with minimal backstage space and dressing rooms. Today, the pavilion boasts 22,000 square feet of amenities for artists, with 10 dressing rooms, an large production office, a multipurpose meeting and event space, a TV studio, an artists’ dining hall catered by a full commercial kitchen and an outdoor lounge tied to a swimming pool.

 The $65 million renovation project was spread over seven offseasons to minimize disruption, according to Brad Canfield, vice president of operations at Merriweather Post Pavilion. 

One of the highlights is the stage house, which initially wasn’t high enough to accommodate major modern tour productions. Now it has an upgraded rigging system to accommodate lights, video, pyro and other elements that come with the new sophisticated stage productions. 

They also constructed a 48-foot rotating turntable into the stage, which allows for quick turnarounds for multiple bands. A new enclosed production spotlight booth and walkable production tunnel from the generation admission pit to front of house was installed to improve the production experience for crews.

WHO’S NEXT: The scene before The Who’s gig at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 1970, which led to traffic jams outside the venue. (Gordon Snyder)

The fans were front and center, too. The idea of having large balcony sections on the sides of the Pavilion morphed into having a retractable roof and high-rise lawn seating in an area dubbed the SkyLawn. The elevated space is first-come, first-served for anyone with a lawn ticket. The second level was built out for corporate suites with a skybridge to the MVP Club, featuring lounge areas and LED video screens for a calm escape during the show.

 The roof was raised 20 feet and the lawn reconfigured to provide better sightlines to the larger stage. A new sound system was installed along with six 4K videoboards. 

The attention to detail extends to green initiatives, including a partnership with Capital Solar to install a solar roof display so that seven out of every 10 shows presented at the Pavilion are now completely powered by solar energy.

Additional improvements included renovating the south and west plazas to increase ADA access and add expanded merchandise booths and concession stands offering 28 different food options from in-stand kitchens with a 70% faster output of food and drink and 95 points of sale across the venue, more than double the number from 2004.

New bathroom facilities increased total capacity by 150 percent with 179 stalls available for fans ,including family and gender-neutral spaces.  

The 40-acre wooded footprint also includes The Chrysalis stage, which can be used during festivals and events as a standalone amphitheater. 

The historic barns on site were also preserved and restored, and I.M.P. added the Rock & Roll Pinball Museum, showcasing themed 25-cent machines for Dolly Parton, Kiss, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. There is a walking tour leading to the new Legends Sculpture Garden, featuring six artistic monuments honoring artists that hold an important place in Merriweather Post Pavilion’s history: Parton, Robert Plant, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner and Willie Nelson. They were created by French sculptor Bernard Pras.

The 9:32 Club is an homage to its Washington namesake with a separate bar and an intimate stage decorated with posters acknowledging artists that got their start in the 9:30 Club and grew into stars that could fill the pavilion.

 In addition to the significant economic impact on the region and state since 2004, the Pavilion has provided more than 13,000 jobs. Merriweather Post Pavilion general manager Jean Parker has worked at the venue for 47 years. 

“Everything old is new again,” Parker said. “Merriweather continues to be the heartbeat of our Columbia, Maryland, community and a unique escape for artists, their agents, managers and fans alike. We love having a front door we can open and be proud of.  Our renovations helped highlight this, while complementing the spirit of the venue as originally built in 1967. We couldn’t be more grateful for the support of Howard County and the State of Maryland.”