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The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

the cultural hub of Washington, D.C., and one of the premier facilities for the education of the general public about the performing arts

aerial view of the Kennedy Center

On September 4, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Cultural Center Act, which authorized the construction of a National Cultural facility, spelled out a mandate for the center to present a wide variety of both classical and contemporary performances, specified an educational mission for the facility, and stated that the center would be independent, self-sustaining, and privately-funded.

Fundraising was led by the National Cultural Center Board of Trustees, which was set up by Eisenhower on January 29, 1959. Initial fundraising efforts were not very successful, however, as the Board of Trustees only managed to collect a little over $13,000 over a three-year period. The fundraising effort got a major boost after John F. Kennedy became President. A huge supporter of the cultural arts, President Kennedy appointed Roger L. Stevens as chairman of the Board of Trustees (a position he subsequently held until 1988), and donations began pouring in soon after. President Kennedy took an active role in the fundraising by hosting special White House luncheons and receptions, and his family donated $500,000 for the project. Other major contributors included the Ford Foundation, J. Willard Marriott, Marjorie Meriwether Post, John D. Rockefeller III, and Robert W. Woodruff. Donations were also made by foreign countries, including a gift of 3,700 tons of Carrara marble from Italy that was used in the building's construction.

On January 23, 1964, two months after President Kennedy's assassination, Congress designated the National Cultural Center as a "living memorial" to Kennedy and authorized $23 million toward its construction.

President Lyndon B. Johnson turned the first shoveful of earth at the construction site on the Potomac River on December 2, 1964, using the same gold-plated spade that had been used for the groundbreaking ceremonies for both the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. Excavation of the site began on December 11, 1965, and the site was cleared by January 1967. The first performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was on September 5, 1971, with 2,200 members of the general public in attendance to see a premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Requiem Mass for President Kennedy in the Opera House, while the Center's official opening took place on September 8, 1971, with a formal gala and premiere performance of the Bernstein Mass. The Concert Hall was inaugurated on September 9, 1971, with a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti. On September 10, 1971, Alberto Ginastera's opera, Beatrix Cenci premiered at the Kennedy Center's Opera House.

Since its opening, the Kennedy Center has hosted the premiers of plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Tom Stoppard; new ballets by Antony Tudor, Agnes DeMille, and Jerome Robbins; and new orchestral scores by Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, and John Cage; as well as the American debuts of both the Bolshoi Opera and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and the first-ever U.S. performances by Italy's renowned La Scala opera company.

The Kennedy Center was designed by architect Edward Durell Stone. Overall, the building is 100 feet high, 630 feet long, and 300 feet wide. The 63-foot-high Grand Foyer features 16 hand-blown Orrefors crystal chandeliers, a gift from Sweden. The Hall of States and the Hall of Nations are both 250-foot-long, 63-foot-high corridors. The Concert Hall seats about 2,400, the Opera House about 2,300, and the Eisenhower Theater about 1,160.

floor plan of the Kennedy Center

Other performance venues in the Center include: The Family Theater, with 324 seats, which hosts theater performances for youth; The Terrace Theater, a 513-seat theater that was a Bicentennial gift from Japan used for intimate performances of chamber music, ballet and contemporary dance, and theater; and The Millennium Stage, which hosts free public performances every evening.

As a federal facility, the majority of the Kennedy Center's funding for building maintenance and operation comes from Congress. As per the original enabling legislation, however, the vast majority of the Center's artistic and educational programs are paid for through ticket sales and donations.

The official website of the Kennedy Center is

President Dwight D. Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lincoln Memorial

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This page was last updated on 11/21/2017.