50 Years Together at Wolf Trap


On July 1, 1971, thousands of families and friends traveled to Wolf Trap and gathered together for the first time under the soaring splendor of the Filene Center. Even with a bit of light rain, patrons stepped into the magnificent wooden structure in awe. As the first notes of the orchestra played over a hushed and eager audience, Mrs. Catherine Filene Shouse watched as her dream came to life.


Long before that first performance, the trailblazing and influential Mrs. Shouse began acquiring farmland in the 1930s outside of D.C. to create a refreshing retreat from city life.

Over the years, Mrs. Shouse had become one of the most accomplished women of her time, leading a life dedicated to public service, fundraising efforts, and creating career opportunities for women. Her impact and advocacy came largely from the examples she set for herself, including being the first woman to obtain a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, founding the Institute of Women’s Professional Relations, and working alongside every U.S. president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton to advance women’s rights, education, and access to the arts.

As the development of Northern Virginia encroached, Mrs. Shouse began envisioning an oasis where the arts could be enjoyed in harmony with beautiful natural surroundings. In 1966, at the age of 71, Mrs. Shouse donated 100 acres of her farm to the American people, as well as the funds to build an amphitheater. That same year, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson accepted Mrs. Shouse’s gift and designated the area as Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts. In the ensuing years, a unique partnership formed between the National Park Service and the newly founded Wolf Trap Foundation.

Mrs. Shouse recruited renowned architects Edward F. Knowles and John H. MacFadyen to design the original amphitheater, and construction began soon after. Not one to be dissuaded from a challenge and a series of setbacks—including a devastating fire just months before the opening—Mrs. Shouse welcomed patrons to the spectacular Filene Center for the first performance on July 1, 1971.

Featuring the National Symphony Orchestra with famed conductor Julius Rudel, acclaimed pianist Van Cliburn, and opera luminary Norman Treigle; “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band; The Choral Arts Society of Washington; and more, the inaugural performance kicked off an unforgettable first summer season with an incredible 73 performances.


Since day one, the Filene Center has attracted major artists from around the globe and in every genre of the performing arts—many of whom return year after year because of the extraordinary setting in a National Park. Whether it’s rock, pop, Americana, jazz, country, musical theater, opera, dance, classical, comedy, or more, there is always something for everyone during a Wolf Trap summer.

Over the decades, the massive Filene Center stage saw appearances by some of the world’s most renowned artists including Leonard Bernstein, B.B. King, Sting, The Avett Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Tony Bennett, Ricky Martin, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, Lady Gaga, Sufjan Stevens, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

And, who could forget Wolf Trap’s special ties with the National Symphony Orchestra and “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band? Both have performed at the Filene Center for 50 years and remain beloved Wolf Trap artistic partners.

Thanks to the Filene Center’s significant stage size and its technical capabilities, Wolf Trap also became a notable touring stop for large companies like American Ballet Theatre, The Metropolitan Opera, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Scottish Military Tattoo, and the Kirov Ballet—which appeared in 1986 as part of its first U.S. tour in over two decades, earning an Emmy Award for the PBS broadcast of Wolf Trap Presents the Kirov: Swan Lake.

Starting with the first show’s inclusion of famed bass-baritone Norman Treigle, Mrs. Shouse’s passion for opera performances has been evident throughout each season. Her commitment to showcasing great opera led to the creation of Wolf Trap Opera and its exceptional training program—one that has excelled for decades and offers one of the best performance experiences for emerging artists around the country. With more than 700 alumni, Wolf Trap Opera has helped launch careers of some of the top opera artists around the world including Denyce Graves, Christine Goerke, Morris Robinson, Lawrence Brownlee, and many more.


In addition to having iconic performers on the stage, Wolf Trap has been fortunate to host and enjoy immense support from a multitude of national and community leaders, as well as numerous champions of the arts.

When Mrs. Shouse first established Wolf Trap, she was a highly decorated public servant with deep roots in the nation’s capital. In turn, Mrs. Shouse’s relationships and the Filene Center’s growing artistic legacy quickly became part of the Wolf Trap fabric that attracted social and political leaders, entertainment figures, and foreign dignitaries to performances and special events—including President Gerald Ford, First Lady Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. After the Filene Center’s second devastating fire in 1982, this national treasure saw an outpouring of support from local and global communities, corporations, and embassies, allowing the next few seasons to continue in the temporary Meadow Center until the Filene Center was rebuilt and reopened in 1984.

Over the years, Wolf Trap continued to serve as a source of civic pride for the region and welcomed nationally recognized leaders like the late opera-loving champion of the arts Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, First Lady Michelle Obama, and President George W. Bush. In 2016, First Lady Laura Bush—honorary co-chair of the National Park Service’s Centennial Celebration—spoke at Wolf Trap’s Ball about the important role the National Park Service and Wolf Trap Foundation play in America’s cultural heritage. 


For five decades, millions of families and friends have attended performances and celebrated milestones together at the Park. From young fans just being introduced to their first arts experiences to those with extensive experience, Wolf Trap served as a multi-generational home for making magical memories.

Wolf Trap concerts have defined summers for generations growing up in the metro-D.C. area, with many starting at Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods performances at a young age, and progressing to watching their favorite artists rock the Filene Center. A glance around the lawn before show time, finds patrons of every age taking photos, dancing on the grass, and creating memories to last a lifetime.

Wolf Trap’s legacy is passed on from generation to generation and it’s not uncommon to hear visitors recall their “first visit” stories with family members before a show. Whether it’s seeing their favorite artist from the front row, celebrating a birthday with a picnic before a show, or the first time their young children witnessed the colorful bursts of fireworks during Summer Blast Off!, audience members are always eager to share their most-loved memories of past Wolf Trap experiences. 


Keeping Mrs. Shouse’s vision alive for 50 years is no small feat, and could not be accomplished without the close relationship that exists between Wolf Trap Foundation and the National Park Service. From the moment that Congress accepted Mrs. Shouse’s land donation, the National Park Service and Wolf Trap Foundation have worked hand-in-hand to be good stewards of her legacy and preserve her dream of a natural and pristine sanctuary for people to share meaningful arts experiences.

Wolf Trap is America’s first and only national park designated for the performing arts for a reason—where else can visitors explore the winding trails of a park and enjoy a picnic before watching a world-class performance all in one place? This treasured partnership has stood the test of time and lives on to further enhance that special Wolf Trap “experience” through arts, education, and nature.  


First and foremost, Wolf Trap has always been a Park for the people. While Wolf Trap may not look quite the same today as it first did on that warm July night back in 1971, the inviting nature of the Park has always allowed for a communal feeling of shared experiences—where differences are celebrated and all are welcome.

As Wolf Trap looks toward the next 50 years, one aspect will forever remain the same: Wolf Trap will always be a sanctuary for gathering to enjoy nature, experi­ence the arts, and build lifelong memories, just as Mrs. Shouse intended.

Welcome back to Wolf Trap, a place where everyone belongs together.

Photo Credits: A.E. Landes, Robert Boag, Knowles Architecture Archives, Dennis Kramer, Robert Llewellyn, Angelina Namkung, National Park Service, Scott Suchman, U.S. Department of Interior.