Professor Ada B. Caldwell, longtime head of the Art Department at South Dakota State College, conceived the Coolidge Sylvan Theatre to mark the end of her tenure in 1927 but the theater was named for President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge. The Coolidges dedicated the outdoor theater, and the recently completed Lincoln Memorial Library (adjacent to the east), on September 10, 1927 during the only presidential visit to the school that is now South Dakota State University.
Located on the College Green at the southwestern edge of campus, the theater was completed in 1928 by the architectural firm Perkins and McWayne of Sioux Falls, who also designed the Lincoln Memorial Library. Perkins and McWayne based their design on ancient Greek amphitheaters, using the natural slope of the lawn to provide seating for up to 5,000 people, with additional viewing beyond. The stage area is a semicircular grass-covered area elevated above the seating area. At the center of the low wall of local fieldstones that defines the edge of the stage is the granite memorial stone laid by President Coolidge. The stone was donated by the Dakota Granite Works of Milbank. In front of this wall is a concrete orchestra pit.
At the rear of the stage is a brick wall with “left” and “right” entrances. These entrances, also composed of brick, are topped with pergola-like structures. An open-air pavilion is centered above the wall. The base of the pavilion is brick; the upper portion features a hipped roof, clad in clay tile and supported by classic columns. A small balustrade with decorative stone spindles graces the front of the pavilion. Directly beneath the pavilion is an entablature framed with scroll brackets. Beneath the entablature is a niche in the brick rear wall; four concrete benches line the semicircular wall, two on either side of the niche. The landscape enhances the sylvan effect of the theater, which is surrounded by trees and shrubs.
Much of the funding for the construction of the theater came as gifts from the Classes of 1926 and 1927. The Class of 1928 raised funds for the completion of the project and the Class of 1929, the first to conduct commencement ceremonies at the theater, gifted the balcony. The Classes of 1930, 1931, and 1932 provided funds for the lighting and the Tetonkaha statue in the niche.
The theater was renovated in 1998. It has been used for several activities over the years, including plays, commencement exercises (for both the college and the Brookings High School), concerts, lectures, dances, and various other occasions.
DeBoer, Sherry, “Coolidge Sylvan Theatre,” Brookings County, South Dakota. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1987. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
“Dedication of Lincoln Memorial Library.” South Dakota Library Bulletin 13, no. 4 (December 1927).