Peter van Dijk likes to say: “Life is a series of fortunate intersections.”
The retired Cleveland architect admits it was a bit of serendipity that led him from the Netherlands to Cleveland in the first place.
But this series of intersections has allowed him to leave his mark on the landscape of Northeast Ohio, including such memorable spaces as the 1981 conversion of the old Akron post office into the Akron Art Museum, and the construction of E.J. Thomas Hall.
His father worked for Shell Oil and traveled all over the world. With the outbreak of World War II, the family ended up in New York City to wait out the conflict and its aftermath before heading home to Europe.
This led him to staying here to finish high school and to be drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. With his G.I. Bill in hand, van Dijk decided to study first at the University of Oregon and finish his graduate work at MIT.
He was working for a large architecture firm in Detroit when Cleveland came calling.
The federal government wanted to build an office in downtown Cleveland and had awarded the contract to three different architecture firms. The competing firms were at a stalemate over who should head up the massive, million-square-foot Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building project.
Van Dijk had made a reputation as someone who was easy to deal with and could move projects along in Detroit, so they called him to take the lead to work with the three firms and divvy up the duties.
And from that day in the early 1960s, he never left.
He set up shop here and worked on a number of projects, including the Cuyahoga Savings Building — now home to mega sports agency IMG in downtown Cleveland — and the renovation and restoration of the grand Palace, State and Ohio theaters in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. And as he looks back on his career and approaches his 90th birthday in just six months, one project in particular sticks out.
A summer home
The construction of Blossom is a personal treasure for van Dijk.
It all started when famed conductor George Szell was bugged that the musicians of his world-famous Cleveland Orchestra did not have year-round contracts. So he set out to find a summer home for the orchestra, thus creating the need for 12-month contracts.
Van Dijk said orchestra officials reached out to him to head the project of carving the venue out of some rolling farmland that had been acquired just north of Akron, along the edge of what would eventually became the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The marching orders were very specific:
There had to be a covered stage for the orchestra.
There had to be space for just under 6,000 audience members to comfortably sit in seats and keep their heads dry from a rain shower, but still have a view of the trees.
There had to be room for 15,000 more to enjoy music on a lawn looking up at the stars.
It had to be completed fairly quickly.
And there was one more tiny edict that had to be addressed.
This open-air venue had to be acoustically worthy to be called the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, so music lovers could enjoy a venue tailored to unamplified classical music.
Van Dijk said he was quaking in his shoes as he was relatively young — in his 30s — and he knew Szell might be a tough client to please.
These fears were relieved, somewhat, the first time he stepped foot on the property nestled off West Steels Corners Road.
“When I first saw it, I thought ‘Wow, this is perfect,’ ” he said.
He was fresh off a Fulbright program where he traveled across Europe to study architecture, and he had visited some of the great Greek amphitheaters. The natural slope of the property reminded him of some of those architectural gems.
But this wasn’t a home for Greek tragedies. This was to be a venue for fine music out in the “country” performed by a classical orchestra.
A design and a plan
Van Dijk said the first task was to assemble a team of engineers and the like to come up with a design and a plan that worked not only for the site, but also the ears.
A crucial member of the team was acoustics engineer J. Christopher Jaffe, who passed away in 2013, along with structural engineer Richard M. Gensert, who died in 2003.
To ensure they did not repeat the mistakes of other summer orchestra venues, they set out on a road trip to see firsthand what worked and what hit a flat note.
“We were just a bunch of young architects trusted with this project for the best orchestra in the country,” he said.
They visited Tanglewood — the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937 — in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.
While a beautiful setting, van Dijk said, the design was relatively flat, letting the sound escape out the sides to the heavens, and the sight lines with support beams were a disaster.
Things weren’t much better at Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s relatively flat venue.
There were railroad tracks at one end, van Dijk said, creating some noisy distractions.
After each visit, they would all gather at a hotel bar to compare notes.
Blossom’s unique design, he said, was actually born as a series of sketches on bar napkins based on these visits to other famed outdoor orchestra venues.
“I wish I still had those martini-stained napkins now,” van Dijk said. “That’s really how it all began.”
Perfecting the acoustics
Blossom’s site had a lot going for it with its nice contours, and it was well away from noisy railroad tracks and freeways. But they had to work on getting the acoustics just right.
Jaffe told the others that the audience gets its sound three ways: direct, reflective and reverberant. And all three have to work in harmony to ensure the music written to be performed in great music halls and churches would sound just right in an outside venue.
Blossom was designed to keep sound from escaping out the top, and it had to allow just enough bounce.
This all starts with the rough cedar paneling that surrounds the stage, creating a shell to ensure the oboe player on one side can hear the tympani on the opposite side of the stage.
It wasn’t until after the bulldozers were well along moving the dirt and the Blossom stage was rising from the farmland that van Dijk first met Szell in person.
Out of the blue one day, he got a call that Szell’s limo driver would be picking him up that morning so he could ride with the persnickety director to Cuyahoga Falls to tour the construction site and check on the progress.
“To tell you the truth, I was practically pissing my pants,” van Dijk says now. “What if he didn’t like it?”
But the two hit it off and while the famed director was detailed in his critique and specific in his questions, van Dijk said Szell was pleased with the design and progress of the construction.
A half-century ago
Looking back, he said, it’s hard to believe some 50 years have passed since Blossom opened.
Folks still comment about its giant, seemingly continuous arch that frames the shape of the expansive space.
Van Dijk said this creative design is not technically an arch but instead two separate hollow steel box beams that meet at the top of the stage.
These two beams are supported by 13 thin, hollow trusses that fan out from the arch, stretching all the way to a curved beam at the end of the pavilion on the edge of the lawn. This outer curved support beam sits on top of six thin columns situated behind the last row of seats.
The weight of the two beams over the stage is actually supported by columns out of the view of the audience, on the other side of the weight-bearing wall behind the stage.
This design allows those sitting inside the huge concert space to have unobstructed views of the stage — unlike that of other concert pavilions of the time.
And its wide fan-like design ensured even those seated in the back row were not too far from the stage.
“It is a very simple shape,” he said of the very complex design.
The massive one-acre roof took so many shingles, they filled some five railroad box cars.
The two massive main steel beams were also cutting edge at the time. From Day 1, they were designed to rust, and that’s exactly what they did.
This thin coat of rust helps protect it from further deterioration and the need for constant upkeep.
He was inspired to use this special steel after John Deere used it for its headquarters project in Moline, Ill., around the same time.
He recalls hearing the tale of a rambunctious concertgoer who scaled one of the beams in his birthday suit, some 90 feet above the stage and audience.
Police were afraid the man would fall if they tried to get him down, so they waited him out.
“He slid down the beam on his bottom,” van Dijk said. “On that rust. On his bare bottom.
“I can’t imagine.”
Interior space and reverberation
The support beams along the outer edge are as thin as structurally possible to ensure those sitting atop the lawn, 53 feet above stage level, still have a good view of musicians.
And the openings of the covered area are as narrow as possible to help with the sound.
By limiting these openings to no more than 20 feet tall, van Dijk said, it made the interior walls high, and with the sharply tilted ceiling they create sufficient interior space and enough reverberation — at Jaffe’s direction — so notes could linger in the air just like at Severance Hall.
To eliminate any acoustical warm or dead spots inside of the pavilion, van Dijk said, the few walls that are there lean toward the audience and the stage’s sidewalls twist upward.
The openings on each side of the sitting areas closest to the stage are really there for aesthetics.
He admits now that it would have been best acoustically to just close them off, but the goal was to give the audience inside of the pavilion the sense they had left the city behind.
“The most important thing was to get the sound right,” he said. “But damn, folks are not going to go out there and not also see some nature.”
Great care was also taken to ensure creature comforts for the performers and their instruments, too.
There is space under the stage and a bunker-like building hidden in the trees behind the stage wall that is air-conditioned with dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, a music library and even a comfy green room for performers.
Van Dijk said he’s received a few signed pizza boxes from performers and patrons over the years complimenting him on the design.
He marvels at the thought of all the music that has been played on the stage that was designed for compositions by the likes of Beethoven but has since hosted performers like Jimmy Buffett and the Grateful Dead.
A few years back, van Dijk said, he decided to venture to the “other side” and attended a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at Blossom.
Despite cotton balls in his ears, van Dijk said, he lasted just 20 minutes before being blasted back to his car by the giant rock concert speakers.
Still, he said, it is cool that the venue has been loved by so many music lovers with differing tastes.
“What a project to be entrusted with,” he said.
“There’s nothing like it. This is the only one like it in the world.”
Craig Webb, who is more of a James Taylor and Cleveland Orchestra kind of Blossom attendee, can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3547.
Blossom architect Peter van Dijk looks back at designing the venue and its sound
Peter van Dijk likes to say: “Life is a series of fortunate intersections.”