News & Politics

The Kennedy Center Opened 45 Years Ago Today

The John F. Kennedy Center first opened its doors on September 8, 1971.

The Kennedy Center Opened 45 Years Ago Today
Construction of the Kennedy Center in the late 1960s. All photographs courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Established in 1958 through bipartisan legislation by President Eisenhower, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts first opened its doors on September 8, 1971.

Opening with a gala performance and Requiem mass in honor of President Kennedy— who was a strong advocate for the arts and spearheaded the fundraising of the $70 million dollar facility—the Kennedy Center  works to provide the district and the nation with various cultural and educational programs spanning from music to theater, and  everything in between.

The piece— MASS— performed at the debut  was created by “West Side Story” composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. You can still read the original program, which includes quotes from President Nixon, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Mamie Eisenhower.

“Most people think of Washington, D.C. as being purely a political town, when in fact we have a dynamic arts community that actively plays a huge role in the way we experience our world,” says Deborah F. Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president.

Here are some photos from the Kennedy Center’s construction and 1964 groundbreaking ceremony: 

Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center
December 22, 1967: The scaffolding can be seen.


Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center
Sr. John Gielgud reads from Shakespeare at the groundbreaking in 1964 as (left to right) Lady Bird Johnson, Roger L. Stevens, and United States Supreme Court Justice Byron White look on. 
Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center
Kennedy Center chairman Roger L. Stevens at the groundbreaking in 1964.


Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center
President Johnson at the Kennedy Center groundbreaking Ceremony on December 2, 1964.

Editorial Fellow

Sydney is an editorial fellow at Washingtonian Magazine, where she writes about history, news, food, and events. A recent graduate of the College of William & Mary, she is interested in writing and videography. You can follow her on Twitter @sydneykmahan