This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

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There’s always a lot of talk from park lovers about what a National Park should and shouldn’t be, but when it really comes down to it, there are no rules. A national park is a park for the nation. They range vastly in shape, size, and content. One of our most unique national park service sites is one many have never heard of. 

Today on the America’s National Parks Podcast, the vision of a D.C. philanthropist and activist to develop and share a love of the arts with the community set to the backdrop of nature. Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

Catherine Filene Shouse, a philanthropist and avid lover of culture, music, the arts, and nature, was born on June 9, 1896, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Lincoln and Therese Filene. She spent her childhood between the family homes in Boston and Weston, Massachusetts, where the Filenes were able to enjoy nature. 

Born into a family whose fortune was built from the famous department store, Filene’s, their family tradition was laden with a love of nature and for the arts. Her father was the founder of the Boston Symphony and her mother started the Boston Music School Settlement for Underprivileged Children. Her parents’ love of the arts was infectious and resonated with Catherine, helping shape her future vision for Wolf Trap.

In 1917, Shouse was able to apply the experience she acquired through her undergraduate education and activism in the Women’s Division of the United States Employment Service of the Department of Labor. Shouse was hired as the assistant to the chief. Three years later, she published her original work, Careers for Women, and in 1925 was the first woman to be appointed to the Democratic National Committee. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge appointed her chair of the Federal Prison for Women. She was the first woman to occupy this position and immediately began to transform the system, establishing job training and rehabilitation programs. 

In 1929 she served as editor of the Women’s National Democratic Committee’s Bulletin. She created the Institute of Women’s Professional Relations, which hosted national conferences highlighting opportunities for women with an education beyond high school. 

Catherine married her second husband Jouett Shouse in 1932, a former newspaperman, lawyer, and congressman, he served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee and assistant secretary of the treasury. Jouett supported Catherine’s endeavors and the cultured life she was eager to share. 

Shouse began acquiring farmland outside of Washington, DC, in 1930 for use as a refuge from city life and a departure from the family’s primary residence in historic Georgetown. The family estate started traditionally, as a working farm with crops, animals and dog breeding. They grew alfalfa, oats, and wheat for family and friends, but during World War II, the farm fed and served as a refuge for many soldiers.

By 1956, Wolf Trap Farm had grown to 168 acres and held social gatherings for family, friends, and the Washington, DC social and political communities. Wolf Trap frequently hosted notable foreign and domestic political figures. Guests enjoyed dinners, parties, dances, carnivals, and simple nature walks in the countryside, which helped inspire Catherine to develop the land into a cultural oasis. 

Catherine was a volunteer fundraiser for the American Symphony League, which is now the National Symphony Orchestra. She organized and sponsored Candlelight Concerts in Washington, D.C., from 1935 to 1942 in order to supplement the Orchestra’s salaries. From 1957 to 1963, Shouse served as chair of the President’s Music Committee Person-to-Person Program. The program produced national and international performances each year, and under her direction, they produced the first International Jazz Festival in 1962.

At the age of 71, on October 15, 1966, Shouse donated nearly 100 acres of her personal farmland to the United States Department of the Interior, as well as the funds to build a large outdoor amphitheater. This land was donated with the express intent to develop the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Shouse’s goal was to protect the land from encroaching roads and suburbs, as well as create a natural backdrop where the arts could be enjoyed in harmony with nature. Congress accepted the gift, and the ground-breaking ceremony took place in 1968.

In the summer of 1971, sixty young musical performers were chosen for training in music, dance, and acting, to culminate in a production in the newly conceived Filene Center, named after Shouse’s parents. The inaugural season opening was delayed one month due to a fire that destroyed most of the recently constructed center. When the Filene Center was finally completed, the theatre, constructed of Oregon Red Cedar, was a ten-story-high facility equipped with a computerized lighting system and sophisticated sound equipment.

On April 5, 1982, the Filene Center endured a devastating fire that required a complete reconstruction of the revered performing arts venue. Largely due to more generosity from Catherine Filene Shouse, it was rebuilt and reopened its doors in 1984, this time from douglas fir with a yellow pine ceiling. It includes a smoke/fire detection and suppression system, as well as fire-retardant wood, which all cost about $1.7 million. The new amphitheater was also built with state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment. Accessibility was improved, and backstage space for performers and crews was expanded. The venue boasts a seating capacity of 7,000, including about 3,800 in-house seats and 3,200 lawn seats, and continues to host hundreds of thousands of guests each year.

Just prior to the fire, Shouse donated another venue to house smaller acts, which is owned and managed by the non-profit Wolf Trap Foundation. She had two 18th century barns from New York brought to Virginia and rebuilt in a manner that kept their rustic charm but offered superb acoustics and amenities.

Together, the two structures now make up The Barns at Wolf Trap, which present more than 80 performances each year from fall through spring. 

Shouse had a soft spot in her heart for children. The Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods was established as an opportunity for children to be immersed in the natural, artistic environment. During Shouse’s life, Wolf Trap was enjoyed by countless people from many nations and backgrounds. She often brought disabled and disadvantaged children from the Nation’s Capital to Wolf Trap to enjoy the scenery, change of environment, and to give them hayrides.

Catherine Filene Shouse’s great contribution and legacy live on through the gift of Wolf Trap. She was a highly decorated public servant, a celebrated and accomplished woman with deep roots in the nation’s capital – having worked with every President from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton and as President Reagan put it, Wolf Trap is “a park for all people…one that enriches the cultural life of our nation.” Shouse lived most of her life in and around Washington, DC. Although she was a prominent member of the D.C. society scene, she cared as much about making the performing arts accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and incomes as she did about national and international political affairs.

Shouse was active and involved with Wolf Trap to the end of her life; she passed away just prior to turning 100 in 1994. She wanted people to be able to enjoy Wolf Trap well beyond her lifetime. Her legacy lives on as it is America’s National Park for the Performing Arts.


Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is the first and only national park of its kind. It’s operated as a public-private partnership between the National Park Service, which maintains the grounds and facilities, and the non-profit Wolf Trap Foundation. The Foundation oversees the artistic, education, and administrative programs, including artist contracts.

You can visit the 7,028 semi-outdoor theater to see anything from unique cultural acts to some of the biggest touring stars of today, or you can opt for a backstage tour. There are two overlapping trails in the park that provide opportunities for visitors to hike and bird watch. 

Families can visit the Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods, with 70 performances from late June through early August. Family-friendly shows start at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays. Amidst 117 rolling wooded acres and nestled in a shady grove, the stage is set for lively adventures in music, dance, storytelling, puppetry, and theater. All performances are recommended for children between kindergarten and 6th grade and are accompanied each day by a variety of kid-friendly activities.


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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
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Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.