The Up and Down History of the Lake Harriet Pavilions

Lake Harriet has been the site of numerous park pavilions over the years, many of which met a tragic end.

Early spring can be a harsh time in Minnesota, a time when many turn to daydreaming about summer picnics and music in the park. For many the Lake Harriet Band Shell is a perfect place to focus those daydreams. With concerts, movies in the park, picnic grounds and a beautiful view, there’s a lot to appreciate about the park during summer.

The band shell that stands at Lake Harriet today is the fifth music and entertainment facility near the same site. Concerts at Lake Harriet date back as far as 1880 when a steam railway motor line opened up access to what had been a remote lake resort. To entice visitors to Lake Harriet, concerts were sponsored by the motor line.

The First Attempt
The first Lake Harriet pavilion was called The Grand Pavilion, built in 1888. It was designed to host entertainment and dancing and had a refreshment room that seated up to 500 people. The pavilion was advertised in posters promoting daily light opera performances as “a most charming resort to spend your holidays and evenings.” Danz’s Military Band was also employed to entertain visitors.

Unfortunately, success was elusive for the pavilion because it was built closer to the railway than the lake, which was often a bigger draw.

Ministers protested that operas were performed at Lake Harriet on the Sabbath. Reverend Dr. Marshall said to the Minneapolis Journal, “For this past week every streetcar in the city has been advertising the Lake Harriet opera just as if there wasn’t anything else under the sun. In operating theater on Sunday he is violating not only state law, but divine law as well.”

 Ultimately this protest resulted in the cancellation of further performances of the opera.

This first pavilion lasted only four years. It was destroyed by a fire, which gave the Minneapolis Street Railway Company an opportunity to build a new pavilion in a more desirable location, right on the lake itself.

 The Pagoda Pavilion
The Minneapolis Street Railway leased land from the Minneapolis Park Board and chose Harry W. Jones to design a new pavilion that jutted out over the water. This pavilion was designed to resemble a traditional Chinese timber pagoda and featured an acoustic bandstand that floated on the water. The Pagoda Pavilion was built in only 30 days, replacing The Grand Pavilion in time for the end of summer.

The Pagoda Pavilion was more successful, and gained so much popularity that additional amphitheater seating was added, allowing over 3,000 people to enjoy concerts at once. The Pagoda Pavilion featured a lower level dining area with refreshments, and even additional attractions like a Shetland Pony track.

When a bicycle craze reduced the amount of people taking street railway to Lake Harriet, the railway attempted to bring vaudeville shows to the pavilion to boost patronage. The Park Board President William Folwell was uncomfortable with vaudeville, which he felt was inappropriate entertainment for a public park.

To keep the peace, the Street Railway chose to replace vaudeville with the wildly popular Banda Rossa led by Eugenio Sorrentino. Towards the end of Banda Rossa’s engagement playing the Pavilion, Sorrentino composed the “Harriet March” to reflect “the tranquil scenery of Harriet…and the wild tumult of storms sweeping over the lake”.

In August of 1902, while members of Ellery’s Royal Italian Band were on the bandstand, a storm tore the floating band shell loose from its ties and blew it out onto the lake. The Minneapolis Journal reported that “the musicians blew loud blasts for help on their band instruments.” Four of the musicians were rescued by boat and one was washed ashore clinging to a wrecked piece of the bandstand itself.

In 1903 an electrical fire destroyed the rest of the Pagoda Pavilion. The Street Railway chose to terminate its involvement with providing entertainment and donated the $15,000 in insurance money they received to the Park Board.

While the Pagoda pavilion is gone, the restrooms of the pavilion survived and can still be seen near the current Lake Harriet Band Shell.

The People’s Pavilion
The Park Board took a slower approach to building the next pavilion, taking time to hear debate and carefully plan. By 1903, Linden Hills was a neighborhood, not just farmland, and residents objected to the noise and nuisance of large crowds that gathered around the pavilion during the summer.

The Park Board chose to retain Harry W. Jones as the architect, and this time he designed a pavilion in the Classic Revival style. The Classical Pavilion featured two wings and housed a café, a refreshment stand, and changing rooms downstairs, with seating for 2,000 concert-goers on the upper level.

Listeners could also appreciate concerts from carriages, cars and boats parked or docked nearby.

With pony rides, high diving exhibitions, boat rental, touring cars, swimming, dining, theater, orchestral concerts and even ostriches on display, the Classical Pavilion had something for everyone and continued to increase in popularity. A fireworks display in 1911 was estimated to have drawn as many as 100,000 people.

A downturn for the pavilion began when the rooftop garden was determined to be unsafe for carrying the weight of concert attendees. The bandstand was moved to the concourse.

In July of 1925 a violent windstorm arose, killing Emma Miller and her three year old daughter, destroying the pavilion and scattering the debris of the building into the water of Lake Harriet. Divers have reported that remnants of the wooden floor of the east wing pavilion changing rooms remain beneath the water today.

A “Temporary” Solution
After much debate over cost, location, and size of a new pavilion it was determined that a modest, temporary bandstand would be built. This structure served as the stage for music and entertainment at Lake Harriet for 58 years, longer than all three of the previous pavilions combined.

Park Board Superintendent Theodore Wirth recognized that the bandstand was “a distinct disappointment to some of the more enthusiastic,” but predicted that eventually summer music would be given a grander stage for performance.

Despite more a more modest environment for entertainment, crowds continued to gather to watch concerts, picnic and go boating. While plans for a more elaborate pavilion were often suggested, they were just as often dismissed. Finally, in 1984, planning began for the Lake Harriet Band Shell we know today.

Today’s Band Shell
The plans for the current Band Shell grew out of a design process with a 33 member advisory committee. A grant from the Metropolitan Council and a Hennepin County Parks loan gave funding to the project.

The Lake Harriet Bandshell was designed with respect for the Linden Hills neighborhood in mind, projecting sound away from the neighborhood and limiting seating to 900.

Musician requests were also considered. While the temporary bandstand faced west, blinding musicians when the sun set, the current band shell faces north to alleviate that problem. Today, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board calls the Lake Harriet Band Shell, “the signature venue for daily concerts.”

As summer approaches, concert goers can look forward to a diverse range of musical offerings at Lake Harriet from Jazz to Bluegrass to Indie Rock.

Also new this year at the Lake Harriet Band Shell is , a concessions stand from Restaurateur Kim Bartmann that aims to bring local and sustainable food to Lake Harriet. Band Shell enthusiasts and foodies will be able to check out the concession stand’s offerings starting April 1st.


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