“Mr. Fred Cullen started a subscription paper last evening for the erection of a grand band stand on the park, which met with general favor.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 30 June 1880
As the popularity of military band music and open air concert performances grew after the Civil War, there became a strong need for suitable outdoor venues in which to perform. In purely functional terms, a bandstand would place the performer on a raised platform above the audience, while a roof would provide necessary protection from the rain and—perhaps more importantly—form a sounding board to amplify and project the sound. Municipal bandstands began to appear in parks and town squares nationwide near the end of the nineteenth century and became fairly commonplace by the early 1900s.
“Shall We Have a Bandstand and Concerts?”
The Bandstand Debate
The lack of a permanent bandstand in Bronson Park caused great distress among Kalamazoo’s nineteenth century bandleaders and concertgoers. Concerts were often held on the courthouse lawn, but many felt the city (and the bands) deserved a more suitable performance place.
In 1880, the village clerk, Fred Cellem, proposed a subscription campaign to begin raising funds for a community bandstand. Several years later, Oscar Clement’s City Band offered to give free concerts in the park if someone would simply pay for and construct a bandstand. Wallace White proposed the same, saying, “the music loving people of this city cannot reasonably expect [musicians] to give open air concerts with nothing but their pants to sit on. It’s a shame that Kalamazoo is the only city in Michigan where a band stand is not provided” (Gazette). Still others saw the whole project as a senseless waste of time and public money.
Temporary stands were built on occasion, but a permanent solution seemed forever out of reach. For more than two decades, folks grumbled and committees haggled over who would pay for a proper bandstand, and if indeed such a structure was truly necessary.
During the city council meeting of April 1899, the public grounds and buildings committee recommended the addition of “new electric lights at either end of the park and a permanent [band]stand.” A month later, the committee reported that such a pavilion could be erected in Bronson Park for as little as $300 (roughly $7,800 today), although one alderman objected to having “such a cheap structure going up in the finest park in the country” (Gazette). After much debate, the report was adopted and the project was finally under way.
“A very artistic piece of work”
The bandstand was located in the eastern portion of Bronson Park between Rose Street and the park’s (then) central fountain. Unlike the octagonal shape typically found during this period, the bandstand in Bronson Park was square, with a steeply pitched four-sided gable roof. City alderman Herbert Congdon, a craftsman by trade, was given the contract, and applied the final coat of paint to the new structure just in time for the Chamber of Commerce Band’s last concert of the 1899 season.
“The inside is a blue tint color, the base is sanded work and a good imitation of stone. The roof is slate, and the cresting and cornice are of two shades of green. The work will be completed Friday night in time for the band concert, and is a very artistic piece of work.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 16 August 1899
Teddy Roosevelt Speaks
Whenever band concerts were held in Bronson Park during the warm weather months, large crowds turned out. A weekly series organized by the Chamber of Commerce Band in 1902 was especially popular, as was an evening concert by Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra on the Fourth of July in 1905. Perhaps the most famous individual to speak from the Bronson Park bandstand was then New York governor and vice-presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt who visited Kalamazoo briefly during a campaign stop in September 1900.
But after nearly a decade of use, the bandstand had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Photographs of Bronson Park during this time period are rather common, though ones that depict the bandstand itself are quite rare. During the height of the postcard era (1904-1908), commercial photos of the park were often retouched so as to obscure the structure behind the trees. (This was a commonly used technique in the postcard industry.) What should have been a source of great civic pride had became an embarrassing eyesore.
Like many of our Local History essays, this article is by no means a definitive study. If you have new information, corrections, or items to share, please contact the author or the Local History Room.
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