“Mr. Fred Cellem 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 in America grew after the Civil War, so grew the desire of the general public to attend and enjoy open air concert performances. As a result, there became a strong need for suitable outdoor venues where audiences could gather and the musicians could be seen and heard. Town bandstands soon began to appear in parks and town squares nationwide.
In purely functional terms, a bandstand would place the performer on a raised platform above the audience for better viewing, while its roof would provide necessary protection from the rain and—perhaps more importantly—form a sounding board to amplify and project the sound. Municipal bandstands came into vogue near the end of the nineteenth century and by the early 1900s, they had become fairly commonplace.
“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 place to perform.
In 1880, the village clerk, Fred Cellem, proposed a subscription campaign to begin raising funds for a community bandstand, but his plan never materialized. Nearly a decade later, Oscar Clement’s City Band offered to give free concerts in the park if someone would simply pay for and construct a proper bandstand. Local photographer and bandleader Wallace White concurred, 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, however, were not as supportive, and saw the whole project as a senseless waste of time and public money.
Temporary stands were hastily constructed for certain special occasions, but those were taken down just as quickly. A permanent solution seemed always and forever out of reach. For more than two decades, folks grumbled and committees haggled over who would pay for and build a proper bandstand, and if indeed such a structure was truly necessary.
Finally, it was during the city council meeting of April 1899 that 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 at long last under way.
“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
“A very artistic piece of work”
The bandstand was to be located in the eastern portion of Bronson Park between Rose Street and the park’s (then) central fountain. Unlike the octagonal shape typically found in many communities during this period, the bandstand in Bronson Park was square in shape, with a steeply pitched four-sided gable roof. City alderman Herbert Congdon, a craftsman by trade, was given the contract for the work, and he applied the final coat of paint to the new structure just in time for the Chamber of Commerce Band’s final outdoor concert of the 1899 season.
Teddy Roosevelt Speaks
Whenever band concerts were held in Bronson Park during the warm weather months, large crowds almost always 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. But music wasn’t the only sound to be heard in the park. Perhaps the most famous individual to speak before a crowd from the Bronson Park bandstand was then New York governor and vice-presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Kalamazoo briefly during a campaign stop in September 1900.
Age Takes Its Toll
After nearly a decade of use, the bandstand had by 1909 fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Photographs of Bronson Park taken during this time period are rather common, yet ones that depict the bandstand itself are rare. This was the height of the postcard era (c.1901-1915), and yet interestingly enough, most commercial photos of the park avoid the bandstand completely, while other postcard images were quite obviously retouched so as to obscure the structure behind the trees. (This was a technique used commonly in the postcard industry.) What should have been a source of great civic pride had evidently become an embarrassing eyesore.
Father O’Brien’s Bandstand
By the spring of 1909, the bandstand had become so badly dilapidated that it was declared unsafe to use. During its April meeting, the city council authorized the solicitation of bids to have the old stand torn down and removed.
For the grand sum of $15, the old bandstand was sold in May 1909 to Fr. Frank A. O’Brien, who removed it from Bronson Park and rebuilt it on the grounds of Nazareth Academy for use by the Barbour Hall Junior Military Band.
Concerts of all kinds would continue to be held in the park throughout the coming years, and a variety of public speakers would come and go, but nearly a century would pass before Kalamazoo concertgoers could again enjoy watching performers on a permanent stage in Bronson Park.
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.
Related reading from Kalamazoo Public Library’s Local History essays.