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Lake Harriet Bandshell Park

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Gathering at Lake Harriet

Large gathering at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis, ca. 1899.

When a streetcar line first reached the shores of Lake Harriet (Bde Unma) in Minneapolis in the 1880s, it triggered decades of building projects designed to accommodate visitors who could reach the site easily from other Twin Cities locations. Beginning in 1888, five successive structures occupied the northwest corner of the lake—the most recent being the fanciful Milo Thompson-designed bandshell, which opened in 1986.

Bdewakanton Dakota people have lived near the lakes in present-day South Minneapolis for hundreds of years. The second-largest, just south of Bde Maka Ska, is called Bde Unma, meaning the “other” lake. Settler colonists began referring to it as Lake Harriet in the 1820s to recognize Harriet Lovejoy Leavenworth, the wife of Fort Snelling commandant Colonel Henry Leavenworth. The area around the 344-acre body of water remained undeveloped for most of the nineteenth century, and the rugged beauty of its wooded shores and steep banks attracted foreign tourists. The naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau visited in 1861.

In 1883 the voters of Minneapolis and the Minnesota state legislature approved the establishment of the Minneapolis Parks Board, which began to operate as a branch of city government. Board president Charles Loring then hired noted landscape architect Horace Cleveland to design a master plan for the city. Cleveland recommended that the board quickly acquire land with natural appeal for parkland, ahead of housing developers. Over the next several years, board members negotiated with land owners William King, Henry Beard, and others to acquire the area around Lake Harriet.

The Minneapolis Street Railway began service to the lake in the late 1880s, bringing hundreds of new visitors. In 1888 the company’s president, Thomas Lowry, built a wooden pavilion at the lake’s northwest corner to be used as a “summer garden and amusement hall.” The architectural firm Long and Kees, designers of Minneapolis City Hall, designed the structure. Built on Lowry’s land between the railway tracks and park property, it held a main refreshment room that seated 500 and an auditorium for 1,500. One side faced the train platform while the other curved around the lake for 350 feet. For the grand opening in June 1888, the Danz Military Band performed. Just three years later, in June 1891, the building burned down due to a fire that started in the kitchen.

The Minneapolis Street Railway Company quickly made plans to build a new pavilion on the lakeshore, and iIt secured a ten-year lease from the Park Board to build and operate it. Smaller than the first, at 75 by 150 feet, the new structure opened in August 1891. Minneapolis architect Harry Wild Jones designed the pagoda-styled, two-story building and covered it with patterned wooden shingles. A dining room occupied the lower level, and the upper level provided covered seating for concerts. Musicians performed on a floating bandstand, allowing visitors on both levels of the pavilion to hear the music.

In 1891, Jones designed and built nearby women’s and men’s restroom buildings in the same style as the pavilion. Two years later, he added amphitheater-style seating on the lakeside, bringing the capacity to more than 6,000 guests. Ten years later disaster struck again, and a fire destroyed the pavilion.

The Park Board selected Jones to design a third pavilion, which opened in June 1904. He chose the Classic Revival style popularized by the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The structure measured 200 by 200 feet and supported two wings that extended over the lake. The lower level of one wing held dressings rooms and the other a café. Between the wings steps, led into the water to a fenced swimming area. Two thousand seats filled an open rooftop garden where concerts took place. The first conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Emil Oberhoffer, led the summer band at Lake Harriet. By 1923, however, the roof of the pavilion was declared unsafe, and rooftop concerts ended. In July 1925 the building collapsed during a severe windstorm.

The Park Board spent two years debating the replacement structure. They ultimately hired the architectural firm Downs and Eads to design a modest, “temporary” bandstand. It opened in 1927 and, at eighty feet by thirty feet, stood to the east of the previous pavilion. It presented concerts for fifty-eight years.

In the early 1980s a public relations campaign raised money and awareness for repairing the 1927 bandstand. Ultimately, plans and funding emerged for a new structure. Historians suggested a structure that would complement the 1892 shingle-style restroom buildings built at the time of the “pagoda” pavilion built by Harry Jones. Architect Milo Thompson of the firm Bentz-Thompson-Rietow designed the soaring bandshell to evoke his style. The bandshell was completed in 1986 and won numerous design awards, and its image has achieved iconic status as a depiction of summer in Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission recognized the historic status of the 1892 restrooms in 1980. As of 2020, the original structures remain standing.

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Down at the Lake: A Historical Portrait of Linden Hills and the Lake Harriet District. Minneapolis: Linden Hills History Study Group, 2007.

Hvidsten, Nicole. “Vintage Minnesota: The Tragic History of Lake Harriet’s Pavilion.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 19, 2019.
https://www.startribune.com/vintage-minnesota-tragedy-strikes-lake-harriet-pavilion-in-1925-again/512908292

Koutsky, Linda. “The History of Lake Harriet’s Park Architecture.” Southwest Journal, June 27, 2016.
https://www.southwestjournal.com/focus/neighborhood-spotlight/2016/06/the-history-of-lake-harriets-park-architecture

Millett, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

——— . AIA Guide to the Minneapolis Lake District. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Sussman, Peter. “Lake Harriet Station, 1880-1954.” Minnegazette (January February 1985): 13–18.

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Gathering at Lake Harriet
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Moonlight over the Lake Harriet bandshell
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Lake Harriet bandshell in winter

Turning Point

A fifth public building for visitors to Lake Harriet, this one designed by Milo Thompson, opens to the public in 1986.

Chronology

1819

Colonel Henry Leavenworth and troops start to build the fort that will become Fort Snelling. Settler colonists begin to call Bde Umna Lake Harriet after Harriet Lovejoy Leavenworth, the colonel’s wife.

1883

The Minnesota State Legislature and Minneapolis voters approve the establishment of the Minneapolis Park Board, a branch of city government. It names Charles Loring its president.

1885

Colonel William King donates land around Lake Harriet to the city of Minneapolis. He had amassed a 1,400 estate, Lyndale Farm, that stretched from 34th Street to Lake Harriet (Bde Unma).

1886

Lake Harriet becomes the first Minneapolis lake to be encircled by a roadway after steep banks are graded down and fill is dredged from the lake bottom.

1888

The Grand Pavilion opens, designed by Long and Kees and built on land owned by Thomas Lowry.

1891

The 1888 pavilion burns on June 22.

1891

A new two-story structure designed by Harry Wild Jones opens in August. It becomes known as the “Pagoda Pavilion” due to its design. Musicians play on a floating bandstand.

1903

The 1891 pavilion burns.

1904

Harry Wild Jones designs a large Classical Revival-style structure featuring two wings that extend over the lake. Bands perform on a rooftop with the capacity for 2,000 concertgoers.

1906

Theodore Wirth succeeds William Berry as Minneapolis Park Superintendent.

1925

A July windstorm destroys the 1904 pavilion. About 100 people seek shelter there when the roof collapses. A woman and her three-year-old child die.

1927

Downs and Eads design a modest bandstand intended to be “temporary.” It lasts nearly sixty years.

1980s

A campaign raises funds and awareness for the repair and updating of the 1927 bandstand.

1986

A new bandshell designed by Milo Thompson opens. It evokes the pagoda-pavilion design of Harry Wild Jones.

1990

A refectory (a place to buy and eat refreshments) is added to the grounds.

2004

The bandshell is restored and repainted.

2007

A patio and picnic shelter are completed.

2001

The Milo Thompson-designed bandshell wins the “25-Year Award” bestowed by the American Institute of Architects Minnesota, which recognizes “exemplary architectural projects that have stood the test of time.”