Music Pavilion, on Concert Ground
In 1859 Jacob Wrey Mould, an amateur musician and the architect who designed many of the original structures in Central Park, persuaded his wealthy friends to pay for free band concerts at a temporary bandstand in the Ramble, and he arranged their musical programs. The first concert, on July 13, included the Festival March from Tannhäuser, Mendelssohn's song, "I would that my Love," selections from La Traviata and Strauss's Sorgenbrecher Waltz. In the summer of 1860 concerts were transferred to the Mall, and The New York Herald reported that the September 22 concert attracted "at least five thousand persons gathered around the performers, while outside of these were stationed an immense number of carriages...filled with the beauty and fashion of New York." The overwhelming popularity of the concerts prompted Central Park's board to finance them and to build a permanent Music Pavilion on the west side of the Mall near the Terrace. Mould designed the elaborately painted and brightly gilded Moorish-style wooden and cast-iron structure, completed in 1862. The NYC Parks Department razed the Music Pavilion in 1923.
The Naumburg Bandshell, a gift of Elkan Naumburg 'to the City of New York and its Music Lovers', replaced in purpose the former structure. Though the Naumburg Bandshell opened on September 29th 1923, the Art Commission of New York had approved of the change in 1912 and the design of the Bandshell in 1916. "On the Mall", composed by Edwin Franko Goldman in 1923, to honor Elkan Naumburg, was premiered that September afternoon, conducted by Franz Kaltenborn. Astonishingly, during that summer, 959 concerts were presented on the Concert Ground, over 400 of which were underwritten by the NYC Parks Department. It was a popular place, providing a well-like activity.
The design of the Bandshell has historic precedents in the Pantheon of Rome, or more closely, the Imperial Russian pleasure park's pavilion at Gatchina Palace, by Vincenzo Brenna, his 'Eagle Pavilion' of the 1790's, and the later work of the architect F.G.P. Poccianti, his 'Cisternone' at Livorno of 1829-42.
The use of European park architecture as a model for what to insert in Central Park was in keeping with Olmsted's design sources and methods of nearly 60 years earlier.
The Naumburg Bandshell was set into the Manhattan schist hillside, which nestles it, to prevent views being blocked across the Mall and Concert Ground which caused an earlier proposal of Carrère & Hastings to be found wanting by city and park officials.
Thoughtfully, the design also stands centered between the two projecting pergola viewing points, and it admirably reflects the architect William G. Tachau's own Ecole des Beaux-Arts classicist and historicist training. The result was Central Park's only Neo-Classical building.
In the 1980's, the Central Park Conservancy developed and published a Master Plan for Central Park’s restoration. It recommended that the Naumburg Bandshell and several other post 1860's changes to the park be removed. See: Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan, (1985), pp.76-78.
In 1989, the Conservancy and NYC Parks Department proposed a concept for the Bandshell's replacement, developed partly by Betsy Barlow Rogers and Landscape Architect Philip N. Winslow. The changes would be made in conjunction with a restored historic seat configuration and the replanting of elm trees on the Concert Ground site. The 1989 proposal also called for the construction of raked seating, fashioned from concrete with grass turf tops. This seating was to be set into the full-length of the Manhattan schist hillside the Bandshell nestles in, beneath the wisteria pergola. This 'auditorium' was to face a new seasonal tubular-steel stage complex on the opposite [west] side of the Concert Ground, honoring Mitchell and Abby Leigh's generous $500,000 gift. The plan was defeated during the Community Board review process, and it was withdrawn.
In 1991, a second proposal was put forward. It called for a site sculpture in the hillside, by Elyn Zimmerman, and the erection of a newly designed bandstand, designed by Hugh Hardy, of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, Architects. Printed materials about the Conservancy would be offered within its glazed exterior. It received a similar unpopular reception in the public Community Board review process, but the plan was pursued through to an Art Commission hearing.
To curtail future work of this nature, in 1992, the Coalition to Save the Naumburg Bandshell, filed a lawsuit against the Central Park Conservancy and the Parks Department to save the Bandshell from imminent demolition. A landmark legal decision on July 6th, 1993 by New York's highest court ended both the litigation and the planned demolition.
THE MALL, CENTRAL PARK - Saturday, May 23, 1874 *
The double rows of American Elms, planted fourteen years earlier, create a green tunnel. Sunlight filters through the canopy of new leaves and throws dappled patterns of light and shade on the gravel walk. It is a beautiful day, the Mall is crowded: ladies in voluminous skirts and colorful hats; Irish nurses in bonnets and white aprons, pushing baby carriages; gentlemen in frock coats and top hats; a few young clerks in stylish broadcloth suits; the children in a variety of dress, miniature versions of their parents. It is a decorous crowd; tomorrow - Sunday - is when working people have a holiday and attendance will be even larger.
At the north end of the Mall, on the west side, is the bandstand. Mould has pulled out all the stops for this design. The raised platform is covered by a Moorish-style cupola, dark blue and covered with gilt stars. It is topped by a sculpture of a lyre. The roof is supported by crimson cast-iron columns. The bandstand is unoccupied - the Saturday-afternoon concerts start next month. The annual summer series is so popular - up to forty-five thousand people attend - that the park board has provided extra seating and has taken the unprecedented step of allowing listeners to sit on the grass. Not everyone admires these free concerts. "The barriers and hedges of society for the time being are let down," sniffs the Times, "unfortunately also a few of its decencies are forgotten."
The barriers of society are not altogether absent. Across the Mall from the bandstand is a broad concourse where the wealthy park their carriages and, separated from the lower orders by a long wisteria arbor, listen to the music in comfortable isolation. Beside the concourse stands a large one-story building with a swooping tiled roof and deep overhanging eaves. Originally the Ladies Refreshment Stand, it has recently been converted into a restaurant called the Casino.
An excerpt from Witold Rybczynski - A Clearing in the Distance, pp.317-18 in which a letter of Frederick Law Olmsted - a principal designer of Central Park is quoted.
* Please note how popular and crowded concerts were in 1874 on the Concert Ground. When will this area of the park be made available, again, for use as originally intended in the Greensward plan for Central Park ?
Present NYC Parks Department policies seem to make the Naumburg Bandshell available mostly on Monday and Tuesday evenings during the summer. The building is physically neglected, on its exterior and interior. But, in 2015 the Central Park Conservancy erected scaffolding to secure the building, and its features. Once studies of its present decay are undertaken, it may begin to restore the Naumburg Bandshell, in the near future ?
It is hoped, in partnership with the NYC Parks Department, that the Concert Ground's role, dating to the 19th century, as a place of great beauty and tranquillity in which to enjoy musical concerts in Central Park will be restored too.
FROM E.B. WHITE'S Here is New York, 1949
Another hot night I stop off at the band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind sings, bringing leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. On a bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, "Drink to me only with thine eyes ..." In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins-the "Queen Mary" announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. "I leave," sobs Mary. "And I will pledge with mine," sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro: they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. "Drink to me only with thine eyes." It is a magical occasion, and it's all free.