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 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. It has historic precedents for its function in the outdoor theatres and pavilions of Versailles, for example, or the temples and ‘eye-catchers’ found in park-like gardens of British country houses such as Stourhead and Stowe. 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. For Central Park, it is also a singular and excellent example of the ‘City Beautiful Movement‘ in architecture, widely popular across America when it was designed.
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.