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The bandshell at Lake Harriet is the fifth entertainment structure to occupy that space

The first structure, an 1888 “summer garden and amusement hall” built by Thomas Lowry, burned down after just three years.

photo of gathering at lake harriet park
Large gathering at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis, ca. 1899.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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.

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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 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.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.