Bandstands: Pavilions for music, leisure and entertainment

By Paul Rabbitts

A beautifully illustrated history of bandstands and other pavilions built for music.

4 The art and architecture of the bandstand

Early designs

Despite the popularity of the ‘orchestras’ in the early pleasure gardens in Vauxhall and Cremorne, by 1851, as the catalogue for the Great Exhibition demonstrates by their absence, bandstands were still not commonplace enough for them to attract the attention of manufacturers. In fact, where a bandstand was required, it was often adequate to erect a temporary structure for the occasion. As previously referred to, at a fete in Mount Boone Park, Dartmouth, South Devon, in 1852, the band was placed in a ‘rustic orchestra’, and on Woodhouse Moor, Leeds, West Yorkshire, in 1856, the orchestra had been fixed in a hollow near the cricket ground. At Basford Park fete in Nottinghamshire in 1859, the band was performing upon an orchestra raised for it in the grounds. In South Park, Darlington, County Durham, the winters of the early 1890s were extremely hard and the ornamental lake in front of the park’s first bandstand – ‘a little wooden structure with a canvas top’ – froze solid for seven weeks.

The earliest inspiration for the design and development of the many new public parks and the facilities within included buildings such as lodges, shelters, boathouses, band houses, pagodas, monuments and sculptures and such inspiration came from the many private parks and pleasure gardens of the 18th century. Palm houses and winter gardens were developed in the early years of the 19th century before public parks even came into being and were found not only on the many grand estates throughout the country, but within the many pleasure gardens. As described, the early forms of the bandstand primarily had their precedent in the pleasure gardens in London.

Simultaneously, the early advent of bandstands in North America followed a similar path to the United Kingdom. Bandstands there were often perceived purely as functional pieces of civic architecture, usually placed within civic squares. However, a fresh current in landscape architecture caused North Americans to increasingly view bandstands and similar structures as vital links between people and nature. This new sensibility dictated that the bandstand should fit picturesquely into a pastoral landscape. This bucolic conception of the bandstand had been set forth by landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. ‘There is scarcely a prettier or more pleasant object for the termination of a long walk in the pleasure grounds or park than a neatly thatched structure of rustic work.’ The gazebos he contrived to fill this function were in fact prototypes for a new form of rustic bandstand that followed the decadent Chinoiserie style of the pleasure gardens.

It remained, however, for Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of New York City’s Central Park (inspired by Birkenhead Park and Derby Arboretum), to draw the link between such sylvan bowers and music. As previously noted, Olmsted was of the view that ‘the effect of good music on the Park is to aid the mind in freeing itself from the irritating effect of the urban conditions’. As with the movement in park design in the United Kingdom, Americans of the late 19th century were concluding that parks and band music were needed to humanise the growing industrial city. Their resulting bandstands were designed to serve as settings for informal concerts and, at other times, as belvederes from which walkers could view their pleasant surroundings. To enhance their function as belvederes, bandstands were elevated further from the ground. This distinction between belvedere and bandstand was at times difficult to distinguish.

In his early planning for Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted had already cautioned against ‘grandiose architectural display’ that would distract from one’s appreciation of nature. By 1880, however, Olmsted’s restraint was no longer in vogue, with much more ostentatious bandstands appearing in city after city. More modest bandstands continued to be built, but they were no longer the rule. The availability of inexpensive mill work and factory-made turnings, such as columns and balustrades, as well as polychrome tiles and cast-iron columns and handrails, was an irresistible temptation both to big-city promoters and to small-town boosters. Bandstands thus took on yet another function – to serve as bright and whimsical pieces of urban sculpture. It was the beginning of the iron age.

Leading art critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) was no lover of cast iron since coming across the motif of a cast-iron serpent on the legs of two benches while walking in the picturesque Lune Valley in Lancashire in January 1875. His reaction was one of horror to what he perceived as a ‘satanic emblem and a symbol of all the hellish consequences of rampant industrialisation produced by the work of manufacturers avid for profit – an infernal dragon that needed to be slain by all the honest workmen of Britain to restore the country’s moral standing’. Ruskin condemned cast-iron ornament as a deceitful, false, vulgar, cold, clumsy and paltry pretence to art: a cheap substitute that, if allowed to proliferate in Britain, would obliterate all our national feeling for beauty. Proliferate it did, despite the views of Ruskin and many prominent architects of the time who dismissed cast-iron ornament as ‘decorative sludge’ that needed to be scraped off iron buildings to reveal their true architectural nature. In the second half of the 19th century, machine-made cast-iron ornament proliferated beyond expectation and lasted until the First World War. Cast iron, and to a lesser extent wrought iron, flourished roughly from the 1840s to 1914 and reached almost every type of structure and building in Britain: a vast array of street furniture, from urinals to lamps; the industrial architecture of warehouses, pumping stations and factories; retail architecture in towns and cities, such as shops, arcades and market halls; railways stations and bridges; museums and other civic buildings; glasshouses and exhibition buildings; and seaside architecture, such as piers, pavilions, shelters and of course bandstands. It was a time when some architects, engineers, manufacturers and theorists believed that the fusion of iron and ornament would both enact a reconciliation of art and technology and create a new, modern architectural language that drew on both history and modernity.

The proliferation of bandstands within parks and along seaside promenades and how they have progressed particularly in relation to materials such as timber, cast iron and concrete has been more than impressive. Yet, it has always been the traditional octagonal bandstand that is associated with most of our public parks and seafronts – ornate, embellished and highly detailed structures, loathed by Ruskin, and composed primarily of cast iron. In a number of cases, cast-iron bandstands have been replaced over the years with concrete, such as Clifton Park, Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and coastal bandstands have appeared as part of new developments, constructed of concrete, but it is the ornate, light, airy Victorian bandstand that is often associated with our most loved parks and seaside towns. To understand their significance to parks and promenades, a better understanding of the use of cast iron in their designs and how this was used effectively by the great foundries of the time is essential.

The introduction of cast iron as a constructional building material may have begun as early as the 18th century, but in the 19th century its use became much more widespread when adopted for a greater number of purposes. Iron became the material of the mid- to late 19th century, and in the early part of the century it was, in a way, seen as the wonder material of the day. This was really before the structural potential of the material was understood fully, which did not happen until the later part of the century. In the 18th century the decorative potential of iron was adopted in more traditional forms, such as in the construction of railings and gates, but towards the end of that century there were trials in the substitution of iron for other materials, such as timber, which displayed the structural use of the material, even if its potential was not totally appreciated at the time.

Early 19th-century landscape gardeners such as Humphry Repton and John Claudius Loudon were certainly keen on the potential of iron. They extolled the virtue of its great strength in relation to the size of member when compared with other materials such as wood or stone in their garden designs of the time, and were therefore used in buildings and features within their landscapes. Iron offered to garden designers and horticulturalists a strong, durable material that could be used for many different purposes, but which physically would not appear as large objects made of more conventional materials. Such structures, railings, gates and other objects of cast and wrought iron, because of their lightness of form, offered a more sympathetic relationship with the natural world of the garden.

The decorative advantages of iron were also an important factor in its widespread adoption in gardens during the 19th century. Both wrought and cast iron presented advantages over other materials. Wrought iron could be worked into different shapes while hot, and through repeated heating and beating or rolling could take on shapes, which could be used for constructional or decorative purposes. The real discovery of the early 19th century was the recognition of the potential of wrought iron for constructional purposes, but the potential of cast iron was also more widely understood during the century. Cast iron was very important for decorative purposes, and able to adopt the form and relief surface of the moulded shape into which the molten cast iron was poured, and so offered the possibility of replication and repetition with little need for craftsmanship beyond the making of the initial pattern. This was in contrast to wrought iron, each member of which would have to be worked by hand, first having been heated to a temperature where it was malleable when it could be worked by beating and other tools, to bend, twist and cut the material to the desired shape. The characteristics of the two different materials can be very clearly seen in the ways in which they were used. The different uses of iron as a decorative and structural material in public parks alone were many and included applications to bandstands, pavilions, shelters, bridges, seats and benches, light standards or pillars, ornamental vases, fountains, drinking fountains and other sculptural purposes.

Like conservatories and winter gardens, bandstands were often of iron. In most instances cast iron was used, but wrought iron was too, particularly for light lattice rafters to support roofs. Cast-iron columns were a common feature of their design. Commonly, these served as rainwater downpipes, so it was not unusual to find that these pipes were sometimes cracked from the action of freezing water inside. Decorative castings around the eaves, or cresting along the top of the gutter or the ridge, and a finial or weathervane at the centre of the roof were also common elements. With such large crowds often gathering to listen, bandstands were generally elevated on a platform for visibility with decorative iron stairs, handrail and railings around the perimeter. The underside of the bandstand roof was frequently boarded to serve as a sounding board, an essential part of the bandstand, allowing sound to be projected at a greater distance, with the superstructure upon which the bandstand was raised occasionally a masonry construction.

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