Ames Bandshell and Park

Local bandshells and bands have often served as an important indicator of the quality of life in Midwest towns.  A focal point for community activity in Ames the past seventy years has been Bandshell Park. Its location within the Downtown Cultural District, and stable city financial support for the Municipal Band contribute to the special appeal of this venue.

BANDSHELL HISTORY

On April 7, 1882, the Iowa Railroad Land Company gifted this 2.6-acre site to the city of Ames for $1 with the stipulation that it be used as a park.  This site became Ames’ first park and was named "City Park."  A wooden structure for band performances was built.  The first wooden bandstand in the center of City Park had been replaced in 1909 following a benefit at the Scenic Theater to raise money for a new concrete circular structure.  However, by 1934 the park's second bandstand was beginning to crumble.  It never had a roof, and now some of the concrete blocks had become loose and the floor of the stand had settled and heaved.  It had become too small for the Ames band's increased size.  Under the leadership of M.C. Severson, the 31 members of the band had unanimously passed a resolution recommending to the city council in April of 1934 that a new facility be built.  They requested that the new facility should include a basement area for band practice as well as an adequately sized concert platform.  That resolution, which contained the signatures of thirty-one members, was presented to the city council on April 16, 1934.

The new bandshell project had the support of the Ames Kiwanis Club, the Ames Woman's Club Chorus, the president of the Ames Labor Council, the Ames Rotary Club, the Ames Park Board, the American Legion, the Ames Chamber of Commerce, and the music division of the Faculty Woman's Club.  On November 13, 1934, the city council approved a contract with Grover Pratt of Iowa State's Department of Architecture to serve as the architect for the project.  They approved his preliminary plans and specifications for its construction.  The November 14, 1934 issue of the Ames Tribune stated that the cost estimates were between $10,000 and $12,000.  By mid-December, plans were ready for final approval.  A committee was appointed to arrange for the use of some public works volunteer labor in constructing the foundation.  Local contractors Ben Cole and Fred Fischer submitted bids for the primary construction project, with Fischer's at $22,880 beating out Ben Cole's by about $1,100.  J.R. Jones was given the contract for constructing the copper roof, an exacting procedure that produces a long-lasting cover.

The final report to the council carried the news that the total cost of the project would come to $39,072.  Because of the quality and the desirability of the structure, the plan was accepted.

Dedication of the bandshell, or "music pavilion," was held June 13, 1935, to coincide with the Eighth Annual Iowa Bandmasters Convention held in Ames. A record 10,000 attendees were treated to an hour-long concert by the Fort Dodge Band under the direction of legendary bandmaster Karl King, followed by a performance of three numbers by thirteen massed bands led by Major George Landers of Clarinda.  Mayor W.L. Allen presented the bandshell to the city, asking the people present to feel free to take part in and enjoy the programs which will be given from this pavilion.  In more recent times audiences of 1,000 gather each week to listen to the music, visit with friends and enjoy pre-concert entertainment.  An evening featuring opera singer Simon Estes attracted 3,000 listeners.  In addition to the musical events, Bandshell Park has hosted Art in the Park, and the bandshell itself has been a precinct voting location and a driver’s license station.  The bandshell has been listed since 1999 in the National Register of Historic Places.

In more recent times audiences of 1,000 gather each week to listen to the music, visit with friends, and enjoy pre-concert entertainment.  An evening featuring opera singer Simon Estes attracted 3,000 listeners.  Besides musical events, the venue has also hosted Art in the Park, a precinct voting location, and a driver’s license station.

In the present Band Shell Park there was once a small circular bandstand.  The band gave 6 to 8 concerts there in the middle to late 1920s.  My first experience with the Ames band was in 1928 when I played in the band under the direction of Oscar Hatch Hawley, who also directed the I. State College Band.  I directed the Ames band the next year which was 1929.

In 1930 Mr. Clate Chenette was hired as the full time director of the band.  With the exception of September, which was a vacation month, Mr. Chenette held the band together for the entire year, rehearsing regularly all during the winter months and usually giving an indoor concert or so during that time.

As I recall, rehearsals at that time were held in the council chamber of the Ames City Hall and later at the American Legion Hall.  A satisfactory place to rehearse was always a problem for bands of this era.

Where there are musicians they invariably get together to make music of some kind.  So it was that in the early years of Ames from 1964 onward, Ames had various and sundry musical groups sometimes in the form of an orchestra, but more commonly a small brass band, performing upon request for the various political and patriotic events during the year.  In those days there were seldom regularly employed directors.  One of their own number was usually chosen by the group to serve in this capacity.

R. Day
Ames Municipal Band

This photo shows a mid-1930s Ames Municipal Band pictured with some Ames High School students.  Director Clate Chenette is visible at right.  Learn more about the Ames Municipal Band.  (photo courtesy of John E. van der Linden)

I've always felt I had a special feeling in regard to the Ames Bandshell since my father, John van der Linden, was custodian of the City Park from 1935 to 1953.  My brothers, Louie and Spence, used to enjoy flashing the lights in the shell during band concerts for appropriate numbers.  You can imagine the fun they had when the band played the "Anvil Chorus."

John E. van der Linden

FEATURES

  • Strong, formal Art Deco design making this an exceptional example of the period
  • Quarter-hemisphere shell providing fine acoustics
  • Solid construction of cast-in-place concrete, structural steel and wood framing, masonry, and copper roof
  • Stepped stage seating 60 band members
  • Special lighting effects utilizing 500 colored bulbs
  • Decorative cast iron grilles at speaker kiosks flanking stage

NATIONAL PRAISE FOR AMES BANDSHELL

From a 1941 Ames Municipal Band poster

"The Ames Band Shell, and all the associated accommodations, including rehearsal room, dressing rooms, library and office rooms, is the finest structure of its kind in the United States." – Dr. A.A. Harding, director of bands of the University of Illinois.

"On the return trip of 5,000 miles through the United States and Canada, with the Sioux Falls High School Band, and having played concerts in many metropolitan cities, including the Band Shell in New York City, where the famous Goldman Band plays, I believe the Ames Band Shell is the finest one of its kind I have ever been in." – Sioux Falls, South Dakota editor.

"The Ames Band Plant is recognized as the finest in America according to Cliff Bainum (director of bands at Northwestern University), William Revelli (director of the State University Band at Ann Arbor, Michigan), and many other national authorities."

RESTORATION

While quality materials and workmanship characterized the original construction, it seemed apparent by 1995 that the 70-year-old bandshell needed a major overhaul to survive.  Water infiltration, masonry deterioration and mechanical deficiencies needed to be remedied to prevent eventual closure of the facility.

To address these problems the Ames Foundation, a private, non-profit volunteer group, took on the project.  The goal was to restore the building, maintaining its original design and character, and to showcase it with new landscaping.  Groundbreaking took place on April 29, 2005.

RESTORATION FEATURES

  • Perimeter drainage and waterproofing
  • Masonry repair or replacement, cleaning and moisture proofing
  • New flat stage floor providing performance flexibility
  • Restored grilles at speaker kiosks
  • Restored original entry stairs
  • Exterior painting
  • Electrical and mechanical upgrades
  • Site and security lighting
  • New removable risers
  • Landscaping and walkways
  • Night lighting of shell