looking back

‘Looking Back’: Spreckels Temple of Music

By Kinen Carvala

How did Hawaiian sugar contribute to placing a bandshell in Golden Gate Park?

In September 1882, 12 musicians in San Francisco started what would become the Golden Gate Park Band to perform regular concerts in the park at its first bandstand, a wooden one in “Conservatory Valley.” The Park’s second bandstand in 1886 was at the site of the present-day tennis courts, according to the book “Five Thousand Concerts in the Park: The History of the Golden Gate Park Band,” by David W. Bandy. 

In December 1890, the King of Hawaii visited San Francisco and attended a park music performance. Hawaii was a monarchy until the 1893  overthrow. Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, then became the 50th state in 1959.

The band’s audience size outgrew the second bandstand, leading to the construction of the third and present bandstand in the park, the Spreckels Temple of Music with a capacity of 20,000 in the Music Concourse.

The Spreckels Temple of Music, on the western edge of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park, was dedicated on Sept. 9, 1900. Construction was made possible with a gift of $75,000 by Claus Spreckels, an industrialist who made his fortune in the sugar industry. His son, Adolph Spreckels, was an heir to the sugar fortune. He married Alma, a woman 24 years his junior. She may have coined the phrase when she referred to her older husband as her “sugar daddy.” Photos by Michael Durand.

Claus Spreckels was a German immigrant to the United States. He made his fortune in sugar, including sugar from the Kingdom of Hawaii subject to favorable trade treaties. He paid $75,000 out of the $78,810 construction cost of the bandshell, according to the book “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories,” by Christopher Pollock, historian-in-residence at the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. 

The president of the park commission, Adolph Bernard Spreckels, convinced his father Claus to donate funds for the bandstand’s construction, according to Gary Kamiya’s book “Spirits of San Francisco Voyages Through the Unknown City.”  General William Henry Linow Barnes, a prominent lawyer and major-general of the National Guard of California, accepted the Temple gift on behalf of the City’s people. Thirty thousand people attended the dedication, according to the SF Chronicle. 

Inscribed on the southwest wall of the bandshell is:

Gift of Claus Spreckels

On the northwest wall of the bandshell is inscribed:

Dedicated September IX MDCCCC

which is the date Sept. 9, 1900, in Roman numerals.

Sept. 9 is the anniversary of California Admission Day, when California became the 31st state of the U.S. in 1850.

Spreckels mentioned at the dedication that free music is attractive to rich and poor. Since he saw that Golden Gate Park was already attracting so many people, he decided that the park was a good place to provide music. 

Brothers James and Merritt Reid were the architects, according to a landmark designation report for the Music Concourse. Corinthian columns are elaborately decorated at the top of both sides of the 72-foot-tall bandshell. Extending out from sides of the bandshell are eight pairs of Ionic columns with simpler scroll-like ornamentation at the top. Sandstone from Colusa County northwest of Sacramento is the main original material in the bandshell. The sunken sandstone panels in the bandshell’s half-domed stage ceiling serves the purpose of reflecting music, according to the landmark report. 

Robert Ingersoll Aitken sculpted two 20-feet by 42-feet semi-nude figures, one playing a lyre, the other a trumpet in the spandrels, the gap between the curve of the arc of the bandshell’s half dome and straight walls. Aitken, born in San Francisco in 1878, later sculpted the McKinley monument in Golden Gate Park, described in this column in February 2021.

The 1906 and 1989 earthquakes damaged the bandstand causing the Golden Gate Park Band to temporarily play at other venues. In addition to the earthquake repairs, more seismic upgrades were done in 1994 by Alameida Architecture, according to its website.

In 2022, 20 accessible parking spaces were added to the bandshell parking lot as part of Rec. and Park’s Golden Gate Park Access and Safety Program. The bathrooms at the bandshell’s rear were added after 1943. 

The band’s Sunday musical concerts traditionally started with the Star-Spangled Banner and from the 1930s to mid-1950s ended with God Bless America, according to Nathaniel L. Pergamit’s thesis on the band’s history. Singers have often joined the band’s wind instruments in concerts.

Pergamit also wrote about the composers (excluding the aforementioned traditional songs) whose pieces the band played at the most performances. John Phillip Sousa was the most played composer for the 1900-1929 era but fell to 16th place from 1930 to 1945. Victor Herbert was most popular from 1930 to 1960. Richard Rodgers was most popular from 1961 to 1971.

In a concert in 1967, the band played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical “Carousel.” Pergamit noted the contrast between that concert and the hippie countercultural Human Be-In a few hundred yards away in a different part of the park the previous day. 

The Band’s Centennial Concert in 1982 was held in San Francisco’s City Hall at the invitation of then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein. The musicians’ then-new red uniforms have remained the Band’s standard.

The Golden Gate Park Band is a non-profit organization providing free concerts to the people of San Francisco on behalf of Rec. and Park. Band members are professional musicians and members of Musicians Union Local 6. The band had 30 musicians as of Sam Whiting’s Aug. 1, 2021, article in the SF Chronicle. Due to curtailed in-person events in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID, and changes in funding rules, annual funding for the band can be challenging as around 60% of the band’s 2023 operating budget is from San Francisco Grants for the Arts, and the rest is from donations from the public, according to the band’s website.

The text “Lift Every Voice” in 4-foot, 3-inch-tall bronze-coated aluminum letters on top of the bandshell was unveiled on Dec. 1, 2021, a two-year installation by the non-profit Illuminate the Arts, according to Jessica Flores writing for the SF Chronicle. The words refer to a hymn by civil rights champion James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem,” according to a press release by the mayor’s office.

The Spreckels Temple of Music is at the west end of the Music Concourse. Free concerts at the bandshell by various performers (other than the band) starts on March 1, 2023 according to https://sfrecpark.org/1570/Golden-Gate-Bandshell-Concerts. The 2022 season featured genres like rock, rhythm and blues, soul and jazz. The Golden Gate Park Band’s free Sunday 1 p.m. concerts begin on April 30, 2023.

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