Fragments from

The Fort Douglas Bandstand:
Ghost Futures and Living Memories

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A bandstand roosts on a spot of grass in historic Fort Douglas, surrounded by trees and an idyllic garden. The Fort Douglas bandstand occupies a central position in this ex-military base nestled between Salt Lake City and the Wasatch mountains. Built in 1862, Fort Douglas once housed an active military community, for which the bandstand was an essential gathering place. Today, Fort Douglas accommodates mostly students and faculty at the University of Utah, and the bandstand remains mostly empty.

Bandstands were abandoned after World War II, and today stand as reminders of past conflict and ongoing tension. As artifacts, they conjure enduring histories of industrialism and colonialism. As empty public spaces that await life and activation, they beg questions about how we express culture, celebrate the past, and shape the future.

Such delicate, gazebo-like structures once dotted the British and North American urban landscape. They drew communities of workers, soldiers, and families together for a little respite from the difficulties of the industrial age. Bandstands embodied a particular way of humans being, both in nature and with each other. For one, they were almost always built in public parks that were carefully manicured antitheses to urban life. They also advanced an increasingly important division that has since become pervasive in the western cultural experience: the separation between entertainer and entertained, between the performer and the passive spectator.

Their emptiness today speaks to the ongoing erosion of public, communal modes of cultural expression that involve the direct participation of community members, or at least their joining together for collective artistic experiences. Bandstands are a part of this long history. By virtue of their construction, bandstands separate performer and audience, raising the performer above the spectators so that the performer can be seen, heard, and distinguished from the relatively passive element below. Bandstands thus represented a movement away from participatory art and music, where people joined together in the act of creation. At the same time, bandstands maintained the desire for togetherness and public experience.

Vauxhall Gardens, c. 1784 by Thomas Rowlandson. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

The first bandstand-like structure appeared in the 1730s in Vauxhall Gardens in England. “Pleasure gardens” like the one at Vauxhall were popular destinations for the well-to-do in early-modern England, who socialized as they strolled among flower gardens, tree- and shrub-lined pathways, and illuminated fountains and pools. The highly manicured physical design of these early pleasure gardens represented English desires for order and control over nature. Pleasure gardens also offered entertainment. Music, tight-rope walkers, and fireworks displays all constituted the pleasures that patrons consumed.

Pleasure gardens thus affected a two-fold disjuncture. As patrons passively enjoyed manicured nature from a comfortable distance, they also ‘consumed’ entertainment in a way that distinguished them as privileged enough to be passively entertained. Whereas preexisting forms of folk music and ritual expression combined elements of group participation, the relatively passive consumption of both nature and entertainment at the pleasure gardens reflected elite desires for distinction. At Vauxhall Gardens, the precursor to the industrial-era bandstand was a two-story structure that physically separated entertainers from the crowd below.

Bandstands became somewhat ubiquitous fixtures in urban parks in industrial England and North America. Access to nature and recreation was considered an important means of mollifying and ‘civilizing’ laborers in the newly industrialized and increasingly urbanized spaces. Many also considered music an important part of this process. As historian Paul Rabbits explains, Victorian urban planners thought that “good music would free the mind of urban griminess and humanise the industrial landscape.” Both music and nature were salves for the brutality of industrial living, and bandstands were a focal point in this healing endeavor. The space of the bandstand mediated between industrial exigencies and human needs for connection with nature and each other.

In the United States, the use of military brass bands encouraged communities to rally around the armed forces. The Fort Douglas bandstand is a case in point. The federal government founded Fort Douglas in 1862 for two main reasons: to police Mormon relations with the expanding American state and to deal with “the Indian problem” that threatened that very expansion. Euro-American settlement throughout the Intermountain West caused significant hardship for Indigenous Peoples. Agricultural settlement and industrial development throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, combined with a general disregard for Indigenous territorial sovereignty, alienated Shoshone, Ute, Paiute, and Goshute Peoples from their traditional economies and territories. In utter desperation—frequently experiencing starvation—and often in response to settler violence, some Indigenous people raided settler communities and mail routes.

An archival photo from 1909 showing a brass band performing or practicing in the Fort Douglas Bandstand.

A brass band performing at the Fort Douglas bandstand, c. 1909. © 2008 Utah State Historical Society.

The economic and political importance of the mail routes and overland trails during this period of national expansion prompted the U.S. government to engage Patrick E. Connor’s Third Regiment California Volunteer Infantry to establish Fort Douglas for the explicit purpose of quelling this so-called “Indian problem.” This culminated in the brutal massacre of over four-hundred sleeping Shoshone people in the winter of 1863.

Though the Northwest Band of Shoshone has fought for decades for public recognition of this event as a massacre, at the time it was celebrated as a military victory by settlers and soldiers alike. Even today, some people in Utah refuse to recognize it as a massacre, and instead refer to it as “The Battle of Bear River.”

When soldiers returned from the massacre, celebrations were held at Fort Douglas. The bandstand drew soldiers and community members together to celebrate the value of military and economic conquest. One of the most profound and yet unresolved disjunctures in American history, the often genocidal relationship between settlers and Indigenous Peoples here represents disconnection of the most profound sort. Though the bandstand bolstered community, it also celebrated and perpetuated injustice. As Laurent Savoy points out, “The past and its landscapes lie close.” The history of American genocide lives on in the architecture of the present at Fort Douglas.

How can this place be lived and enacted in ways that not only acknowledge these difficult histories, but create space for meaningful change? Enacting space in public, participatory ways often strengthens the objectives of social inclusion and just transition. In places like New Orleans, the Balkans, and Brazil, where community bands perform regularly in the street for free, participatory music and dance go hand in hand with struggles for social liberation. This is partly because colonial and industrial societies suppress inclusive, participatory expression. In the American South, New Orleans was the only place where enslaved peoples were allowed to practice traditional African participatory forms of music and dance, and then only on Sundays. Today, the city’s Sunday second line parades remain a celebratory and participatory public affirmation of liberation and resistance.

The Fort Douglas bandstand is constrained by its troubled history. Yet, it might be re-activated in creative new ways, through musical performance, political rallies, or public celebrations. At the bandstand, we might celebrate and bring forth new possibilities for positive social change. We might reclaim and drive forth its architecturally-intrinsic desires for public expression and community and, in so doing, form new relationships with each other and the natural world. Furthermore, by embracing participatory public expression, we might gain a more truly inclusive, participatory culture rather than the nominally inclusive one we claim to inhabit. Art in the public space is outspoken. It joyfully transgresses the line between inside and out. And it invites you to join in—to engage not just the act of making sound and sign but a larger social and cultural movement toward reciprocity and inclusion.

~ Keith Scott (Spring 2019)



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For further reading:

Conway, Hazel. “The Royal Horticultural Society Bandstand Mystery—or, What Happened to the First Cast-Iron Bandstands,” Garden History 29, no. 2 (2001): 214-18.

Madsen, Brigham D. The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1985.

Parry, Mae. “The Northwestern Shoshone.” History of Utah’s American Indians. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2003.

Rabbits, Paul. Bandstands. London: Shire Publications, 2011.

Savoy, Lauret E. Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2015.

Sublette, Ned. The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008.

Turino, Thomas. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.