Excelsior's concrete band shell — a plain but popular outdoor music venue that held a prime spot in the city's big lakeside park since the classic-rock era — is gone. It will be replaced by an open-air pavilion designated for concerts and other gatherings, movie screenings and events.
The $1.2 million pavilion is the first on a list of upgrades planned for the Commons, Excelsior's 13-acre public park on Lake Minnetonka. Construction is scheduled to start in March, with completion expected in July. The old band shell — which opened on July 4, 1976, celebrating the country's bicentennial — was demolished last week.
The switch has sparked social-media debate over the two structures' aesthetics and acoustics, with some praising the sleek new pavilion and others mourning the loss of the familiar old band shell. Meanwhile, some musicians said they won't miss the old concrete shell.
City officials wanted a more versatile structure, said City Council Member Jennifer Caron. The pavilion is intended "to be used by the public to sit in and enjoy a shady spot and the views, read a book, meet friends," she said. "The old band shell did not get used unless there was a concert. It was not a place that was regularly used to 'hang out.' The new pavilion will attract users every day."
The new structure will feature a 56-by-25-foot concrete floor, open on four sides, with steel poles propping a roof with a curvy shape suggesting waves or a sail. The open-air design is intended to frame views of trees and the lake, but the structure will come with screens that can be installed on one or more sides when temporary walls are desired.
The Community for the Commons, a nonprofit fundraising organization, contributed $259,000 to the project. That included $23,000 that the Excelsior Morning Rotary Club raised in a 2019 series of concerts in the band shell — midweek events where better-known performers drew audiences of up to 3,000 in this city of about 2,400, said Rotary President Tammy Schwartz. The city of Excelsior is covering the rest, using designated park department funds and proceeds from a local 0.5% sales tax.
"The original band shell was really sort of narrow in terms of its use," said Eric Snyder, president of the fundraising organization's board. "What we really wanted was a multiuse building that could support big events, such as concerts, and smaller, more intimate events, like weddings."
In surveys, substantial majorities liked the new pavilion's design, Snyder said. But a Facebook post bidding farewell to the band shell drew hundreds of comments debating the aesthetics and sound quality of the band shell vs. pavilion. Opinions ranged from people who hated the band shell's stark appearance ("an ugly concrete bunker") to those sad to lose a landmark they've known since childhood.
Marc Churchill sides with the band shell — his father, architect Dwight O. Churchill, designed it, he said. Other projects by the elder Churchill, now 91 and living in Florida, include working with famed architect Ralph Rapson on the former Guthrie Theater building.
"The Facebook thing, to be honest, kind of weirded me out because I'm one of those super sentimental, sensitive-type people," Churchill said in an interview. As a musician, he played in the band shell in high school bands and, decades later, still performs in Excelsior coffee shops.
The band shell's minimalist design reflected both 1970s style and the city's limited budget. A receipt kept by the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society indicates a cost of about $29,000, or about $133,000 in today's dollars. Even then, the design was controversial — a public hearing about it was standing room only, and a group circulated a petition supporting a band shell, but objecting to the design the City Council had approved. "We don't feel a cement building would be right," said a resident quoted in a newspaper clipping.
The design is what the city wanted, Churchill said.
"I was really proud of that band shell," he said. "It was part of my childhood and my memories of my dad."
In other interviews, music-industry professionals familiar with the band shell said they were not fond of its shape and sound quality.
"The [old] band shell always had a cold styleless overall feel, in my opinion," said Stymie Seamans, a member of the Daisy Dillman Band, which played in it many times. There was an echo off the concrete back wall, Seamans said. "I'm sure the new [pavilion] will be a big improvement."
Rico Anderson, manager for the Lamont Cranston Band, another frequent Commons act, said the old band shell's ground-level stage let the audience "just walk in right next to the band … interrupt the show and trip over cords." He noted, though, that the pavilion's floor will also be close to the ground, although partly shielded by shrubbery.
Some commenters expressed concern about the acoustics of an open-air pavilion — arguing that live music needs a back wall for sound to bounce off and that the structure will let "all of the sound escape and blow away on a breeze."
Neither will be a problem, said Tom Garneau, a Minneapolis audio engineer who once worked at Paisley Park. The old band shell was "fine for its time," he said, but modern technology has eliminated the need for a shell shape.
"I take issue with people that don't really understand acoustics complaining about the new design," he said. Sound-reinforcement equipment is now widely used and eliminates the need for sound to reflect off a rear wall.
"I would think the takeaway is that there's just a lot of nostalgia," Garneau said. "It's changed and people are afraid of change."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583