Spirits of the City

Claus Spreckels and the Creation of Concert Valley

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

Illustration by Paul Madonna.

The band shell, one of the most beloved features in Golden Gate Park, has attracted music lovers for 120 years. But few people realize that the Music Concourse, the large sunken oval that the band shell faces, was created for the first and least known of San Francisco’s three world fairs — or that the band shell stands on the location of one of the wildest architectural fantasies ever to be built in the City.

The Spreckels Temple of Music — to give the band shell its full name — was dedicated on Admission Day, September 9, 1900. A crowd estimated at 30,000 to 100,000 filled the Music Concourse, then known as Concert Valley, for the festivities. Claus Spreckels, the most important of the dignitaries to speak, had paid $75,000 of the $79,000 it cost to build the 80-foot-high structure. The sugar magnate told the huge crowd he had made the gift ingratitude for the benefits California had conferred upon him as an immigrant from Germany. He said he had chosen to build a band shell because music was universally uplifting, and he was determined that concerts given there would always be free.

As the Golden Gate Park Band played, many of those in attendance would have had vivid memories of the 1894 Midwinter Exposition, which had taken place right where they were sitting. The Midwinter Fair was the brainchild of San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael de Young. Inspired by Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, which had opened in 1893, de Young proposed that San Francisco should host its own world’s fair, using many of the international exhibits from Chicago. De Young argued that the fair would showcase California’s mild winter climate, and it would be cheap to put on because the exhibits were already in the country. Additionally, he declared, the festivities could be held rent-free on unimproved land in Golden Gate Park.

The site chosen for the fair, Concert Valley, was carved out of the sandy wilderness by workers using teams of horses pulling plows and scrapers.The Administration Building, an over-the-top Siamese-Indian architectural fantasy, was erected on the site of the band shell, near the equally overblown California Fountain, an allegorical monstrosity whose creators threw in every Golden State cliché, from a grizzly bear to gold miners to cherubic winemakers.

When the fair ended, the Administration Building, the California Fountain and just about everything else on the grounds was destroyed. The few exceptions included the Japanese Tea Garden, the sphinxes in front of the de Young Museum, the Cider Press sculpture — and Concert Valley itself.

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