Williams Park Bandshell Poised to Get Much-Needed Renovation
Williams Park has long been at the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, with a unique history that dates to the very planning of the city. The block-sized piece of land was donated by city founder John Williams, and it shows up on the first city plat in 1888.
The area opened under the name “City Park” but was, like much of Florida at the time, overrun with palmettos and scrub brush. According to Making of St. Petersburg, by Will Michaels, though John Williams died in 1892, his widow, Sarah, continued to work with volunteers to get the park underway. In 1893, the Park Improvement Association formed and, with the aid of women from the local churches, sponsored a Park Day. Residents came out to clear the land of the unwanted growth and added a fence to keep wandering cattle from walking through.
The City Park’s crown jewel, its first bandshell, was erected two years later in 1895. Residents, led by the Women’s Town Improvement Association, introduced horticulture the land with the addition of magnolias and oak trees.
In 1908, there was a successful campaign to rename the park after benefactor Williams. There is a bit of irony to this as he famously wanted to name the entire city after himself, toying with the idea of Williamsburg, Florida. However, his partner and the owner of the Orange Belt Railroad, Peter Demens, suggested the more romantic-sounding St. Petersburg. Demens, who came from Russia, wanted to name the site for his own hometown. This name was more popular with the residents of the town, who liked its association with European culture. Though Williams Park was renamed decades after his passing, it pays homage to the eccentric man who left an indelible impact upon his town.
The city took over care of the area in 1910, and erected a second bandshell in 1920 at a cost of $10,000. Over the next few decades, the park brought more attention to St. Pete: The Royal Scotch Highlanders Band played during the winters, attracting tourists; Armistice Day brought several thousands to celebrate at the park; Buster Keaton, the famous movie star and comic, was even awarded the key to the city there, during his time filming at Weedon Island in the 1930s.
Time wore away at the second bandshell, and in 1954, a new structure – our current bandshell – was built. It was designed by St. Pete resident William B. Harvard, who also created the blueprints for the iconic pyramid Pier. The bandshell was hailed with great enthusiasm. In 1955, the American Institute of Architects gave it an Award of Merit, which brought national attention, and in the 1980s, the AIA gave the mid-century design the coveted Test of Time Award.
Like its predecessor, the updated stage was popular as a small concert venue, however one of its most well-known “performers” was Richard Nixon who debated Barry Goldwater there in 1964. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush also held rallies in the park centered around the structure. Today it is the shaded backdrop for the city’s Saturday Morning Market in the summer, and is the stage for Localtopia performances.
“The bandshell is truly an iconic structure nestled within the downtown of St. Petersburg,” says Bryan Eichler, assistant director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. But as its 70th anniversary approaches, the bandshell is in dire need of structural and technological updates. Eichler assures, however, that “this building has and will continue to be an important piece of artwork in the city of St. Petersburg’s parks network that brings the community together and connects arts and culture in the heart of downtown.”
The department, which is working to revitalize historic spaces for public use, hired Harvard Jolly Architecture firm – founded by William B. Harvard himself – to do a study of the structure in 2019. The findings revealed that the bandshell itself requires $780,000 in repairs, with $457,600 for the roof panels. Another $500,000 would aid in upgrading the stage with lights and a permanent sound system. This would include plans for collapsible staging platforms to give greater access for performances.
“The goal of the renovation is twofold. First the restoration of the existing structure including the iconic bandshell roof, stage area, and back-of-house rooms. The second is upgrades that include ADA compliance, electrical, mechanical, and acoustical in order to host modern performances and events,” Eichler explains. “The two top repair priorities are the restoration of the roof structure, which is what the bandshell is known for. The second is the ADA upgrades allowing access to all patrons.”
The city is working with the Harvard Jolly to integrate the new elements into the design. Once in place, along with the permits and funding, the restoration project will go out for competitive bidding.
There may, however, be a bit of a wait to see the finished project. “The timeline is currently to be determined on funding. The city council did approve $300,000 for the design and permitting phases. Now, it is posed to approved $850K in an upcoming session from the downtown open space fund. We are also looking into alternative funding including grants, capital improvement Penny for Pinellas funds, and public/private partnerships.”
The St. Petersburg Downtown Neighborhood Association is also pleased with the proposed renovations. It is one of the organizations that has worked on revitalizing the park throughout the years.
“We have restarted our efforts again this year and we fully support the city restoration of the bandstand. Our recent Neighborhood Partnership Grant with the city (50/50 match) is funding part of the refresh in the northeast corner,” explains Karen Carmichael, president of the association.
With all this TLC, Williams Park is poised to take on another century as a cultural center in our city. Says Eichler, “This renovation will breathe new life into a structure that is ready to once again be the heartbeat of the downtown area.”