A farewell to the Festival tent

After 40 years at War Memorial Field, Sandpoint’s most iconic canopy is being retired

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

Last year’s concertgoers didn’t know it at the time, but they’d just attended the final show under the Festival at Sandpoint’s iconic white tent. This year marks the Festival’s 40th anniversary, and the end of 40 years with the tent that has become emblematic not just of the nonprofit arts organization’s brand, but of summertime in Sandpoint. 

The new stage tent after it had been erected July 26 at War Memorial Field. Photo by Ben Olson.

Since the Festival’s founding, two twin tents have sheltered stagehands and music legends alike from all manner of weather. The first tent, purchased in 1984, stood as a memorial to the Festival’s founder Winifred “Fred” Kubiak. It returned every year in her honor until 2001, when the holes grew too large to ignore. In a one-night fundraiser beneath the fraying seams of the first tent, the Festival raised $40,000 to purchase a replacement. 

With the second tent nearing 22 years old this year, the Festival was once again researching a replacement — only to discover that technology had passed them by. As a tensile tent, the structure’s cables were meant to pull away from one another, creating the stress that suspended the canopy and giving the tent its iconic shape. 

However, if one cable were to snap, the entire structure would come crashing down on Festival workers, fans and performers. For this reason, tensile tents have been deemed unsafe for concert venues. 

The Festival and the city of Sandpoint — from which the organization leases War Memorial Field each year for the concert series — adhere to strict safety procedures. This is the first year that the tent has not passed their annual safety inspections. Though the Festival had anticipated replacing the tent in the future, the immediate need for a new design came as an unwanted surprise —  admittedly, some industry members had recommended against buying the second tent in 2001, according to Festival Director Ali Baranski.

The city was unaware until July 25 that the old tent had been decommissioned, according to Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton. The Festival kicks off its summer 2023 series on Thursday, July 27.

“Especially on our 40th anniversary, unexpectedly having to retire the tent was somewhat heartbreaking,” Baranski told the Reader. “[T]hat it is such a big connection to the community, such an emblem, makes it that much more bittersweet.

“The community has such an ownership of this event,” she added, emphasizing how concertgoers will feel this as a personal loss. The first time Baranski saw the tent was life changing.

“I traveled here, on a whim, with a guy that I’d just met, to see the 2010 Michael Franti concert,” Baranski said. 

That “guy” would later become her husband of 10 years. The Festival’s tent was the backdrop for their first date, and that concert was, in her words, “a catalyst for me relocating here.” 

For locals and tourists alike, the tent is inextricably tied to joyful memories and major life events.

The Festival’s tent holds a special place in the hearts of locals, and many have worked diligently over the years to ensure it remained standing. The original tent specifications played heavily in negotiations between the Festival and the city when War Memorial Field was being resurfaced with artificial turf. The tent’s cables — which were originally secured in the ground — could no longer be attached to the field without damaging the new turf. 

Former-Sandpoint City Engineer Dan Tadic explained to the Reader that specialized helical piers were hidden beneath removable sections of turf to accommodate the tent’s exact specifications. These retrofits cost the city around $150,000, according to Stapleton. 

To many, that was a small price to pay to keep the Festival’s distinctive skyline. 

Festival and city officials worked to ensure the Festival was able to maintain its lease, but they knew no solution would be perfect. Even with the special modifications, engineers had to position large cement blocks among the crowd for additional cables to support smaller load areas. 

Without the same tent model, the anchor points in Memorial Field no longer serve a purpose. Until the turf needs to be resurfaced, some 15 years from now, the last vestiges of the big white tent will be left buried beneath its replacement.

“There had never been a conversation about not incorporating that original tent,” Stapleton told the Reader. 

The tent’s presence at Memorial Field for the next 40 years was taken for granted until it was gone.

The iconic white tent at the Festival at Sandpoint was replaced this season due to safety concerns. Courtesy photo.

Both city and Festival officials expressed their regret that the piece of local history must be put to rest, but emphasized that safety is the utmost priority. With the Festival’s initial safety inspection complete, city and building officials, police and the fire chiefs will conduct a final survey to ensure everything is ready for opening day.

Despite the loss, the Festival maintains that there’s a silver lining. The original tent’s shape had an impractically low roof that limited the technology that bands could use during their performances. 

Specifically, specialized lighting and video projections had to be modified or left out altogether to fit the snug space. The Festival’s newly rented stage is an APEX 4240 — the “Gold Standard” for pop-up concert venues, according to Baranski. The APEX’s bulk can easily accommodate bands’ personalized special effects so that concertgoers can see the show as it was meant to be seen.

Longtime festivalgoers will mourn the passing of the tent at this year’s concert, and so in honor of its history, banners depicting its silhouette have been hung from the new stage to serve as, in Baranski’s words, “A reminder for those who know, for those who understand the history.” 

The presence of the canopy will be felt moving forward, with the Festival making tentative plans to include its shape in future branding. Baranski emphasized that they’re “not just throwing it in the garbage.” Part of the tent will be preserved for the Festival’s historical records, and officials are discussing potential ways to distribute pieces of the canopy throughout the community. The preliminary suggestions include giving the fabric to local artists, and even asking future poster designers to use the tent as a canvas.

The Festival’s 2023 poster may share a less literal connection, but it does serendipitously depict a canopy of trees emulating the tent’s shape, rather than the structure itself. Though the design was finalized before the tent was declared unsafe, the poster serves a parting gift to the beloved figure: gone but not forgotten.

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