On Juneteenth in 2017, Dowling—the street that runs through the heart of Third Ward—was renamed Emancipation Avenue. It was one of many changes that accompanied a series of businesses and developers that have moved into the area over the past decade.
Community stakeholders and leaders have walked a fine line between bringing new life into the area and contributing to the displacement of the people who have historically resided there. As Third Ward continues to grow and change, organizations like Project Row Houses (PRH) make sure that the past is not forgotten. The art and cultural nonprofit controls five city blocks and 39 structures in Third Ward, one of which is preparing for a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Located on the corner of Elgin Street and Emancipation Avenue, the Eldorado Ballroom was founded in 1939 by Anna and Clarence Dupree as one of the first African American clubs in Houston. During the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation prohibited the free movement of African Americans throughout urban cities, the Eldorado Ballroom became a place of refuge for Black musicians and music listeners. It was one of the many businesses owned by the Duprees, and its profits helped support community efforts like an orphanage, a nursing home, and the first buildings for the Houston College for Negroes (present-day Texas Southern University).
During the 1940s and ’50s, the Eldorado Ballroom captivated audiences with performances from legends like Etta James, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, and James Brown. The two-story building was created to showcase music and, since its opening, has been home to blues, jazz, R&B, pop, and zydeco performances.
In its heyday, “The ’Rado” was known for its packed dance floor; in fact, the club’s motto was “the Home for Happy Feet,” an ode to Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. In 1949, The Informer, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country, described the Eldorado as “the most aristocratic, spacious and beautiful in the South West playing only the best in entertainment for your complete evening of pleasure.”
The Eldorado wasn’t just an important fixture with adults; it was a prominent force in the lives of many African American youth in the city. Middle-schoolers and high school students participated in weekly talent shows and sock hops there. There was already a friendly rivalry that existed between the marching bands of Wheatley, Yates, and Booker T. Washington high schools, and the Eldorado became a place where many of those musicians competed against each other and honed their craft. It wasn’t unheard of for students to perform in a talent competition during the day and then find themselves on stage that night with Ray Charles.
In early May, PRH announced an almost $10 million project to renovate the Eldorado Ballroom and bring Houstonians a taste of the magic from its past. The building was donated to PRH in 1999 and underwent a few years of renovations, but with this new plan, the location will have a café, a market, community meeting spaces, and a live music venue. There will also be the addition of a 5,000-square-foot annex with a green room, upgraded bathroom facilities, a new elevator, and other amenities.
Although renovations aren’t slated for completion until 2023, Houstonians can look forward to the newly upgraded Eldorado Ballroom arrayed in its original art deco style, with period-appropriate wood paneling, stucco, and other finishes. It’s a timely and necessary restoration that will bring one of the South’s most significant cultural hubs back to its former glory.