One of the nation’s most acclaimed venues for Black musicians is getting a major facelift. The historic Eldorado Ballroom, also known as “The Rado,” was founded by Houstonians Anna Johnson Dupree and Clarence A. Dupree in 1939, when segregation laws prevented Black Americans from socializing in the same venues as whites.
Project Row Houses, whose mission is to empower people and enrich communities through engagement, art and direct action, leads the project with an investment of $9.675 million that will bring the Third Ward building back to the cultural, social and economic hub of the community that it once was.
The rehabilitation will include restoring the original 10,000-square foot building and its historic fixtures and finishes. Although two fires destroyed much of the interior of the building, whenever possible, wood paneling, stucco and other original finishes and fixtures will be rehabilitated and preserved.
To allow for adding modern features, Project Row Houses is adding a 5,000-square-foot annex. The annex will have space for community gatherings and meetings, a green room, a space for brides and bridegrooms to prepare for weddings, an elevator and upgraded restroom facilities.
The original façade included “ribbon windows,” large windows that ran the length of the ballroom facing Emancipation Park. The ribbon windows will return to the upstairs exterior, returning to the modernist style of the original building. The project is expected to be complete in early 2023.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Eldorado Ballroom was one of the nation’s most acclaimed live venues for Black musicians and audiences and hosted performances from stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, B.B. King and local legend Lightnin’ Hopkins.
In the early 1970s, the ballroom was closed to the public after a period of economic stagnation and was gifted to Project Row Houses in 1999 by Hubert Finkelstein. It received a Texas Historical Marker in 2011.
The rehabilitation and renovation work is led by global real estate development and management firm Hines, with architectural design by Stern and Bucek Architects and construction by Forney Construction. In keeping with Project Row Houses’ mission to support Black artists, creatives and craftspeople, the building team surpassed the goal set by the board of directors for minority contractor participation.
In addition to the rehabilitation of the second-floor ballroom and the construction of the annex spaces, the first floor of the building, which originally housed retail offerings ranging from appliances and furniture to a barber and a tailor, will be renovated to feature a café and community market, a nonprofit art gallery and flexible meeting and community space.
The $9.675 million campaign, co-chaired by Anita Smith, Hasty Johnson and Chris Williams, has received support from the Project Row Houses Board of Directors, Kinder Foundation, Houston Endowment, Brown Foundation and a diverse range of long-time and newly-engaged Project Row Houses supporters.
“Project Row Houses is grateful for all who have joined us to make this project possible,” said Eureka Gilkey, executive director of Project Row Houses. “The Eldorado Ballroom, from the moment its doors opened, has always been the soul of the Third Ward.
“As creative placekeepers with a deep commitment to our neighborhood, Project Row Houses is as proud to be preserving the history of this storied venue as we are to be preparing it to serve as a center for Black art, culture and community long into the future. We can’t wait to celebrate with our friends, partners and neighbors when the lights go down, the band hits the stage, and the ‘Rado is reborn.”
Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation said, “Our investment in the Third Ward and Project Row Houses remains long-term in focus and our support of Eldorado Ballroom recognizes its unique place in Third Ward and Houston history. We are proud to support the effort to restore this jewel of the community and bring the building back to life, restoring a cultural resource and social center that will continue to have a meaningful impact on the neighborhood and its residents.”
“Eldorado Ballroom holds a distinct place in the history of the Third Ward and Houston. We at Hines have been honored to be able to bring our expertise to the renovation of this landmark and to assist in bringing the building back to the needed community gathering center in originally was,” said Hasty Johnson, vice chairman of Hines.
“This has been an extremely special project to work on because the building was more than a musical venue, it was a gathering space that brought the community together and it’s rare when a building like that survives,” said David Bucek, principal at Stern & Bucek Architects.
“The building exudes optimism. It was quality space and it is going to be returning to that, and will allow for generations of residents to be in the space together creating new memories.”