June 19, 2017, Dowling – the street that runs through the heart of Third Ward – has been renamed Emancipation Avenue. It was one of many changes that have accompanied a series of businesses and developers that have settled in the area over the past decade.
Stakeholders and community leaders have walked a fine line between bringing new life to the area and helping to displace the people who have always resided there. As the Third Ward continues to grow and change, organizations like Project Row Houses ensure the past is not forgotten. The arts and culture nonprofit controls five city blocks and 39 structures in the Third Ward, one of which is preparing for a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Located at the corner of Elgin Street and Emancipation Avenue, the Eldorado Ballroom was founded in 1939 by Anna and Clarence Dupree and was one of Houston’s first African-American clubs. During the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation prohibited the free movement of African Americans in urban towns, the Eldorado Ballroom became a place of refuge for black musicians and music listeners. It was one of many businesses owned by the Duprees and its profits helped support community endeavors such as an orphanage, a nursing home, and the first buildings of the Houston College for Negroes (now Texas Southern University) .
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Eldorado Ballroom captivated audiences with performances by legends like Etta James, BB King, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. The two-story building was created to showcase music, and since its opening has hosted blues, jazz, R&B, pop, and zydeco performances.
In its heyday, “The Rado” was known for its crowded dance floor, where patrons listened to music from national and local artists. The club’s motto was “The Home for Happy Feet”, which was an ode to Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. In 1949, The informantone of the oldest black newspapers, described the Eldorado as “the most aristocratic, spacious and beautiful in the South West, playing only the best in entertainment for your full evening of enjoyment”.
The Eldorado was not only an important rendezvous with the adults; it was a significant force in the lives of many young African Americans in the city. Middle and high school students participated in weekly talent shows and sock jumping. There was already a friendly rivalry between the Wheatley, Yates, and Booker T. Washington high school marching bands, and the Eldorado became a place where many of these musicians competed and honed their craft. It was not uncommon for a student to enter a talent contest during the day and then find themselves on stage that night with Ray Charles.
Last week, PRH announced a nearly $10 million project to renovate the Eldorado Ballroom and give Houstonians a taste of the magic of its past. The building was donated to PRH in 1999 and has undergone a few years of renovations but under this new plan the venue will have a cafe, market, community meeting spaces and a hall the concert. There will also be the addition of a 5,000 square foot annex with a green room, improved washroom facilities, a new elevator and other amenities. The original art deco style, as well as the woodwork, stucco and other finishes, will also be restored to their original splendour.
Houstonians will be able to see the work the group has done in the Eldorado Ballroom in 2023 when renovations are complete.