Saving the halls of swing
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson calls them the “Carnegie Halls of western swing.”
But if you are old enough to have waltzed across Texas, you know them as dance halls.
When I wrote about these two-stepping temples in 2013, Stephen Dean of Texas Dancehall Preservation, Inc., was working to chronicle their stories before they disappear. Deb Fleming is carrying on the work as president of that group.
“There were probably a thousand at the heyday,” she said. “Today, fewer than 400 of the historic halls still operate. Many have lost their function or are abandoned and vacant.”
This issue is a raw one to Fredericksburgers, with the image of beloved Turner Hall burning to embers last year.
Fleming places still-standing dance halls into four categories:
1) Those that actually function as public dance halls, either full or part time. This group includes Gruene Hall and Luckenbach Dance Hall. They still operate with regular dances and concerts.
2) Those that may have one public dance a month, but also serve as rental spaces, hosting private parties and wedding receptions. Examples in the area are Twin Sisters, Kendalia and Anhault.
3) Halls that have been repurposed into antique stores, storage or other retail use.
4) Halls that are vacant and have fallen into disuse, such as the ones in Hye and Cherry Spring.
As any Texan worth their boots and barbecue can tell you, dance halls are not just buildings. There is a whole other culture built up around the iconic buildings, often handed down by immigrants who settled the state.
Is the TDHP preserving the structures or the culture?
“All of the above,” Fleming said. “First, we are focused on stabilizing that last group, those halls that are vacant or for sale. They are at risk and in declining mode.”
To that end, they have been awarded a grant by the Texas Historical Commission to do physical assessments of halls. A preservation architect visits the sites and looks for water infiltration and foundation issues, then recommend steps to keep it stable. The idea is to develop a tool kit that caretakers can use.
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