For three decades, the art moderne–style Eldorado Ballroom sat on the corner of Dowling Street—now Emancipation Avenue—and Elgin Street in Houston as a prominent Black music venue during the Jim Crow era. Considered the heart of the predominantly Black neighborhood of Third Ward in Houston, the institution was founded in 1939 by Anna and Clarence Dupree, a prominent Black couple who called Third Ward home. But the ‘Rado’s influence reached far beyond the local community. It held national renown as a cultural hub for famous blues and jazz musicians, hosting Duke Ellington, B. B. King, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name just a few.
But the Eldorado suffered two major fires; the first in 1941, and the second in 1953, each originating from the kitchen upstairs. Most of the ballroom burned, losing a lot of its historic finishes. The following decade brought a unique set of challenges to the venue: as the Civil Rights movement swept across Houston: there was a decline in patronage brought on by tensions with the police, desegregation, and a shifting music scene. The Eldorado Ballroom closed in 1972.
But a restoration has been in the works since the ballroom was donated in 1999 to Project Row Houses, a Houston-based nonprofit dedicated to community enrichment in the Historic Third Ward. The institution has a portfolio of successful activations, art programs, neighborhood development plans, and historic and cultural preservation initiatives. Bert Brown III, former board president of Project Row Houses, told AN that the ballroom was a safe space for the community to gather, celebrate, and let loose. He recounted, “People dressed up in their finest here.” For those in Emancipation Park across the street, the ballroom always had its windows open, allowing the music to float into the park. It was an ideal project for the nonprofit to bring back this historic space.
To make this restoration happen, Project Row Houses turned to Stern & Bucek Architects, a firm with experience in historic preservation. The firm was initially involved with the Eldorado in 2012 through a pro-bono accessibility study, but in 2020, Project Row Houses asked Stern and Bucek Architects to follow through with their recommendations. Construction started midway through 2021 and was completed in May 2023.
I spoke with architects David Bucek and Delaney Harris-Finch about Stern and Bucek’s involvement in the restoration. Harris-Finch first expressed her respect of the project’s cultural significance: “This venue was responsible for raising musicians that have really formed the sound of the blues. This space upstairs had a place in what we collectively listen to today and how music sounds today.” Bucek concurred: “What is special is that a lot of the people who performed here are still around. We were able to meet Jewel Brown who, as a young girl, went on stage to audition…and went on to become an internationally renowned singer.” Brown still lives in Third Ward, witnessing the Eldorado come back to life.
Knowing that this wasn’t just any ordinary restoration, the architects’ main priority was respecting what was original to the building. This careful attention allowed them to restore it to its original condition.
For the restoration, the team had plenty of interior images at their disposal, but only one exterior image from 1948. The effort was further complicated when the team discovered that after the 1950s fire, mid-century architectural elements were added to cover up the damage: fur downs, drop ceilings, drywall, and an A/C system with large ducts were introduced during this era. When the team started the restoration process, they uncovered the remnants of original wood paneling from 1939 underneath all the added drywall. Bucek said, “I was shocked how much of the original building was still intact given the ferocity of the fires that were here. We didn’t think we’d find that going in.”
Harris-Finch described the process like “peeling an onion,” pulling back layer after layer to restore the building. The wood was labeled, taken off, restored, and put back into its exact location. The team analyzed the finishes, too: “Every color you see is original to 1939, both inside and the outside,” Bucek said. “[It] takes you back to that period in time.”
Since renovations have been completed, the Eldorado has become a prominent venue in the neighborhood yet again, inspiring musicians like Solange Knowles in addition to other community events. The first-floor retail spaces have also been filled: Passersby can grab a coffee at The Rado MKT cafe or visit an exhibition at the Hogan Brown Gallery. The street level also hosts a Project Row Houses community meeting room.
In addition to these historic restoration efforts, the architects also realized a wholly new addition. The new space doesn’t host any new programs, but instead acts as a crucial piece of supportive infrastructure for the venue and businesses alike, gracefully meeting modern egress and ADA accessibility requirements. The cafe has additional storage and dishwashing space and an all-glass meeting room housed in this new space, and the venue now has two green rooms and their own on-site office.
The Eldorado is now more than just a stagnant time capsule. Harris-Finch described the building as having “this lovely level of just the very basic necessities of daily life, but also [having] some huge cultural elements. That dynamic is incredibly special.” By reactivating it, Project Row Houses and Stern & Bucek Architects have rediscovered the rich history of the Eldorado Ballroom and the neighborhood that it calls home. The ‘Rado faced demolition, but with the efforts of the community and many contributors to the restoration, the heart of Third Ward beats on.
Pooja Desai is a writer and designer at Protolab Architects in Texas.