Preservation Hall

Project Row Houses will revive Houston's first home of black music

"You tell them that when Skipper Lee hit on women, he would find out where they lived before pursuing a relationship," says Lee, owner of a radio station and funeral home.

As the decades flowed by, desegregation gradually began doing its job. Some Third Ward residents moved into then-suburbs. And Houston's growth spawned other clubs, with the popularity of the automobile giving new mobility to those in search of music. Owens blames the eventual end of the Eldorado on a present-day woe: lack of parking. He explains that the city turned that section of Elgin and Dowling into a no-parking zone.

Many musicians got their boost to the big time from the Eldorado's bandstand.
Courtesy of Calvin Owens
Many musicians got their boost to the big time from the Eldorado's bandstand.
Rick Lowe's group will use rent from the building's businesses to revive the ballroom.
Steve Lowry
Rick Lowe's group will use rent from the building's businesses to revive the ballroom.

Rick Lowe, an upbeat, young black artist with dreadlocks, arrives at the square white building in his red pickup truck. Along the sidewalk are the ground-floor shops and eateries: Caldwell Tailors, Lunch Box Diner, Eldorado Barber and Beauty Salon and Dorthea's Devine Designs. Under the tattered awning, he opens a series of bolts on the solid wood door, unlocking this bit of Houston heritage in the process.

For the past several years Lowe has been eyeing the site, located blocks away from his nonprofit art community of 23 small, restored houses. He wanted it both to protect a historically significant place and to provide what the smaller structures of the community could not: adequate space for community gatherings.

As Lowe heads up the stairs, it's easy to envision the ghosts of patrons tromping upward in their zoot suits, arm-in-arm with companions in baby-doll high heels, ready for an evening of revelry.

Reality is much harsher. Over the decades, modifications to the music hall have left it with layers of disguises. A fire, which old-timers vaguely remember, left charred red brick that's hiding behind a mask of old Sheetrock. Squares of plywood crudely joined together with exposed nails may cover a rumored parquet floor that previously accommodated tap dancers and jitterbuggers.

Lowe had been hoping for the property ever since he noticed it was up for lease several years ago. Those hopes were nearly dashed when the building and surrounding land were involved in a real estate deal, reportedly for more than $450,000. But that transaction never went through.

Only weeks ago the owner donated the site to Project Row Houses. While Lowe declined to identify the benefactor, county property records show it is Hub Finkelstein of Medallion Oil, who declined comment. The gift package includes not only the Eldorado, but the 17-lot block bordered by Elgin, Dowling, Bastrop and Stuart, which includes undeveloped green space behind the building.

Lowe plans to use the first month's rent from the building's small businesses to repair plumbing and put a fresh coat of paint throughout the interior, which is worn but structurally sound.

A community meeting will collect wish lists from area leaders, organizers, musicians and artists as the metamorphosis begins. Lowe hopes to capture the definitive history of the Eldorado from those who knew it best. "There is a fondness about it that people remember," he explains.

The Eldorado will serve as a venue for jazz, blues and hip-hop performers. But Lowe also wants to stress Project Row Houses' educational philosophy, so the club will be used for discussions of various music genres. Undeveloped land around the club will be the setting for a sculpture park, he says. Films may be shown, and the building will once again be hosting the Third Ward community.

When it reopens, count on jazz singer Jewel Brown to take a trip that she thought she would never make again -- up the stairs and into Houston's "Home of the Happy Feet."

"He's got a wonderful idea. That's Houston's music history right there," Brown says. "It deserves to be saved. I hope it turns into a success again."

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