The Spanish Ballroom is one of the anchors of Glen Echo Park and a draw for nighttime visitors. It was designed by Edward Schoeppe of the Philadelphia architectural firm Alexander, Becker and Schoeppe, who specialized in the design of recreational structures such as dance halls. Fueled by big band, swing, and jazz music, by the 1920s and 1930s dance halls had become all the rage. They represented the democratization of dances that in earlier days had been the domain of debutante and society balls; dance halls were particularly popular among the working class looking for a release from their busy work week. Dance halls flourished as a leisure time pursuit during World War II and like trolley parks, faded with the social changes of the 1960s.
The Spanish Ballroom is designed in the Spanish Mission style but also includes elements of Art Deco. The irregularly massed building includes a single-story, flat-roofed section to the forefront with a two-story setback lit by paired windows with a tile roof, and a three-story tower with a balcony on the second story. Stuccoed walls feature multicolored tile and wood ornaments, including blue tile in the form of a Greek cross on the front tower, red and blue cornice molding, and wood elements resembling the vigas found in adobe structures. The two-story ballroom measures 124 by 144 feet and encompasses a mezzanine or promenade space along the perimeter of the second story. To the northeast of the ballroom is a wide passage with windows overlooking the park and balconies that look out over the dance floor. In addition to these spaces is a lobby, coat check, and refreshment area.
Patrons were charged an entrance fee (twenty-five cents for women; forty-five cents for men) and were required to wear appropriate attire, including a coat and tie for men. They danced the foxtrot, rumba, and tango to live music by orchestras led by Dave McWilliams, Little Joe Hart, Paul Kain, Jack Corry, and Lawrence Welk; live radio broadcasts by Bill Mayhugh were also transmitted from the ballroom on Friday and Saturday nights. Name bands continued to play at the Spanish Ballroom throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Bill Haley and the Comets, Jimmy Dean and the Wildcats, Roy Stevens, Billy Ray, Ray Anthony and others, with patrons dancing the jitterbug, stroll, cha-cha, and the mashed potato. So popular was the ballroom that when it reached its 3,000 person capacity, the overflow customers danced outside.
Schoeppe also designed the adjoining restaurant, the park’s entrance canopy, and the Crystal Pool complex (also built in 1933), which, along with the dance hall, was promoted as a “health diversion.” The Spanish Ballroom replaced the previous Crystal Ballroom and an even earlier open dance pavilion (1911), which was among the original features of the park.
A year-round dance season still draws crowds to the Spanish Ballroom, which can also be rented for private events.
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Price, Virginia, “Glen Echo Park, Spanish Ballroom,” Montgomery County, Maryland. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1997. From Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (HABS No. MD-1080-B).
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Wyrauch. “Glen Echo on the Potomac.” Interviews for film, Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo, Maryland, 1992.