This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Bess Althaus Graham
From the very beginning, outdoor recreation at state parks in Texas included dancing. Following changes in social mores, music, and dress that brought paired dancing to a wide audience in the 1920s, the 1930s expanded the boundaries through radio, movies and phonograph music. In Texas, the German and Czech dance halls combined traditional folk music with popular song and dance to bring Western Swing to the forefront during the decade of the Civilian Conservation Corp’s (CCC) work. Parks provided a new platform for dance.
Dance terraces were designed as an integral component of half the Texas CCC parks. Electric lighting facilitated outdoor dance after dark, a novel concept for many rural park users who used gas lamps back home. While dance terraces were built for park visitors, not workers, the CCC enrollees were often the first to use them, as dances were popular camp social events. Dances continued through the war years, particularly where parks served the armed forces. They continued through the 1950s with the advent of the jukebox and as a summer evening tradition at one of Texas’ most popular parks, Garner State Park.
Dance terraces embody the Romantic notion that nature can be improved using man-made structures to frame and enhance the outdoor experience. Terraces are typically located behind the main CCC park building, placed at the precipice of a steep grade and oriented to a view of the park’s water feature or a scenic vista. Stairs and formal walkways, located adjacent to the main building often provided direct access to the waterfront which brought neighbors and campers to evening dances by boat or on foot. Dance terraces are typically floored with a smooth cement topping and enclosed with a low masonry wall to provide seating for spectators. Before the advent of air-conditioning, dancers on these terraces seamlessly flowed between indoor and outdoor spaces.
While other park elements are described in CCC design handbooks of the period, no specific mention of terraces may be found. Outdoor dancing may have been a regional response to climate in southern states. Configuration of both the terraces and lighting evolved during the CCC decade, reflecting changes in building styles. Beginning with terraces shaped nearly square, these terraces were molded to fit the building enclosures wrapped around them. Lighting also reflected an evolution from square craftsman to round streamline styles.
The significance of dance terraces remains unrecognized, with an uncertain future ahead. Issues include: re-establishment of evening dance programs in parks, noise level regulation, providing interpretation, restoring view sheds by clearing vegetation, and rehabilitation of auxiliary structures. Lighting issues include: identifying stylistic differences in lighting, installing code-compliant wiring, providing supplemental lighting while maintaining historic light levels, maintaining dark skies, integrating energy-efficient lighting and restoring/reproducing historic light fixtures.
Recognizing the iconic value of these spaces as park gathering places provides a unique opportunity to encourage comradery among visitors, deepen the historic interpretation of the parks, add revenue, and encourage more evening use by park visitors and park friends groups.
Bess Althaus Graham, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, works as a historical architect for Texas State Parks’ Historic Sites and Structures Program reviewing changes to a variety of historic buildings in Texas’ ninety-five state parks. Previously, she managed grants for the Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, as well as administered the Historic Courthouse Stewardship Program. Prior to state service, she was a partner in a small architectural firm, worked for the Historic American Buildings Survey, and was a museum specialist. She holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a Bachelor of Arts with Special Honors in History.