This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
National Register Documentation of South Louisiana Dance Halls by Emily Ardoin
Emily Ardoin: Good morning everyone, my name is Emily Ardoin. I am talking this morning about a national register documentation of dance hall buildings. Specifically the ones that I’ve been working on are in this region of South Louisiana. The specific format is a multiple property submission for multiple property documentation form. Some of you are probably familiar with these, not all of you. The National Register of Historic Places is the official national list of buildings that are considered worthy of preservation. It’s overseen by the Department of the Interiors, specifically the National Park Service. There are some benefits to having your building listed on the National Register. It’s also not a solve-everything. It won’t solve all your problems. It won’t keep your dance hall open, necessarily, or make money fall from the sky. It also won’t actually prevent demolition of the building or restrict the use in any way, unless there’s some limited protection for federally funded or federally approved projects which Gail’s Club Desire presentation was a good example of how that provides some, but not absolute protection for historic buildings.
What it can do is provide some access to tax incentives or other grants, as Steph McDougal mentioned a little bit about that yesterday. It can provide a certain level of status and encouragement for preservation. It doesn’t necessarily always work like this, but the best case scenario is that it can sort of encourage a community to look at a building in a way that they maybe didn’t before, and help people to rally around the cause of potentially saving a building.
Buildings or properties that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places can be listed individually, they can be listed as part of a district, which is a collection of buildings that are all in one place, or there’s also a multiple property submission, which is a collection of thematically related buildings that aren’t necessarily next to one another. If there is a certain type of building that shares a history, you can submit one of these forms. It doesn’t automatically nominate all of the buildings. Once we submit this, it’s not going to be that all dance halls are now listed on the national register, but it’s intended to help facilitate and streamline the process of nominating individual buildings. In the case of Acadia Dance Hall, you don’t have to say, “Well, it started in Nova Scotia,” every time that you want to list an individual building on the National Register.
Let’s see. The components are here. It establishes the historic context that all of these properties have in common. What is their story? What are the components of that story? It includes Statement of Significance, how do these buildings contribute to that story? Why are they important? It establishes one or more building types. You try to categorize buildings, describe them, what is it, and what makes it what it is, essentially. Then there’s a list of registrational requirements, which is the qualities that an individual property should have or retain in order to be considered eligible for the National Register.
Ideally, if this works properly, you should be able to use it as a template for an individual property and sort of be able to determine whether it’s likely to be listed on the National Register. Then you can point to things like those historic context, the descriptions, the physical characteristics, things like that in your nomination for the individual building. This is just an example of what the form looks like. It’s much longer than that. That’s just one page.
Dance Halls overall, even dance halls in Louisiana, even dance halls in south Louisiana are very complicated. The history is very muddy. It’s very difficult to box them in, which is exactly what you’re trying to do with this form. It can feel a little bit counter intuitive to go through this exercise, but it also really kind of forces you to really dig into the history, the sort of nitty-gritty of the physical characteristics of these buildings. In Louisiana specifically, as you’ve heard before, we had quite a few of these resources in the past. Not many of them are still there today. The ones that are there, many of them have been neglected, have just deteriorated, and are in very bad shape, and are in danger of being lost already.
In this case, I narrowed my study to a geographic area, and then I kind of started by looking at the properties that I knew were still there, and sort of almost working backwards trying to establish a context and establish a story for those buildings in this area. This is the geographic area that I used. It’s the area officially designated as Acadiana in the southern parishes of Louisiana, the French-speaking parishes of Louisiana. You can see on the right that map is actually started with [inaudible 00:06:13] data from the list of buildings and locations that he started to compile, and mapped them with GIS. You can see that the distribution of dance halls of these type really kind of follows that Acadiana region pretty closely. This center is in what’s known as the Cajun heartland, the kind of heart of those parishes.
The kind of guiding factor that I used for these properties was music. There are three types of music that are considered indigenous to this region: Cajun music, Creole music, including Zydeco, and swamp pop. Those were the three historic contexts that I ended up writing. This is very, very basic. It’s intended to be added onto later. There are more aspects of each of these contexts that can be added. Each of these contexts can probably be divided up into three or more shorter time spans, but for the beginning so we have something to work with, this is where we’re starting.
The first two contexts sort of follow the two cultures that are prominent here, Cajun and Creole. They cover a time period from about 1900 to about 1985, which actually corresponds with the buildings that we know still exist, even though the context actually starts in the mid-18th century when people started to settle in this region. Swamp pop is a much shorter context. It’s more related to the music. It’s a genre that was explored by both black and white for a very relatively short period of time, about 10 years. Fell out of popularity, but overall the cultural development during this time period for both Cajun and Creole people here follows a loose pattern of relative cultural isolation, either speaking almost exclusively French, to gradual assimilation and growth, larger communities, more influence from popular culture, from the rest of the United States.
Then sort of after these contexts are over, a period of cultural promotion. Tourism started to become a big deal here. The Cajun and Creole culture started sort of promoting themselves to everyone else out there, and it came a little bit more about that, and less about internal community gathering and that sort of thing, although that was still a factor. Swamp pop fell at a time that sort of represents the peak of that assimilation, right before the cultural promotion era began in the late ’60s.
When you talk about the Cajun and Creole cultures in south Louisiana, you can’t really have one without the other. Both influenced each other tremendously, although they were still separate, mostly because of Jim Crow segregation, racial issues. They were both primarily French speaking, used the same types of instruments, mostly agricultural. There are a lot of parallels in their stories, as far as the music and use of dance halls. The contexts, even though there are separate contexts for each culture, each references the other quite a bit.
Just some very brief points about the development of Cajun music, Acadian settlement in the mid 18th century, also Anglo-American and other European immigrants who were in the area. That’s why you have a lot of Cajun McKees here in Louisiana now. The Acadian cultural norms eventually became the dominant social norms here, and everything kind of melded together more or less. Started with house dances that were usually a couple of musicians in a corner in a house, gradually moved toward commercial dance halls. I think the first reference of public dance hall that I found was in the 1860s, but it certainly became a lot more common into the 20th century.
That, in turn, had a pretty profound effect on the music, as musicians moved into larger spaces, they needed more volume, playing for larger crowds, could fit more musicians. In the ’20s and ’30s, you had a lot of the accordion, which had been used for a while, and it dropped out. Everything became sort of string-based and had a lot of western swing influence. After World War II when people came back from the war, there was sort of a level of homesickness that caused kind of a resurgence of the traditional Cajun music, but at the same time, it was the rock and roll era, people here were discovering Elvis Presley right along with the rest of the United States. That’s when swamp pop really began to develop.
Creole music, obviously you have African Americans coming here for slavery, also Haitian revolution settlement in the very late 18th century. There were musical styles, musical traditions that were more Afro-Caribbean influenced. They still spoke primarily French here. Dance halls, I didn’t find as many references quite as early here. It’s sort of a chicken or egg thing, but it seems like dance halls really became more common with more urban music style gaining popularity, R&B. They were very common by the 1940s, but it was maybe more of a 20th century thing. Also had house dances that became less common as time went on.
The larger dance halls are reported do have led to a faster dancing style, less variation in the music, and what kind of ended up being considered Zydeco, which is very fast dance type of music. Trail rise in the 1970s are included in this context very briefly. It was sort of an ode to the cattle ranching lifestyle of the 19th century. Those are still popular today, and there are certain dance halls that have “ranch” in the name. Frank’s Ranch in Lawtell would be an example of that that were commonly used for the big dance at the end of the trail ride.
In the 1980s, there was sort of a resurgence of Zydeco music as I read it in a few places. I checked a couple times first. A couple people told me that the song “Don’t Mess with My Toot Toot” by Rockin’ Sydney in 1985 sort of saved Zydeco music for the youth at that time. Zydeco music is still very popular today, as we all know. Then swamp pop developed sort of like rockabilly music in the early 1950s. People in this region were hearing rock and roll music, trying to emulate it, but still retained some of the influences of the traditional music of the region. The term “swamp pop” wasn’t coined until I think the 1970s. It wasn’t intended to be its own thing, necessarily, but as I said before, it does sort of represent the peak of assimilation. You even had band members changing their names to sound more American, even though you do have a couple of baddos in this photo who hadn’t necessarily changed their names.
Okay. I concentrated on one building type, even though there certainly are more that can be added later, and I’ll talk about that. What is a dance hall? We see one here in Mamou in 1919, shows up on a Sanborn map. We have several of these that show up on Sanborn maps early on in very small towns, Shatania, Basile, which are somehow in the Library of Congress scanned for us to find. Pretty much in every small community that’s represented in this way in the first half of the 20th century, you can find a dance hall somewhere one year. Mamou actually had two this year in 1919. It’s a large building. It’s larger than most of the buildings around it. That’s an example of a Wednesday night dance in Mamou in 1953 in the same part of town.
I can tell you what a dance hall is not. One example is actually one of the places where Cajun music and Cajun dancing is most popular now: Fred’s lounge, which is on that same street in Mamou, but it’s a small building. It was always intended to be a bar. I talked to Tante Sue, who is technically retired, but still basically runs the place. She said that it was never intended to be a place for dancing, but she admitted that dancing had really been a large part of it since the very beginning. It opened in 1946. Lounge, I’ll mention that later, is a separate building type that could also be incorporated into this submission at a later time.
Dance halls, as I’ve defined them for this are constructed or repurposed specifically for live music and dancing. “Repurposed” because a lot of these building really did start out as stores, different large building types that were just repurposed for dancing. They primarily hosted music of one of the three genres that are considered indigenous to this region. Most of them were privately owned. They did evolve from house dances. They were commercial buildings, so they did have some influence or some incentive to make money, which probably made them more likely to bring in bands of other genres, whatever was popular at the time, which in turn, influenced the Cajun and Creole music. It gets very muddy.
There were other genres. I think some Creole dance halls that started out playing swamp pop music eventually ended up playing Zydeco music when that became the more popular genre. As far as these, they’re not tourism oriented. They’re internal community spaces. They’re not oriented outward. I included this statement, also. It’s important to note with these resources that overall they’re in very poor condition. There aren’t very many that are left. Many of them have sat vacant for long periods of time. They’re deteriorating. Essentially we don’t have a whole lot to work with, as far as listing a lot of properties on the National Register.
These are just some examples of the physical characteristics that I pulled out of a survey of basically all of the dance halls in this area that I could still find that were still there. I know there are some more that have turned up, and I’ll be expanding and adding to that as I can. You can see in bold a few examples there. Interior configuration, obviously large open floor space, stage [inaudible 00:19:12] by elevation or a balustrade on the floor. Some that were built later in the 1950s and ’60s, the ones more associated with swamp pop had mezzanine levels, more complicated floor plans, sometimes multiple bars. Then later on, I think this was more 1970s, 1980s, but I did notice several Zydeco dance halls that had a small service window that opened directly onto the dance floor that had a kitchen beyond it. You could just order food right at the dance hall. That seemed to be limited to those buildings.
Setting and use: where can you find these buildings? That’s part of this description as well. Community centers, either in or outside of community centers, whether that’s a town or whether it’s a rural community. Something that I didn’t mention here also is there were several that I found that were outside of the center of the community, but on someone’s private property. If someone lives on a property, they have some extra space, they built a dance hall and opened it there. There were two that were still standing that still had the … They were vacant, but the original owner was still living next door. It was still there on the property. Then there was one, I think, that had been, but had recently been torn down. Some are located in mixed use buildings. There are a couple that are located on campgrounds and function as sort of the community gathering center there as well. Those were kind of more mid-20th century. There are also dinner clubs that were mostly mid-20th century as well, mostly associated with swamp pop music.
Then sub-types that fit with the three historic contexts, Cajun, Creole, Zydeco, and swamp pop. The biggest distinction really between the Cajun and Creole halls is whether they were white owned or black owned, and attended by Cajun or Creole people. Down below those photos you can see there aren’t a whole lot of distinctions between the building types, but there are a couple of little things that are somewhat distinct. The swamp pop dance halls that were built at a time when there were highways being built, they’re built along highways. They were larger. A lot of times they tried to have a more upscale environment. If you went to the southern club, you might have noticed the call buttons on the columns next to the tables where you could call your waiter. There was much more of that sort of trying to create that environment that isn’t really present in the other two types.
The National Register outlines a system of criteria of significance. If a building is important, it can be important for one of these basic reasons. There are three criteria that fit somewhat with these dance halls, primarily criterion A, which is associated with events that made significant contributions to the broad patterns of our history, so that the pattern of that history is music and cultural development in this region. There is a possibility for significance for a specific dance hall under criterion B, which is association with a significant person or event. No, criterion B is association with a specific person. If there’s a dance hall that was either owned by a significant musician or a significant musician was the house band, [cliptonsheer 00:23:10] played here is not a qualification for criterion B. If you’re familiar with the historic preservation cliché “George Washington slept here.” [Cliptonsheer 00:23:18] played here is sort of the equivalent of that for Louisiana dance halls, but the dance hall that he owned could certainly be considered significant under criterion B, for example.
Criterion C, architecture and design. These buildings are not particularly architecturally distinct from other vernacular commercial architecture in the region at the time or from other dance halls and regions with similar climate. There was for a period of time in Cajun dance halls, there were a couple of features. One was the dog pen where the young men had to stay basically in this sort of penned in area between dances. That was unique to these. Also there was a separate room where people would leave the very young children while they danced that was prominent in early Cajun dance halls. Fell out of favor later on as children weren’t allowed in the dance halls at all after a certain period of time. We don’t know of any left that have those features still, but if we found one, certainly it would be eligible, I think, under criterion C for those specific features. Here are a couple of examples. This is a dance hall near Crowley in 1930. Thank goodness for these WPA photographs, because they show it very well.
Registration requirements: this is the part that still needs the most development. This is the part of the form where you’re supposed to outline what do you have to have, what do you have to still have in order to be eligible for the National Register? A lot of these buildings have been heavily modified over time. They’ve deteriorated quite a bit. I’ve tried to make the registration requirements as open and inclusive as possible, but I’m still working on them. Integrity for the National Register purposes, there are ways to evaluate integrity, which is how much a building retains basically the essence of what it was historically, and how well it still conveys that visually.
As far as the essential physical features that would be required, I think for dance halls the overall form and the interior configuration are the most important. Here’s a picture. The bottom left corner her is what used to be Abe’s Palace in Eunice. It was built in 1901, and on the exterior it’s a very common looking two-story brick commercial building on Laurel Street in Eunice. The second floor was a dance hall beginning in 1901. It closed in 1940, and there are reports that they played this kind of music there. They played Cajun music there mostly. I believe Amadara performed there. Now the interior, I think they still have the original floors, and in some places they still have the old pressed tin ceiling, although some of the panels have been taken off and kind of used for wall finishes and things like that. The whole second floor is now divided up into luxury apartments. It doesn’t convey the sense of a dance hall anymore really at all.
There are seven aspects of integrity that are included in the National Register of Historic Places. These can’t all apply, for the most part. Location, there are a couple of dance halls that have been moved. That normally automatically pretty much disqualifies a building from being listed. The location is important for these, because they were the heart of community, or they were out in the country. At a certain time they were on the interstate between two towns later on. The location or the context changed over time as the culture or the music developed. That’s an important part of their significance.
The design, of course, the configuration of the dance hall. Setting, although some, I know Hamilton’s Place specifically in Lafayette was out in the country when it was first built. Now it’s swallowed up by the city. For the most part, a lot of these buildings still have the similar setting to when they were first built. Materials and workmanship are a little bit more grey. There were not very high quality materials used. There’s been a lot of deterioration, as far as the materials go.
Integrity of feeling and association I think are particularly important for these. Essentially it has to feel like a dance hall. Here’s an example of a building that I’ve been told is the same building. I think it needs more investigation to really know that for sure, but this is at one point in time it was called the French Casino in Mamou- downtown Mamou. It’s this building that’s outlined in red here. In the late ’60s it was moved out to highway 104 in sort of a complex next to a lounge. The front façade was completely changed. It was put on a different foundation.
The interior of the building, it’s hard to take in all at once, because it’s full of furniture, but it still very much conveys the sense that it’s a dance hall. It’s still the big large open space, but with it having been moved, the façade having changed so much, that one is a little bit tricky, as far as whether it could still be eligible. You could maybe make an argument that it was moved in the period of significance, since the period of significance is so broad, and it sort of what two different types of dance halls in two different eras, but I don’t know about this.
Later on I think we can add more building types that are related to these same historic context. Certainly more historic context can be added as well, covering different genres, R&B, jazz, that all had dance halls associated with them. In larger cities, New Orleans is a big one, there aren’t any dance halls in New Orleans that are included on this nomination right now, but also building types. Lounges, there are lots of bars that were not built intended to be dancing spaces, but that ended up being large gathering spaces for dancing. Fred’s is a classic example. I don’t know if there are any residences that hosted house dances very early on, but if there were, certainly that would be an option as well. Church and community halls that had public dances as a secondary use could also be another building type, as well as stores.
Later on, starting in 1980 with Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, you started to have these a combination Cajun restaurant and dance halls. If you’ve been to Randall’s here in Lafayette, that’s an example. Those are relatively recent. They’re not necessarily historically significant yet, but I think they certainly will be. It sort of represents the next era of cultural development, sort of in that cultural promotion time period where we were trying to introduce ourself to the rest of the world and saying, “Come in and experience this.” A lot of those are still operating today.
A pretty significant thing about them, I think, is that they reintroduced children to the dance hall experience. Children weren’t allowed in many of these dance halls by the 1970s, 1980s, and these were intended to be family friendly places where the whole family could come and enjoy and learn. Festival grounds also, I don’t know, I haven’t explored that possibility really, but a lot of the Cajun and Zydeco dancing that happens now and has since the 1960s has been outdoors as part of cultural festivals. That’s definitely something to consider, I think, in the future as well.
Recording studios, less oriented with dancing, but commercial recording certainly did have an effect on the development of the music, particularly swamp pop. I think that would be something we might consider in the future as well, but we’re starting here, the three historic contexts, the dance hall building type, and really kind of delving into what that is, what we have left, and what makes them eligible so that we can hopefully list as many of these as possible in the National Register. The real test of it is going to be when we start trying to actually nominate individual buildings using this form. There might be some changes that come along when that happens, but I’m very open to feedback, suggestions for how this might be developed further.
Despite their significant place in the cultural history of south Louisiana, regional dance halls have so far received little recognition in any official capacity, including the National Register of Historic Places. I am contributing to advocacy efforts by developing a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form for extant historic dance halls in the region. Once completed, the multiple property listing will simplify the nomination process for individual dance hall buildings, giving them access to increased recognition as well as federal and state tax incentives and limited protection from federally funded or approved projects. Completing a multiple property listing requires classifying a group of related buildings as a type, describing their shared historic significance, and identifying what qualities an individual building must show and retain in order to be considered eligible for listing. This process raises significant questions for regional dance halls: How are they best defined collectively as a type? Because so few buildings remain and many are in poor condition, how strictly should we consider whether a building retains its historic significance? This presentation outlines the preliminary categories and criteria defined for dance halls as well as considerations for future development and expansion of the form, including additional building types. It also explores challenges for National Register listing presented by the nature, development, and conditions of these buildings, which are not well suited to strict categorization or requirements. The form in progress defines typical and variable characteristics for one preliminary building type: Dance Halls. It includes historic contexts for Cajun, Zydeco, and Swamp Pop music and the role of dance halls in the development of these genres. Registration requirements establish criteria for eligibility of individual dance hall buildings, including significance under National Register Criteria A, B, and C as well as integrity of association and interior configuration. The property type descriptions and registration requirements are intended to be as inclusive as possible, embracing the nature of the building type. While applying dance hall buildings to National Register criteria presents numerous challenges, it also helps us to better understand the character-defining features of these buildings and how best to preserve their physical forms. As the completed form will assist with National Register of Historic Places nominations for individual buildings, the related research serves to deepen our understanding of these important cultural resources.
Emily Ardoin left her home state of Louisiana in 2012 to pursue a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from the University of Texas at Austin. Her interests in architecture of the recent past and vernacular buildings, and perhaps a bit of homesickness, led to graduate research on twentieth-century dance halls in south Louisiana. She now oversees the preservation and maintenance of ten historic buildings at The Heritage Society in Houston Texas and serves on the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission.