Restoring the Two-Step: Illuminating Texas Dance Terraces

This presentation is part of the A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Bess Graham, Texas State Parks

Bess Althaus Graham, Texas State Parks

Bess Althaus Graham: Good morning, so delighted to be here. That was my boss, Cindy Brandimarte, that just spoke, and we have such a great, talented team at Historic Sites and Structures. Dennis Gerow is the other architect, the two of us cover the state. We work directly for Texas State Parks, and Jennifer Carpenter sitting here in the blue dress is our other historian, besides Cindy, and we have an archivist also who had to hold down the fort for us while we came here.

Today I’m going to talk about a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, which kind of plays into Linda’s presentation wonderfully on amphitheaters. She did a lot of heavy lifting for me, and Ethan Carr gave us a wonderful background on many things so far as park philosophy that I was going to touch on in my presentation, but which I’m going to cut a little bit short.

As Cindy showed you, our map. As you’re probably well aware, we have 96 parks. I think I put 95 on here. 29 CCC-built parks, and at least 20 of those have significant outdoor spaces in them, and that’s what I’m going to talk about are these outdoor, open air spaces.

Most of Texas is in the same area as the population of our state, the central area, and these are the parks I’m going to be speaking about, and this is also the area of Texas where people attend parks nearly year round, and always have. Summer is a great time of year for parks with water, but Spring and Fall are our big seasons, and really all year long, so these outdoor spaces are extremely important to us.

You’re probably familiar with this book, The Good Book as we refer to it, our Bible in the office, Albert Good’s Treatise on Rustic Design and Philosophy. I was fascinated to read some of the text in it because mostly, as an architect, I’d looked at the pictures, but I did do a good bit of study looking at it, and was fascinated by his attitude that Linda alluded to towards state parks. National parks have what he considered to be unique features, and state parks had lesser features that perhaps didn’t merit the same structural trespass taboo that the national parks did, where, in other words, it would be sort of heresy to build in the significant natural feature of the park in a national park, but in a state park not so much. In fact, he felt that we can perhaps enhance what’s otherwise maybe a somewhat not so unique feature in state parks by bringing beauty to purpose with these buildings.

So, in thinking about that, I wanted to go ahead and look at … The first four examples that I give you here are directly from Good’s book, so you can look them up if you want to, and what I wanted to just emphasize here is that these buildings serve a gateway function. These are the combination buildings in each of our parks, the main buildings, you’re probably well aware of that, that are at the heart of parks in state parks, usually a concession, sometimes a bath house, sometimes a refectory, which is a dining room or had a dining component to it, but for the purpose of this I’m just going to call them all combination buildings, because they typically combine several purposes in the park.

They always are a gateway to whatever the natural feature they’re trying to highlight in the park, and they typically, in the beginning, they’re long skinny structures and you walk through the entrance to kind of a perching place, there’s usually a pergola on the back of this one. Or through, this is like Corpus Christi, onto mainly a patio, these were more patios, and a pergola over here of some type or cover, and they kind of surround the building, so they’re more just a perching space to look at this feature.

As we went along, those were in 1934. This is an earlier one, Palmetto, in South Texas, where you come through an open pavilion and then into a large terrace, and this begins to show a direction that these buildings started to go to enlarge terraces, because these outdoor spaces were equally important to these parks where a lot of the action was taking place. In a sweltering environment that we have, especially in the summer in Texas, you want to be outdoor, especially if there’s some shade, but mainly you want to be where you can get a breeze. At Bastrop, you walk through this space originally, it’s changed a little bit, and then out onto a terrace that looked to the pool complex, and there was a very formal arrangement originally that linked the bath house and the pool to this beautiful circular terrace.

But what began to happen was these terraces got bigger and squarer. They weren’t like these skinny spaces at the beginning. This is at Big Spring in West Texas, and then at Abilene in Northwest Texas, Abilene State Park, and these were much bigger spaces. You’re starting to see a seating wall that goes around, a low wall that you can sit on. You’re starting to see places for lighting, which I’ve highlighted here. And Big Spring originally had two similar lights on it, on this pavilion. And so the question is kind of, well, what’s going on with these larger and larger terraces?

I also noticed the extreme formal axiality of many of these site compositions, which is another thing that I wanted to just point out, because I was just fascinated with it. But here at Dangerfield, we had a bath house in combination building that you walked through, very large terraces, big as the building, overlooking this lake and the beach, but these very formal axes to the view, and that’s a key component of these buildings, is this very formal axis despite the rustic, vernacular style of the buildings themselves and the materials they’re built with. They’re very Beaux-Arts in my opinion as an architect in overall site style, and I think that’s the training from the 1920s and 30s that the architects had, was this very axial, formal, composition on the landscape.

Lockhard combination building and dance terrace

Here again, you see it here in Lockhart State Park. It went all the way through the drive up, the circular drive at the front, through the building, on on out on top of this hill that this combination building is posed on. And here, in the correspondence for this building, we start to see what’s going on here. We see that all of a sudden the superintendent is pleading with the National Park Service to please build a dance terrace, that this is a community center for the city of Lockhart, and its residence. And many of our parks were more than just a place for outside people to come and visit, they were community centers, this was a place where the community was beginning to gather.

So what is going on? Of course Good published his treatise in 1938, or the second edition I guess, and Linda talked a bit about that, and there’s barely anything in it about terraces at all. He talks a little bit about it’s good to have a patio for shade in the summers, but he doesn’t talk about terraces, some of them appear in his book, a few, but I think he missed the boat. I thought it was fascinating, because, I think Linda saw this on her amphitheaters on the first round of Parks and Recreations Structures, and I don’t know that it was his fault, but about 1937, as I did my research, I realized that was really such a watershed year, during the Depression.

All of a sudden all of these things were coming together. Radio was suddenly very, very prevalent, becoming very prevalent in homes, and in Texas these are homes where people got radios and ran them off of car batteries, that’s how much they wanted to be connected to the world. But we also had great musicians coming up, Bob Wills in Texas, so it was regional music, but we had all types of music, bluegrass, country, folk, and then these new renditions on it that Bob Wills represented combining many of these traditions.

We also in Texas have a huge, long history of dance halls. So I’ve shown you one of the most famous and oldest dance halls in the state, Gruene, but these dance halls had represented certain communities, mainly of Germans and Czechs, in Texas, and those communities were beginning to disintegrate. They were very tight-knit communities, and very isolated communities, in the countryside, and about the time of the Depression of course people were going into town to get jobs and leaving these farms and ranches. So we see sort of the decline of these dance halls at the same time, in the midst of the Depression, and suddenly I think our park system was starting to fill a void for people to come together and for the first time maybe to meet and mingle with other people around the state at our parks.

So I just wanted to show you a park that has a fantastic dance terrace, Lake Brownwood in the central part of the state, where this superintendent was also talking about many requests received for a place where visiting parties may dance. I mean, this is all in the National Park Service correspondence, where they’re pleading that they need, you know, people are just coming out of the woodwork asking to dance at the park.

And so in Brownwood it’s fascinating because in order to bring the locals from Brownwood, the city, over to the park, it’s much shorter to go by lake in a boat than to go all the way around the lake to get to the park. So they built this huge staircase down to the lake, and there had been a dock down here, there isn’t any longer, and the staircase is kind of falling apart, but you came up the staircase to this lookout house and then to the dance at the back of the building, and then all of this was lit. There are many types of lighting, that was really the original reason I started digging into this whole topic, because they not only had lighting which was very typical on this back terrace, which you can see too the lights right here on the terrace, but also they lit this lookout house and then there was lighting integrated into this grand stair down to the water. So you could see it at night as you came in on a boat or left on a boat, it was a beacon to the local community to come to the dance.

And this was also a park later during the war, or actually before the war, that had a training camp stationed in it, so it was a huge military installation. So the locals were coming out to dance with the soldiers at the park in the 1940s.

Gardner State Park Pavillion engineering plan, 1938.

Garner State Park, this is one of the largest dance terraces, along with Lake Brownwood is another really large one, that was being designed at the same time in 1937, the terrace was. It also has a lower terrace that’s flagstone. But it has all of the characteristics that came to be key and typical in most of our parks. It has the low seating wall we talked about, the smooth cement topping that’s best for dancing on the floor. It has the beautiful natural vista, and then tree wells, which you can see one right there, several actually, there’s one right there.

And I’m going to show you the lighting that was on the walls, and still on the walls, at Garner. These wrought iron brackets, beautiful craftsman style, which good, very much appreciated, this was his quote here. He loved the “wrought iron against the background of native stone.” And so this building was mostly complete- I love this picture because it’s got the jukebox right here, that’s what you’re looking at the back of, onto the terrace. It was completed about 1939, but I dug into a little bit on when power arrived at our parks, and how it arrived, since they were very rural, and it’s interesting. It was completed around 1939, but they didn’t get electric power until 1941, so I’m not sure exactly, they must have had everything wired and ready to go, but it was kind of interesting that they didn’t have lighting.

Wrought iron light at Garner State park

At Garner, it’s a much more rural park than Abilene, or even Big Spring, which are closer to cities, and right on the drawing for Garner it said “power service by REA” on it, which I found fascinating. So what you have to realize is that less than 3% of farms and ranches in Texas were electrified at the beginning of the Depression, so you had about half a million people, a third of Texans were living without electricity. They had usually kerosene lanterns for lighting at that time. But 1935 was the date that FDR and the Congress passed the Rural Electrification Administration, REA, and in Texas it took until about 1939, some of the central Texas coops got organized in providing power. I think that explains why Garner did not get power until 1941, because it took a while to get the infrastructure in place.

So I’m just going to give you a couple of quick examples of some of our other dance terraces. By 1938, this was like standard plan for parks that were going up. We have Buescher, that is kind of the partner park to Bastrop State Park, east of Austin. And this one was another one that was definitely a community center from the get go. The city of Smithfield really asked for everything at this park, they wanted a full ballroom here I think. They didn’t get it. The lighting is gone on this one, so I don’t show an example, but you can see that the terrace is just as big as the building on this plan. See the building and the terrace here.

This was Fort Parker, another 1940 park. So by 1940, this was just standard. We have the dance terrace, you see it here on the plan. It’s just as big as the building. And then the lighting is beginning to change. We have fixtures that are more round, a little different aesthetic from the earlier square craftsman lighting.

Tyler Combination Building dance terrace.

And then Tyler State Park in Northeast Texas, completely different park, this is kind of our Art Moderne park, with streamlined building that you can see a little bit of here at the bottom, and then this completely round dance terrace that just shows that these had become design elements in their own right. And this very strong axis through the building and on out to the lake that was out here. But dining and dancing.

Here’s another view of the dance terrace. So you have the same, typical features, but a newer, more modern style, but the same key elements that were in the earlier dance terraces in 1940. On top of the hipped roof that the building had, which was also unusual to have a hipped roof, is this massive flood light that I found just recently on the drawings. I had seen the drawing, but I didn’t realize it was supposed to be on this mast on top of the roof shining down to the dance terrace to highlight it at night. And this one also has these twin diases that kind of overlook the dance terrace next to the dining, which was really cool.

And then finally my last example is just to say that not only did these parks, this was a kind of recipe for all the parks for combination buildings, but also parks were going back and retrofitting their picnic shelters. In this case, this is at Bonham State Park, up in Northeast Texas, and they had this fantastic picnic shelter on the lake that was U-shaped. They came back and filled it in with this slab for their dance terrace, says right there “new dance terrace,” and I haven’t been able to find lighting on this yet, but anyway. So that’s kind of a cool example.

And at Bastrop they went to huge trouble to take up what had been a flagstone terrace, that round terrace that I showed earlier, they took all the flagstone up, replaced it with a smooth cement topping, and redid the wood floors on the inside of the building, all for dance, so it was crazy.

So I just want to talk about the issues with these dance terraces in our parks. The biggest issue I think is that these buildings have lost their gateway function. I mean, that happened in the 1960s and 70s because, as Cindy said, we had our own little renaissance and funding surge in the 60s and 70s and we built visitor centers like crazy. So these buildings became secondary, they’re no longer the primary building in the park, and they’re mainly rental spaces, so they really house private functions mostly, you go an rent the whole thing and maybe there are dances going on out there at family reunions and such, but it’s not something that the park visitors are coming to. So, that’s kind of an issue, that’s a big issue.

We have no historic interpretation that I’m aware of about dancing in the parks, which was an activity that was just as important as hiking, picnicking, fishing at these parks, it was considered right up there as a main use, and in Texas even in 1938 we were already doing surveys to find out, compiling statistics on who was coming to parks and why, and day use at that point was already the top use in 1938, so people were coming to the park to dine and dance, that’s why we were there. But we don’t really have any interpretation. Our staff is unaware of it for the most part, so we’ve got a big job to do to give them this extra story to tell in our parks, and we certainly don’t have signage or anything talking about what these spaces were designed for.

One of the bigger issues is that at many of the parks this viewshed has been overgrown with underbrush. We just let things grow up so much in our parks, because we’re so afraid to cut, and we’ve been cutting a lot more for fire safety because we have to in Texas State Parks, but our program has also been funding pruning and removal of undergrowth starting on a couple of these dance terraces so that people will be more aware of it, because some of these you walk out onto and there is no view. So it’s just kind of like okay, we just have this nice picnic area back here, you know? There’s no understanding that no, there’s a lake right over there, you can’t see it at all.

Then there’s a whole issue of some type of holistic site restoration, including these auxiliary structures like at Lake Brownwood that help you understand how the terrace operated and what it meant to the community. To restore that stairway that went up to Lake Brownwood and that lookout house, and get the lighting all operating. In my dreams.

And then we’re working almost fixture by fixture to repair or replace, replicate, some of these historic light fixtures. [Inaudible ] working on two chandeliers for us right now, I found that out. But besides that, we need to be thinking about safety, there are certainly safety issues with lighting that we have to address in state parks, such as at steps, having some type of directed lighting at steps.

But at the same time we’re trying to protect dark skies in our parks, it’s a big issue for all of our superintendents who are getting certified in dark sky sustainability these days.

And then energy conservation and the cost is always an issue. But we want to be able to keep the historic light level on these dance terraces as well, so we don’t want to overlight.

But the biggest issue is to have statewide programming to put these dance terraces back into use for dance, I think that’s going to be the biggest issue.

So it’s an issue of infrastructure, programming, interpretation, all these issues that we’re constantly thinking about, and national resources in our state parks that were constantly interlinked with this one micro-issue that I’m focused on, but I find that fascinating.

Just wanted to give you a quick view. This is Garner State Park, and from my understanding they’ve had an evening dance in the summer there every evening since 1941. So it has never died at Garner, and so it’s a great activity to bring families together, to bring strangers together in parks. I don’t think we have enough gathering places in parks anymore, where everyone’s just kind of doing their own thing, and this is a great place for that. So I wanted to leave you with Garner, and that’s the end of my presentation.

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