- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

It was 56 years ago, but Fred Decker still remembers the night in 1947 when he stepped inside the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo Park and met the love of his life, Pauline.

“It was the first time I had ever been [to the ballroom],” said the elderly man from Riverdale. “I’m from Virginia and she’s from Washington, D.C., so there were closer places for both of us to go dancing other than this. She was there with some friends and, out of the blue sky, I happened to be there.”

Mr. Decker married Pauline two years later, and their marriage continues to endure.

However, the years were not as good to the ballroom. In recent years, the historic building at 7300 MacArthur Blvd. had fallen into such disrepair that it was in need of a face lift. A $4 million one to be exact.

Yesterday, Glen Echo Park reopened the ballroom to cheers and applause after it had been closed to the public during the yearlong renovation. The north arcade building, which houses administration and arts classes, also reopened after renovation.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland Democrat, and former Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, were among the dignitaries who attended yesterday’s celebration.

Mr. Duncan, whose mother visited Glen Echo Park as a child, called the refurbished ballroom a “community jewel.” “Lots of people had their first dates at the Spanish Ballroom, or like Fred and Pauline Decker, met their future wives and husbands here,” he said.

The ballroom first opened on May 6, 1933. It was one of the park’s newer attractions. Glen Echo Park used to be an amusement park, equipped with a roller coaster, a carousel and a bumper-car pavilion.

Back then, the ballroom was a $50,000 structure designed by Alexander, Becker & Schoeppe of Philadelphia and constructed by local organized labor. It boasted 7,500 square feet of dance area, according to the National Park Service.

An art deco-styled building, the one-story ballroom was built to resemble a Spanish-style pueblo, a dwelling with a flat ceramic tiled-roof and painted wood detailing. Its post-renovation improvements include a restored lounge and concession area and new restrooms.

As it did before its renovation, the ballroom will host weekly dances and classes, with styles ranging from waltzes to square dancing. The dances, which are held year-round every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, were held in the bumper-car pavilion during the renovation.

The building, designed to hold 1,800 people, was a social dancing venue from the 1930s until 1968, when waning popularity forced the park to briefly shut down. During its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, the ballroom attracted thousands at its dances.

Before it shut down, Glen Echo Park had been involved in controversy. In the midst of the civil rights movement, local residents boycotted the park because it was racially segregated. In 1971, the federal government took over the park after local residents exerted pressure to protect it from development.

“There are many among us who remember this park as a place of exclusion,” Mr. Duncan said of the park, which eventually was integrated. “The fact that so many in our community could not have entered this park in years past simply because of the color of their skin is repugnant to us today. As we celebrate and move forward with this project, let’s never forget the injustices that occurred and never allow them to be repeated.”

Since 1971, the National Park Service, which oversees the park, has offered year-round activities and programs in the arts, theater and dance there.

Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture Inc., a nonprofit organization formed in 2002 by Montgomery County officials and the Park Service, is in charge of managing the park’s facilities and programs.

Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service, said the ballroom will be run by a “seamless network of state and local [government] and national parks working together.”

After the dignitaries ushered in the new era of the ballroom’s legacy with a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday, dozens christened the building with song and dance.

The band, consisting of a violinist, flutist, cellist and pianist, began playing as soon as the ribbon was cut. Dancers of all ages and skill levels glided and stumbled on the dance floor. The more graceful dancers mercifully guided their less-coordinated partners into rhythm.

The Deckers, who have seen the ballroom change from its beginnings to its current state, sat in chairs on the outskirts of the dance floor and took in the scene with interest. Though they occasionally still like to make the party scene, recent ailments have forced Mr. and Mrs. Decker, now in their 80s, to temporarily put away their dancing shoes.

Nevertheless, they had a good time watching others move to the music, as headband- and bandanna-sporting seniors cut the rug with youngsters. No one seemed to mind the lack of air-conditioning as they packed the floor for nearly every dance number.

A gala on Sept. 20 will continue the park’s celebration of its make over, as well as raise funds to support the park’s programs. Ticket prices range from $75 to $250 and can be obtained by calling 301/320-7757.

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