Historic preservation is rarely quick or easy.
Just ask Little Rock’s Kerry McCoy. She fell in love with Taborian Hall in 1991. Bill Clinton wasn’t even the president yet.
Almost two decades later, she’s still trying to restore the old place.
Here’s how she describes it at the website www.dreamlandballroom.com: “I first fell in love with Taborian Hall from its outside appearance, a stately, three-story, red brick building, standing alone on Interstate 630, abandoned, with a huge hole in the roof letting in the sun and rain. I always envisioned my company, Arkansas Flag & Banner, housed in a building of such grandeur.
“After driving by many times, I finally got up the courage to come inside. Stepping over debris and skirting the homeless people, I worked my way to the third floor and … it was beyond love at first sight. Because the roof was missing, birds were flying around and the sun was illuminating the room. Staring across the open hole in the floor to the Dreamland stage and box seats, I had a feeling that was indescribable, a kind of euphoria. It could have been because I was pregnant with my third child and my nesting instincts were heightened, but whatever it was, it sent me on a chain reaction that I have never regretted.
“I love this old building and have had many offers from people wanting to purchase it, renovate it, make a club of it or some apartments and even a school. But I keep to my original vision. Maybe it’s not the best business decision, but it’s a decision of the heart — to renovate the Dreamland Ballroom into an event center to be shared with the whole community. If you are ever lucky enough to go upstairs and see the Dreamland, I think you will feel its magic too.”
McCoy created the Friends of Dreamland, a nonprofit organization to raise money for the restoration. Additional information can be found at the website. Those wishing to donate also can call (501) 255-5700 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taborian Hall, at the corner of Ninth and State streets in downtown Little Rock, was part of the Ninth Street business corridor. For years that corridor was, in essence, the Main Street for blacks in Arkansas. Earlier known as Taborian Temple, it was built for the fraternal insurance organization known as the Knights and Daughters of the Tabor. A black contractor named Simeon Johnson went to work on the building in 1916 and completed construction two years later.
More than 1,500 people were in attendance for the 1918 dedication of Taborian Temple.
In August 1918, the Negro Soldiers Club opened on the first floor to provide a recreational outlet for black soldiers stationed at Camp Pike. The building also would house the offices of black doctors and dentists, along with a pharmacy, through the years.
The website picks up the story in the 1930s: “By 1937, the Dreamland Ballroom was firmly established on Taborian’s third floor. The popular dance hall with its famous ‘swing floor’ was a hotbed for big bands, jazz and blues and the scene for dances, socials and basketball games. It was a regular stop for the Chittlin’ Circuit, a national touring company of professional black entertainers, revues and stage shows.
“With the advent of World War II, the USO bought the building and turned the first to the third floors into a club that served thousands of black soldiers from Camp Robinson and the Stuttgart Air Base. The Dreamland ripped and rollicked during those war years and beyond with legendary musical artists including ‘Fatha’ Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, and comedians Redd Foxx and Sammie Davis. Local stars cut their musical teeth in the Dreamland too.”
The Taborian Temple became known as Taborian Hall in the early 1950s and soon housed the Twin City Club in the basement, the Waiters Club on the second floor and the Club Morocco where the Dreamland had been. B.B. King and Ray Charles were among those who performed on Ninth Street in those days.
By the early 1970s, though, what was known as urban renewal (but was actually the massive destruction of city neighborhoods across the country) had laid waste to the Ninth Street corridor. Taborian Hall stood empty until McCoy purchased it in 1991.
She estimates the cost of fully restoring the upstairs ballroom to be $1 million. She had hoped to finish the third-floor restoration work in 2012, though the Great Recession has slowed fundraising efforts considerably.
The Friends of Dreamland’s new executive director is Amber Jones. The native Arkansan is an Arkansas Tech graduate who earlier had worked at Curran Hall. An initial $50,000 will be used to install hardwood flooring on the third floor so fundraising events can be held there.
Ann McCoy, Kerry’s mother-in-law, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this year: “My favorite thing now is the view from the big windows. You can see the Capitol building, Philander Smith. It just has a beautiful view.”
A recent story by Becca Bona in The Daily Record described Kerry McCoy this way: “It’s important to note that McCoy is one dynamic individual. She has always been a go-getter, apparent from her hard work of starting a business when she was 20 years old with a mere $400. When the lively entrepreneur fell in love with the crumbling building, she knew that a project would ensue. She didn’t know about the inside of the building until later. … She said she had planned to restore the third-floor ballroom and make it open to the public by 2000. Unfortunately, the price range for renovation was always a hair out of her reach.”
McCoy told Bona: “I love this project, but it’s overwhelming. I can’t stand lost opportunities.”
Let’s hope Little Rock’s business leadership, which has failed to capitalize on so many opportunities through the years (note the impending destruction of historic Ray Winder Field by UAMS), will step up to help Kerry McCoy achieve her dream while preserving an important part of this state’s largest city.