The Dreamland Ballroom

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 friends@dreamlandballroom.com.

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.

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9 Responses to “The Dreamland Ballroom”

  1. Bubba Wayne says:

    Can you do a little research on the Quapaw Club? A friend of mine has a framed membership from his great grandfather and all I can find is that it was listed as one of the top 100 mens clubs in the country in the very early 20th century. Most of the members I have seen were Dr.’s, Lawyers, and Bankers. It may have been located across the street from the Peabody. I bet much of the economic decisions for central Arkansas, perhaps the state, were discussed in this place.

    Ever heard of it?

  2. rexnelson says:

    I am not familiar with the Quapaw Club (though I was once a member of the old Flaming Arrow Club at the Quapaw Towers). I will see what I can find out — Rex

  3. Amber Jones says:

    While historic preservation has become an integral part of the Little Rock landscape, our buildings and landmarks continue to be endangered everyday. Historic places and buildings help us remember our history and 9th Street, Taborian Hall and the Dreamland Ballroom have quite a history to be remembered, to be shared and to be built upon, once again. It is the mission of the Friends of Dreamland to bring the community back to Dreamland, for the space to used as it was intended and to share the significant history of the visionaries, the professionals, the officers, and the musicians that made the building hum with life. How fitting it would be for the Little Rock business leadership to join us in telling the story of another Little Rock business leadership, of another era, who thrived in a time of great adversity. Thank you, Rex, for choosing to feature Dreamland, as well as historic preservation responsibility – it’s up to all of us. Amber Jones, Executive Director, Friends of Dreamland

  4. Kay Tatum says:

    The Quapaw Club was on the second floor of the old Zeb Ward building at the corner of Markham and Chester. (I think that’s right–trying to picture the streets) It’s where Riverside Bank is now. I have an invitation for an event there in 1899 hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Hanger.

    The following account was taken from the GAZETTE on September 14, 1900 regarding Mr. Hanger’s death:

    The Quapaw Club, of which the deceased was president, will attend the funeral in a body and the club rooms will be closed today out of respect for his memory.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Kay, sounds like it was the club for all those at the top of Little Rock society.

  6. Bubba Wayne says:

    But, I think it would not be Chester. Think it would have been on the corner of Markham and Louisiana, across from the Capitol Hotel. I got that somewhere on line but cannot remember where.

  7. What’s great about Dreamland is that McCoy and her historian, Berna Love, have documented all the musicians who played in the Ballroom. Their website shows a number of advertisements for all the great musicians who played there. With a long history of music, business, and service, Dreamland is really a treasure of Arkansas African American history.

  8. Kay Tatum says:

    The Quapaw Club was in fact on the second floor of the old Zeb Ward building at the corner of Markham and Chester. Riverside Bank owns the building now. I have toured the 2nd floor with AHPP’s Sandwiching In History tour and they shared the history of the club. It was the Athletic Club (Old Boathouse) that was at Markham and Louisiana. Many of Little Rock’s business men were members of both.

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