Photo caption: This 1930s photo shows how trolley cars used to run right up to the entrance of Glen Echo Park, then an amusement park. (William F. Brewer - Courtesy of the Richard Cook Collection)
Friday, July 18, 2003; Page WE27
Glen Echo, the 17-acre arts park on the banks of the Potomac, was whipped up by an eggbeater. In 1891, two brothers, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, patented a reversible version of this indispensable device and staked the fortune they made from it on transforming this lush and still confoundingly remote forest into a major Washington attraction. True to that dynamic era, the two young tycoons were enterprising, exuberant and, above all, vastly risk-taking. They built a trolley line to the site and then constructed a magnificent chautauqua park, a retreat where adults could attend classes, concerts and otherwise refresh their spirits. In one stroke, they united the twin principles of the Victorian era: getting rich and self-improvement (which, of course, was measured by how rich you got).
Everything the brothers built for Glen Echo was on the grandest scale: A 6,000-seat amphitheater was created out of granite with the chisels and hammers of 300 stonemasons imported from New York, and a castle-like restaurant was constructed from 30,000 cedar logs.
Alas, it seems the brothers' fortunes were as reversible as their newfangled eggbeater. The chautauqua opened to great acclaim, but fateful (and false) rumors of a malaria infestation spread. After its first season, Glen Echo was largely eschewed, and its marvelous landscape of Victorian back-to-nature architecture dismantled or slowly tumbled into nearby Minnehaha Creek.
New investors ventured into the park in 1899, and so began the rollicking era of the Glen Echo amusement park, its gaudily lit rides powered by the abundant electricity of the old trolley line. For 70 years, plunging roller coasters, supersonic gyroplanes and the great swing sounds coming from the Spanish Ballroom thrilled Washingtonians.
The amusement center closed in the late 1960s, but the fun didn't stop. Glen Echo took root in the early '70s as a community for the arts, sprouting sculpture and photography classes, theater, country music festivals and lots and lots of social dance. Under the auspices of the National Park Service, a younger generation turned their first pots there, saw a puppet show or played a bumblebee in one of Adventure Theatre's children's productions.
Though the spirit of Glen Echo persevered, physical neglect took its toll. Today the great news is that Glen Echo is undergoing a massive historic renovation, one that will bring back the excitement and charm of its earlier days and move it squarely to the forefront of Washington's facilities for the arts. Saturday the park will celebrate the reopening of two centerpieces of its restoration, the art deco Arcade and the mission-style Spanish Ballroom. The marvelously redone ballroom will open its doors to live music and dancing for the first time in more than a year, and Glen Echo will revel in its parkwide renovation, with ribbon-cuttings, arts demonstrations, backstage tours of the new puppet theater and nonstop carousel rides.
"It's a paradigm shift," NPS Ranger Stan Fowler says philosophically. Another monsoon rain has swept across the park, and Fowler is drying off under an infrared heat lamp in the band shell of the old "Dodgem" bumper car ride. Fowler and his legions of volunteers have transformed the building into a rustic dance pavilion, ensuring Glen Echo's many dances will continue unabated throughout its renovation. (The pavilion will continue as a second dance hall when the Spanish Ballroom opens on a regular basis soon after this weekend.) Right now, the hall's transparent tent walls are up and its warm interior exudes a rich aroma of fresh heart pine.From the Dodgem's slight elevation, you can view the fanciful tabernacles of Glen Echo in one satisfying sweep: The Spanish Ballroom, imperturbable as a Franciscan monastery; the ice cream cone top of the Dentzel carousel; the Flintstoney Chautauqua Tower (which harks back to the park's earliest incarnation); and the art deco whoosh of the old Arcade followed by its long, penny arcade tail. All of this is within 50 paces and all of it somehow forms a perfectly logical ensemble -- even the kids weeding the grass rooftops of the yurts (Mongolian huts used for art classes) seem absolutely natural in this small fantasyland. Amid the heavy grind of asphalt rollers and forklifts putting the finishing touches on the Ballroom and Arcade, Fowler reflects on the magic of Glen Echo and the forces that have sustained its special spirit. But this 25-year veteran of the park also mines something deeper from the collective alchemy. Fowler, an avid dancer himself, uses the metaphor of social dance to describe the unique role that Glen Echo has played in the Washington area. "Glen Echo has always had a folk ethic," Fowler emphasizes. "Think of the concept of the country dance: You approach a stranger and ask them for their hand; you are comfortable in each other's space; the music ends and there's no awkwardness. Like the traditional barn dances after spring planting, tension is diffused in a nonthreatening way. Social dances provide a safe way to teach social skills, and Glen Echo has provided that good country feeling."
Social dancer Donna Barker, a professional instructor and performer who runs Glen Echo's Sunday afternoon waltzes, expands on this sense of a little country acre where you recognize a larger community and, more importantly, your inviolable place within it. "Social dances, like waltzes or contra dances, naturally create a community," says Barker. "There's an unwritten etiquette that you dance with everyone and that you accept everyone. Each time you change partners, you bring out your best with the next one. Your sense of communication and accommodation develops really quickly." The way Barker describes it, those long face-to-face lines of contra dancers are like the warp and woof of a loom, weaving a community as they dance.
The shine of refurbished, viable facilities is clearly a boon for Glen Echo, but one senses some trepidation that this wealth carries hidden perils. Fowler's "paradigm shift," from freewheeling, grass-roots community to a more formal organization, sends tremors through some old-timers. When asked what they hoped for from the renovated Spanish Ballroom, their answers were telling. Barker hoped that "We'll still have lots of dances -- and they'll still be inexpensive enough for the community." Fowler was deeply protective of the Ballroom's marvelous sprung maple floor, considered by many to be the greatest dance surface in the area. "Do anything you want with the ballroom -- just don't mess with the floor," he cautioned. Judging from the meticulous renovations and upcoming programs, they can both rest easy.
A Magical Reincarnation
The chief preservation architect for the renovation, Michael Holleman, is interested in sequences. Proper ones. Holleman wants to re-create the same raw excitement visitors might have felt as the trolley came to a halt at the entrance to the park decades ago. Every magic land deserves a magic gateway, and Glen Echo had a grand one: Its 50 feet of scintillating, neon signage was the first indication that you had arrived in another dimension, one promising bold, brash, high-sugar-content pleasures. Passing under its two soaring art deco pylons, aglow with glittering ropes of color, would have begun your transformation from a cautious and considered citizen into an insatiable thrill-seeker, perfectly willing to enter a human centrifuge or plummet, in stomach-dropping freefall, down a 90-foot drop. Happily, this invitation, complete with its 1930s cartoon palette, blazes from its original footings once again. As you emerge from the gate, the restored Arcade building now looms on your left, like the shadowed hull of a ship at full steam. Holleman describes his discovery that the 1940s building was dilapidated beyond repair as "a tragic moment." But the reconstruction successfully preserves the footprint and lines of the old Arcade while introducing special features to accommodate an extraordinary array of modern functions. It now has a two-story-high serpentine glass block wall that will naturally illuminate many of the hundreds of art classes offered by the park. The building will also host a glass studio, complete with a kiln, state-of-the-art photo facility, park emporium, "birthday party" room and, most intriguingly, the only theater in the nation specifically designed for puppetry. There's more: Future refurbishment of the "tail" of the Arcade will house both the venerable Adventure Theatre and a museum display of the amusement park's old Shooting Gallery.
Photo caption:A detail from the meticulously restored 1920s Dentzel carousel. (Scott Sullivan - For The Washington Post)
Step out from the Arcade and head down a small slope on your right and you'll see the marvelous 1920s Dentzel carousel. Its roaring lions and galloping chestnut bays were fully restored to their plumed and gilded glory last May, thanks to private funds from an anonymous donor. Through a grove of tall oaks, you'll then see the Spanish Ballroom, the crown jewel of Glen Echo and, according to Holleman, a real challenge to renovate. The grand ballroom had suffered a number of indignities, even housing a Jungleland Ride on its upper promenade at one time. "The very delicate task ahead was to restore the proper sequence of spaces and recapture the real sense of procession into the dance hall," says Holleman. Aided by friends of the NPS, Holleman sleuthed through 1940s color photos to faithfully reproduce the original details of the old hall.
The results are pretty breathtaking. Not Library of Congress breathtaking; something else makes you draw your breath. Part of it is the audaciousness of devoting this much artistry to the sheer purpose of having fun, just to kick up your heels till the wee hours of the morn with a thousand other carousers.
But there is also the romantic ambiance of the ballroom itself. Just beyond the superbly restored Spanish entrance lobby -- featuring massive posts and elaborate ironwork grilles -- spreads its vast ballroom floor, fully circled by a rhythm of open arches with small columns. This is a dance floor you don't simply step onto; you voyage or sail out onto it. When you do, you become aware of the great height of the ceiling and then a long, eye-level series of windows that open onto the treetops rustling amid this forested hillside. The building seems utterly porous: It breathes in tendrils of country air and nature seems to reciprocate, its tranquility cushioning the frenzy within.
Then you notice something a little odd: The bandstand's proscenium is styled in vintage art deco, and all those columns surrounding the dance floor are stenciled in vibrant, edible colors of tangerine, cherry and mint. It doesn't add much to the Moorish atmospherics. Que pasa? Perhaps a nod to 1930s Americana? The ballroom doesn't let you forget that it is not a museum of style, but rather pure folk fantasy. Add folk temperature control, too, by the way. "Some traditions around here will never change," laughs Holleman. As in the past, dancers will have to rely on body heat in the winter and plenty of cold water in the summer. Certain crucial amenities have been updated, however: a full-scale concession stand, indoor plumbing and, finally, a first-class speaker system.
More plans in the wings: the 1914 Yellow Barn Art Gallery and Studio will be rebuilt from scratch; the Chautauqua Tower will be restored for art displays and studios; the Caretaker's House will be updated for art classes and studios, and the Candy Corner concession stand will be restored for use as the National Park Service interpretive center.
Finally, the exterior housing of the carousel -- that emblem of Glen Echo through all its ups and downs -- will be freshened up, and the Crystal Pool's art deco gateway, the last remnant of the old pool, will be preserved as a memorial.
The Story Behind the Renovation
Since its beginnings as a chautauqua center through its wild years as an amusement park and now as an arts and dance complex, Glen Echo has had as many twists, turns and death-defying fiscal precipices as its old roller coasters. After the amusement park closed, the park was threatened with high-rise development, the carousel had to be rescued from sale and -- even when the park came under the wing of the National Park Service -- budget cuts constantly loomed. Each time, the community rallied to its cherished park.
Glen Echo has been one of the NPS's most unique properties but an awkward fit for rangers, who are typically trained to maintain trails, not stage lights. For the first 30 years of its stewardship, the NPS also provided minimal funding to keep up its strange and wonderful fantasia.
So to no one's surprise, in 1999 word got out that the park service wanted to get rid of the property. The community response was again overwhelming. According to Diane Leatherman, a former staff director of the old Glen Echo Foundation, a thousand people mobbed the first public meeting, all wearing that "you'll-bury-my-heart-there" look.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan presided over the meeting, which he called "constructive" in nature, and immediately formed a team to save the park. "I didn't need much convincing," he recalls. "My mother used to ride the trolley to the park, and I'll never forget field trips there from my own school days."
Duncan formed a state, local and federal partnership, which ultimately committed $19 million toward restoring the park. The NPS then transferred management of the park to Montgomery County, which in turn formed a nonprofit organization to oversee day-to-day operations.
Glen Echo's mission today, as the Baltzley brothers would be most gratified to hear, is to "manage a rich fabric of vibrant educational, artistic, historical" programs for the community at large.
"This incredible gift of new buildings marks a new era for the park," says Katey Boerner, the director of the Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture, the nonprofit charged with day-to-day programming. "But make no mistake about it, we want to keep most of what's here and keep it affordable. The grounds will always be free and there will always be lots of activities."
Boerner envisions ongoing, multiple events that visitors can drop in on without formally enrolling in the myriad classes and dances that the park sponsors. Roving performers, one-act shows on the Cuddle-Up platform, puppet and theater performances as well as music and arts festivals will be carefully planned so that casual visitors can always enjoy one or more aspects of Glen Echo's arts scene.
For a preview of Glen Echo in full swing, check out the park Saturday. There will be much ado about everything as Glen Echo celebrates the reopening of the Ballroom and Arcade -- not to mention a smooth ride into the 21st century.
GLEN ECHO PARK -- 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. The park hosts dances with music by contra, swing, zydeco and other bands most Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings and some Sunday afternoons, and dance workshops with recorded music on some weeknights. There are also performances for children by the Puppet Co. and Adventure Theatre, and a variety of classes in studio and performing arts. Call 301-492-6282 or visit. www.glenechopark.org or www.nps.gov/glec.
Special events at the park:
Saturday from 11 to 3 -- Ribbon-cutting ceremony accompanied by live music and dancing, puppet shows, stilt-walkers, roving clowns and multiple arts demonstrations throughout the park.
Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 from 12 to 6 -- 33rd Labor Day Art Exhibition, a showcase of regional art attracting artists and art lovers from the Washington area. Most of the art is for sale. Admission is free.
Sept. 20 -- The Glen Echo Gala, a fundraiser for the Glen Echo Partnership for Arts and Culture, celebrates the restoration of the park with food and dancing (both in the Spanish Ballroom and Dodgem Pavilion), as well as entertainment throughout the park. A full-course dinner, with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, starts at 5:30. Dancing will take place from 8:30 to 1, beginning with swing dancing to the Brooks Tegler Big Band and later overlapping with contra dances featuring the Avant Gardeners+Two until 1. Cocktails, dinner, dessert and dancing are $250 per person; dessert and dancing only $75 (all tickets are tax-deductible). Call 301-320-7757, or e-mail email@example.com.
Suzanne Richardson is a freelance writer in the Washington area. She is currently working on a novel about the seige of Sarajevo.
Copyright: 2003 The Washington Post Company
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