Photo caption: In a practice room, Brent Agnew leads Jen Zhang in a dance at Glen Echo Park in Montgomery County. The unveiling of the historic park's refurbished Spanish Ballroom yesterday marked Glen Echo's grand reopening after five years of repairs. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)

Baltimore Sun - Spanish Ballroom

Glen Echo Park reopens with a twirl Dancers fill its ballroom to celebrate renovation

By Jamie Stiehm Sun Staff Originally published July 20, 2003

At Maryland's Glen Echo Park yesterday, every arch in the breathtaking Spanish Ballroom stood ready to receive guests -- hundreds of them-- who spilled in to waltz, contra dance in large circles and even jitterbug when they got warmed up.

Noon is usually no time to dance, but many out on the gleaming maple floor said they had long awaited the moment to celebrate the reopening of the park by the Potomac River in Montgomery County.

"It harkens back to a simpler time, a more innocent time," said Del. Brian J. Feldman, a Democrat, who represents the area. "Part of the charm is being nestled in the woods, remote from the city."

The park dates to 1891, the year it opened as a Chautauqua assembly under a stone tower, still preserved. The national Chautauqua educational movement offered lectures and readings in literature, the arts and sciences to adults on a quest for self-improvement.

In 1899, it became an amusement park, which it was for the better part of the 20th century, creating sweet and bitter memories that surfaced yesterday.

One reveler in the ballroom was Douglas M. Duncan, the Democratic Montgomery County executive who was credited by other lawmakers with leading a county-state-federal partnership over the past five years. Each branch paid $6.3 million for a restoration of Glen Echo Park, which had mostly fallen into shambles.

"The leverage here was Doug Duncan," U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat, told a gathering under the tall trees by the Spanish Ballroom. He mentioned that Duncan was planning to tango at a coming gala with Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and asked: "Will wonders ever cease here in Echo Park?"

After a whirl with his wife, Barbara, Duncan declared the ballroom, built in 1933, was the "crown jewel" of the park -- edging out a hand-carved 1921 Dentzel carousel, where the rides are still 50 cents. German immigrants did the workmanship on the carousel. The sparkling figures were restored over 20 years by a North Carolina artist.

"All I can say all day is 'thank you' because I am so busy," said Irene Hurley, who runs the carousel with her son.

Earlier, Duncan told a gathering near the ballroom that his grandmother sold tickets at the park in 1910, when she was young.

Then he touched on segregation, a hurtful part of the park's past: segregation was the way here until the 1960s. Black people were not allowed in the park.

"It was a place of exclusion, which is repugnant to us today," Duncan said.

Marie Antoinette Henderson, 84, and her daughter, Zoe Henderson, both from New Market, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, made the trip over the river yesterday to see a different Echo Park.

"It was 1957, and we came on the bus," Zoe Henderson said. "They wouldn't let us in, and I was crying, because I didn't understand. The bus driver told us, 'One day things may be different.' "

Her mother decided that dancing with a younger man was the best revenge.

Former Rep. Constance A. Morella, who represented Montgomery County until last year, used the translation of a Latin phrase to describe the community and government effort to save the park for the next generation.

"After the struggle comes the reward," said Morella, who was recently nominated as ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

Several spoke of couples they knew who had met in the ballroom. An elderly couple from Hyattsville, Fred and Pauline Decker, said they met there in 1947.

"Right here in this ballroom, I asked her to dance with me," Decker, 89, said of his 91-year-old wife. "And I asked to take her home."

The Deckers said their dancing days are over, but they were enjoying watching others dance.

Coming later this year in a new North Arcade building will be a regional puppetry theater.

The National Park Service took over management of the grounds more than 30 years ago, but now a new model calls for a nonprofit governing board to manage the park's operations.

In keeping with the park's Chautauqua origins, lessons are offered for children and adults in arts, crafts, calligraphy and gardening on the shady grounds.

Another coming attraction will be a neon park sign, a replica of an earlier one.

Said Janice Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture: "We have tried to preserve the nostalgic look of the park as much as possible."

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

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