The revival of a historic meeting place for Black people in Houston’s Third Ward should be a reason to rejoice. Yet, the visionary restaurateur and philanthropist behind the modern-day plan for The Eldorado Ballroom at Project Row Houses (The Eldorado Ballroom | Houston Event Venue | 2310 Elgin Street, Houston, TX, USA) is not ready to applaud his team’s accomplishments.
“It is not a moment that we are celebrating an opportunity as much as we are focused on being good stewards of the legacy, of bringing it back to life,” says Chris Williams, founder of Lucille’s Hospitality Group and Lucille’s 1913.
Williams owns Lucille’s Fine Southern Food, the nationally acclaimed restaurant the chef opened with his brother in Houston’s Museum District 11 years ago. The 2023 James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur was nominated in the same category in 2022.
However, meeting the expectations for the rebirth of the Eldorado has demanded much more from the hospitality group and its founder. “It’s living up to something that was already a huge asset in the community,” expresses Williams. “Thankfully, plenty of people enjoyed the ballroom back in its heyday, and they have expectations. It can be something that intimidates you or serves as a road map. The one constant is that we have a lot of work to do.”
The Eldorado’s Rebirth
The work began with raising money to restore the iconic Eldorado Ballroom and expand its footprint. The Art Moderne building was donated to Project Row Houses in 1999. Williams, later invited to co-chair the capital campaign led by board vice president Anita Smith and board member Hasty Johnson, secured close to $10 million for the Eldorado project.
Williams recalls what he told them about his vision for the landmark building. “We need to have a marketplace. We need to be a cultural celebration center that supports all the creativity and entrepreneurs from this community.”
Black property owners Anna Johnson Dupree and Clarence Dupree lived in the Third Ward community when they opened their new building in 1939. The first floor of the Eldorado had a pharmacy, tailor’s shop and other businesses.
The nightclub on the second floor is where African Americans gathered to see legendary jazz, blues and R&B artists, such as Duke Ellington, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown. They could dance and celebrate special occasions without the Jim Crow segregation enforced at White-owned venues.
Executive director of Project Row Houses, Eureka Gilkey, told Houston Public Media what made the Eldorado a sacred space for decades. “Anna and Clarence knew that as much as people needed a place to buy a dresser and a couch, they also deserved a place to nurture hope…and experience joy.”
The rebirth of the white brick and stucco building’s rich history began with the architects and construction crews preserving the Eldorado’s unique features. “The only way to accomplish that was to strip back 13 layers of good intentions and poor execution to get to Anna Dupree’s original design, which has been completely restored. Those 13 layers served as preservatives. They kept everything in place and beautiful,” Williams states.
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The 10,000-square-foot building received a Texas Historical Marker in 2011. When people visit the Eldorado today, they see a restored Art Deco exterior with a row of second-story windows and an interior with gleaming red oak floors and original paneling.
“When they walk into it, they are literally stepping back in time. It’s the same floors that these legends walked on, the same walls these legends spoke at. It’s the same height and airiness of space,” says Williams.
The renovation project includes a 5,000-square-foot annex with a new elevator, meeting rooms, wedding preparation space and modernized amenities. But Williams jokes that the original pine wood stairwell might be tricky to navigate after an evening of celebration.
“There is a difference in each step. It could be six inches high or eight inches high. So we only let sober people up those steps, and then we send them home liquored up, down in the elevator.”
The Eldorado’s marquee blue sign will soon return to the rooftop. The Houston City Council recently approved an ordinance exemption to allow the installation of the sign on top of the two-story historic structure.
The restored building has already received a 2023 Modernism in America Award. The Design Award of Excellence from Docomomo US recognizes the Eldorado as one of the best examples of modern preservation.
Williams sees his hospitality group and 1913 nonprofit as stewards of the Eldorado’s proud history and noble purpose of serving the Third Ward community. “And that’s the true importance of the preservation of it. I am so grateful that Project Row Houses allowed me to come in and bring ideas about reactivating the space.”
The Rado Café & Market
Williams and his team are implementing concepts that honor the Eldorado’s legacy and reflect the spirit of their philanthropic mission. His hospitality group runs the new Rado Café & Market as a for-profit venture. The Hogan Brown Gallery and Eldorado Ballroom are nonprofit entities managed by 1913. The Houston entrepreneur expresses why every space in the building is meant to empower the community and nurture sustainable livelihoods. “Everything in there is vertically integrated from our community. It’s just an example of how you can create your own pathway.”
The rejuvenated Eldorado sits across from Emancipation Park at the corner of Elgin Street and Emancipation Avenue. The all-day Rado Café & Market is designed for customers who want grab-and-go food from a bistro-style menu offering fresh ingredients and familiar flavors.
“You can get it quick. It’s approachable, it’s not complex,” says Williams. “It’s delicious, and you can take it to Emancipation Park across the street. You can walk with it through the gallery if you want, or you can stay in the café and eat it.”
The memory of Lucille B. Smith, the great-grandmother Williams pays tribute to with his restaurant and 1913 nonprofit, is alive at the café. The same yeast dough the culinary pioneer used for her famous hot rolls shows up in the honey nut rolls on the breakfast menu. Customers can order sandwiches, salads, soups and vegan selections. Many menu items are inspired by the fresh vegetables and other produce from 1913’s farm and gardens.
“We grow vegetables that speak to the palates of the people we serve. We’re talking the collard greens we use to make pesto, salads, soups and vegetarian sandwiches,” Williams adds. Besides health-conscious choices, the café offers fun twists on popular dishes, such as the French dip sandwich.
“We came up with a southern dip, braised oxtails served with oxtail jus. Everybody loves grilled cheese and tomato soup. We said, ‘Let’s do a pimento grilled cheese and serve it with a green gumbo.”
The market also sells fresh produce grown on the 1913 farm in Kendelton, Texas. The shelves are stocked with goods and products from local partners, including Houston Sauce Company, Kik’s BBQ, The Peach Cobbler Lady, Kindred Stories and other purveyors.
Shoppers looking for culinary inspiration can browse the book nook featuring ethnic cookbooks. They can also pick up hard-to-find ingredients pre-packaged for the featured cookbook of the month. “You can purchase that book and the package of ingredients to go home and put it together. All you’ll have to do is buy the protein and the vegetables,” Chef Williams says.
The restaurateur wants to see the market become a niche wine shop for Third Ward shoppers. They can get help making selections by looking for personalized symbols on a rotating display of wine bottles.
As Williams explains, each symbol represents a neighborhood leader’s or trendsetter’s tastes. “Like Anita Smith, one of the founding members of Project Row Houses. She has a very specific palate. We spelled out that palate, and she created this little Anita Smith symbol. We put that symbol on wine bottles that fall in line with her palate.”
The Hogan Brown Gallery
The Eldorado Ballroom at Project Row Houses is poised to become the destination for people to eat, shop, hear music and appreciate art in the Third Ward. The Hogan Brown Gallery that carries the surnames of Williams’ grandparents gives both acclaimed and up-and-coming artists a space to share their talents with the community.
One of the recent works displayed is a collaborative piece created by Houston’s David “Odiwams” Wright and Jerin “Jerk” Beasley. “I’d never seen a $60,000 piece until now,” comments chef-activist Williams. “It’s for the community to take ownership of that piece. Wright is from here, and this cat is living and breathing as an artist. Look at him selling pieces for $60,000. That’s dope, and that’s ours.”
Another celebrated local artist, Robert Hodge, is the gallery’s curator. Hodge plays a critical role in securing art for the gallery. “Robert is really invested in the community and has a lot of beautiful relationships. The stuff on the walls is a showcase of the relationships he has,” says Williams. “We have one of Floyd Newsum’s approved prints, the closest thing you can get to the original of one of his most famous pieces.”
In July and August, the Hogan Brown Gallery’s inaugural exhibition featured works by Dawolu Jabari Anderson, Kaima Marie, Tay Butler, Christine Miller and other artists. Williams hopes the gallery inspires African Americans and others to pursue their artistic passions.
“The access creates interest, which creates ownership, which hopefully, creates a pathway to the freedom to live as a creative and do what you want.”
The Eldorado Ballroom
The renovation of the Third Ward building has already impressed some long-time residents with fond memories of the Eldorado Ballroom’s glory days. “They love the vision and the mission, but what really moves people is when they step into that ballroom. It’s always like, ‘Wow!’ It’s breathtaking every single time,” Williams maintains.
Some of the most famous names in Black entertainment performed at the entertainment hall for three decades. Blacks of different classes and ages listened to live music. They danced to the soulful sounds of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Etta James, Ray Charles, James Brown and the Temptations.
“What this ballroom proves, and its existence shows are the richness and beauty that has been contributed by our community from the beginning,” declares Williams. “Just because of our mastery, we changed music forever across the world: the way that people see it, the way they receive it, the way they respond to it. That all came from us. I want to showcase that level of creativity again.”
Williams imagines the Eldorado again becoming as well-known as Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom or Apollo Theater. The entrepreneur plans to showcase the talents of established performers, such as Grammy-award-winning drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave and local music students.
“I want masters from Herbie Hancock to Jason Moran to Kyle Turner to perform. I also want the kids from Jack Yates High and other schools to make the Eldorado Ballroom their practical classroom, so they are learning production management from local talent and the masters on the stage.”
The ballroom will be available to rent for parties, family reunions, special celebrations and community events. The 1913 nonprofit is working on getting the funds to subsidize rental costs a few times a year for people with limited resources. Williams notes that is part of preserving the Eldorado’s legacy. “It was meant to serve the community in every way possible. When it came to creativity, freedom, celebration and joy, that’s what the Eldorado Ballroom was.
Black Creativity and Black Dollars
The ultimate goal for Williams and his team is to transform the historic building into a modern model of Black success. He shares what that means to him. “The point and purpose is to be an example of real freedom. Freedom looks like options, just options of all the different ways you can go. That’s what success is – peace, dignity and satisfaction with whatever you choose to do. The most direct way to get there is to pursue your passion.”
For that to happen, people in the Third Ward and beyond must support the café, gallery and ballroom with direct support and donations. The decline of the Eldorado by the early 1970s can be linked to desegregation and the changes in African American spending habits.
“We have the entire world creating products for us, from the fake eyelashes and hair to the teeth and rims,” says Williams. “Those companies have nothing to do with our community and will never be in it. But they know how to capitalize off of us all day, every day.”
An article on the GoGreenwood.com mobile banking app cites A Black Star Project study on the racial wealth gap. It points out that a dollar circulates just six hours before leaving the Black community. In comparison, a dollar stays 20 days in the Jewish community and 30 days in the Asian community.
Lucille’s founder wants to help bring back the era when Black people supported businesses they owned and the creative genius coming from our neighborhoods and culture. “I want us to get excited about what we can do and target ourselves like everybody else in the world does,” Williams remarks.
“That is what every other community in this country does. They create products for the people they know best; they are their customers, and it sustains them.” Williams is already paving the way for Black people to recognize their creativity matters and has value. He will open Late August, his third restaurant later this year.
Lucille’s 1913 grows food, feeds people and provides jobs and training. Now, he wants the Eldorado to become an attraction that enriches the spirit, culture and wealth of the Third Ward.
“We operate at the pleasure of donors and supporters. Every buck is meant to go into bigger and better programming, more sustainability and educational components. “I know anything is possible through grit and determination. Ultimately, businesses don’t fail; entrepreneurs quit, and there is no quit in us.”
Still, the father of two sons and a baby daughter recently received a reminder that he has enough on his plate. A staff member praised him for always doing what he says he will do. Lucille’s founder laughingly admits that God might have spoken through her and said, “Shut up! Shut up and focus on what is in front of you ‘cause your crazy ass is running around talking about what you want to do. As soon as you say it, you have to do it. Shut up! So that’s what is next, shutting up and focusing on what is in front of me.”
You can follow Chef Williams on social media @chef_chriswilliams, @lucilleshouston and @lucilleshospitality. Go to Instagram for other updates @eldorado.ballroom, @hoganbrownart, @radomarkethtx and @lucilles1913.