Uncovering Ballroom Gems

Ballrooms in old homes are being rediscovered by buyers and home owners. Samba your way into clients, hearts with knowledge and marketing ideas for these unique spaces.

January 1, 2008

Once popular for holding social dances and big parties, ballrooms are a common feature in large, old Victorian homes.

Although they often are masked by a new, more modern purpose, ballrooms are a unique feature that's certainly worth pointing out to buyers. With a recent resurgence of ballroom dancing, there are more people who'll appreciate a room devoted to dancing the night away. And even if your clients aren't dancers, they'll appreciate the history and versatility of these large spaces.

History of the Residential Ballroom

Ballrooms were a staple of Victorian mansions from the 1880s through about 1920. "It's hard to think of ballrooms as a necessity, but if you wanted to entertain your peers, you did it at home," says Dwight Young, senior communications associate in the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

Parlors were the place to hold intimate gatherings such as a small dinner, but if you wanted to host a lavish costume party, extravagant ball, or an orchestra, you needed an impressive space where lightweight chairs could be easily re-arranged, Young says.

Residential ballrooms lost some of their appeal in the 1920s as apartment living took hold, growing less common in Victorian home construction. Young people who opted to live in multifamily buildings took their dancing skills elsewhere, and large public ballrooms, often at hotels, became the place to go.

During the next decades, dancing lost favor to other forms of entertainment. That's not to say Americans stopped dancing at home altogether — swing dancers frequently rolled up the rug in the living room to practice their Balboa steps in the 1940s and partner dancing in general lasted through the early 1960s.

But for the most part, residential ballrooms found new uses in the mid to late 1900s. Home owners often used these grand spaces for play rooms, large bedrooms, and even gymnasiums.

A Modern Resurgence

Ballroom dancing recently has enjoyed resurgence, with reality shows such as ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" and FOX's "So You Think You Can Dance" piquing Americans' interest in traditional dances such as the waltz, rumba, salsa, mambo, and jitterbug.

While it's unlikely that ballrooms ever again will become a standard amenity in new homes, some owners of old Victorians are choosing to return their stately ballrooms to their original use, experts say.

Interior designer Joyal E. Watkins, of Chicago, recently modernized a century-old ballroom for a client. She added a stage, state-of-the-art sound system, and updated lighting controls.

"Besides dancing, the room now accommodates piano recitals, dinner parties, and has even hosted a wedding," Watkins says.

Watkins' colleague, designer Sandy Meade, says it pleases her to see old ballrooms used for their original purpose. "If I had a house like that, I would use it for dancing," she says. "Finding open space is a challenge. To leave it clear (of furniture) is a luxury."

Keep in mind, as you're marketing old Victorians, ballrooms also may appeal to people who don't like to dance, but do like to entertain. A social butterfly or a music aficionado may be just as interested in using the room for its intended purpose.

What Makes a Ballroom a Ballroom?

It could be tricky to identify a ballroom that's been repurposed. To spot one in your listing, look for these notable features:

  • Intricate details. Lots of dormers, a large-scale, arched Palladian window on the gable end, and ornate exterior trim. If that's the case, "you can bet there was an elaborate space inside," says Stuart Cohen, architect and author of Great Houses of Chicago, 1890-1940, to be published next year. The 1887 McVeagh ballroom on Chicago's Lake Shore Drive was designed in the French Renaissance style with gold trim, making it stand out from the rest of the Richardsonian Romanesque manse. That house was demolished in 1922, according to Cohen.
  • Third-floor location. A third-floor spot allowed architects to make the space as vast as possible, but it also made clear-cut access a little trickier. Some owners had elevators installed.
  • Large room, high ceilings. Since the Victorians hosted huge recitals, they needed a lot of room, especially for dances such as the foxtrot in which partners require space to execute their moves properly. Hosts also wanted an area large enough to fit the cast and audience for a musical or an orchestra. It made sense to have high ceilings to retain proper proportions.
  • No columns or partitions. This was ideal for dancers to practice their routines in an area uncluttered by objects. It was also simpler for architects to design the roof without these support structures.
  • Vaulted ceilings. They amplified sound for a musical or an orchestra.
  • Parquet floor. This type of floor, when polished, was perfect for dancing and allowed dancers to glide.
  • Musicians' gallery. The gallery is a raised landing overlooking one end of the ballroom. "It got the musicians out of the dancers' way and gave better sound," says historian Grace DuMelle.

Marketing a Ballroom for Other Uses

Not everyone is interested in throwing big parties and dancing the night away. Despite the renewed interested in ballroom dancing, it's most likely that buyers will find ballrooms most appealing for their sheer size and flexibility. After all, how often do you find a home that has a massive room just waiting for a purpose?

When showing an old Victorian to potential buyers, keep in mind some of these alternate uses:

  • Playroom. Large open spaces are great for letting energy loose – for kids or adults. The light airy nature of ballrooms is a great alternative to the basement hangout.
  • Large office. Home owners can even divide the office into different areas: A seating area for visitors, plenty of room to store files, and ample space for an architect to draw or a writer to write.
  • Bedroom. If the ballroom lacks closets, you have plenty of room to add an attractive armoire that complements the architecture of the room.
  • Entertainment/media center. "These vast spaces make really good home theaters or rec rooms with pool tables and pin ball machines," says Cohen.
  • Two for one. Home owners sometimes use a screen to create two rooms out of one big ballroom, Meade says.
freelance writer

Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.

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