JANUARY 6, 2020 — Seven graduate students taking a seminar in historic preservation recently completed a semester’s worth of work at Twin Sisters Dance Hall in Blanco.
Under the direction of William Dupont, San Antonio Conservation Society endowed professor of architecture and director of UTSA’s Center for Cultural Sustainability, the students finished several important projects to benefit the preservation and visibility of the long-standing community dance hall.
These projects included creating a map of the area, assembling a timeline of Twin Sisters’ history, working on estimates for window replacement, designing a new roadside sign to attract drivers on U.S. Hwy. 281, and completing a large chunk of the research, writing and photography necessary for a National Register of Historic Places nomination.
Dupont was inspired to build a course comprised of 100% experiential learning at a classic Texan dance hall after seeing the impact of a previous Center for Cultural Sustainability project. The center had prepared a business feasibility study for Lerma’s Nite Club, a legendary conjunto music venue that has long been closed on the West Side of San Antonio. He wanted his students to engage with similarly invested communities and passionate volunteer groups who were interested in the preservation of historic structures that are largely unique to Texas culture.
“It’s important when you’re working with your clients to understand not only what remains of a building but what value it has in contemporary society—and especially what value it has to the people who are going to be caring for it,” Dupont said. After reaching out to Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Dupont said multiple dance halls were presented as possibilities for the seminar. Twin Sisters, however, was close to San Antonio and very active, making it “the most ripe for interaction with the students.”
Twin Sisters has hosted monthly dances and tons of festivals since it was built by German immigrants in 1870. The old hall has been a Blanco County pillar for nearly 150 years and a fairly frequent stop for famous people along the way. It’s believed that former President Lyndon B. Johnson danced at Twin Sisters when he was growing up. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys honed their brand of signature western swing from the stage before embarking on a Hall of Fame career. Most recently Country Music Association award-winning country artist Jon Pardi filmed the music video for “Head Over Boots” at Twin Sisters in 2016.
The hall itself is a unique gem. Texas dance halls come in all shapes and sizes, but as far as Dupont knows, Twin Sisters is the only one in the state with a beaded ceiling in a barrel-vault shape. More remarkably, the original dancefloor from the 1870s remains in perfect condition, thanks to regular treatment with a finely tuned formula of oil and sawdust.
Both the Twin Sisters community and Dupont’s class felt the hall was deserving of historical landmark status, so anthropology student Alesia Hoyle and architecture student Betsy Striedel were tasked with preparing the National Register nomination. The pair learned how to photographically document a historic property and write physical descriptions of historic buildings and their settings. “We spent a large amount of time at Twin Sisters photographing its every inch,” Hoyle said, “so I feel like I know the building in a very special way.”
To better understand the modern significance of Twin Sisters, Striedel, Hoyle and their classmates volunteered at the Raise the Roof Cook-off and Festival in September and even took two-step lessons at San Antonio’s Braun Hall to properly participate in the community dance. Dupont said it gave the students the opportunity to authentically experience how the dance hall was used at its busiest and not just when it was mostly empty. “To actually move your feet across the dance floor while the music is playing and most of the community is present—that makes you a better, more complete designer,” Dupont said. “You’re not just talking the talk, you’re walking the walk. Or in this case, dancing the dance.”
“It helped me develop an understanding that a place’s significance is less in its physical form, but more about the way people use it. Twin Sisters Dance Hall has been an important part of generations of families’ lives. I enjoyed the fact that I could help that history continue into the future,” Striedel added. Dupont estimated that she and Hoyle completed about 75% of the lengthy nomination application.
The Twin Sisters volunteers helped out by providing Dupont’s class with photocopies of every piece of documentation they could find. The students filled in gaps in the map and timeline using oral histories and items from county and state archives. The map and timeline projects are at a great starting point and Dupont hopes to continue working on these projects in future seminars. He would also like subsequent classes to be involved in the building’s chronological dating sequence, which requires crawling in the roof rafters and beneath the building.
The class visited three other dance halls in Lavaca County during the semester and word has already spread about UTSA’s interest. Texas Dance Hall Preservation hopes to create a memorandum of understanding with the university so that partners across multiple UTSA colleges can learn from and work with dance halls across the state. UTSA geography professor Nazgol Bagheri has also expressed interest in using GIS technology to map Texan dance hall communities.
Dupont said that historic preservation courses provide practical skills and enriching experiences to graduate students, not just in architecture but also anthropology, sociology, history, political science, engineering and construction science.
“I feel it’s important to preserve and research these halls because these places are timelines of people’s history,” Hoyle said. “They are family. They are leaving continuous memories of who people were and are and continue to be.”
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