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by Kay L. Roscoe
It’s hard to believe that this is the same building where my grandmother and grandfather met on Sunday afternoons to dance so long ago. All my life I’ve seen pictures of them and their friends dressed in gorgeous clothes in this exotic setting. I would daydream of being here wearing silk dresses, feathers in my hair, and long ropes of pearls. But the building with its mysterious and foreign architecture attracted me the most.
It was by chance that I arrived in the city where my grandparents met. I was traveling several days by train to visit a friend when I realized, almost at the end of the journey, that the train was passing a lovely building that seemed so familiar. By the time the train reached the station, I realized what the building was. When the train pulled into the station, impetuously I grabbed my bag and raced into the terminal. It was difficult to contain my excitement knowing that soon I would see the very ballroom that has always been a part of my life.
Rather than catch a taxi, I decided to walk as it seemed a short distance and the neighborhood wasn’t bad. Also, I wanted to soak in the mood of my new surroundings. The buildings appeared to have been built around one hundred years ago and were now apartments and small businesses. They weren’t shabby but were in need of repair. There were few people on the street. Those that I saw were of the same ethnic group.
Their stares and whispers didn’t make me uneasy as they were probably curious as to why a stranger was in their neighborhood with a suitcase.
After walking several blocks the weather began to change. The cool, sunny day was quickly becoming overcast and windy with dark clouds scurrying across the sky. I buttoned my coat and wished that I had put my gloves in my purse. My walk had taken longer than I had anticipated. I stopped at the cross street and looked each way trying to decide what to do, which way to turn, or whether to continue on this street. Walking and pulling a suitcase weren’t helping me to stay warm. I needed to get out of the weather and get a hot drink.
As I stood on the corner, I saw someone walking a dog. They were coming in my direction. At last I could ask how much further to my destination. I approached them and the dog wagged its tail and began barking in a friendly tone. The man, who was elderly, hesitantly acknowledged me. I won his trust and he offered to take me there, as he was going in that direction. As we walked we chatted about the surrounding area. He had lived here all his life and had witnessed so many changes.
The street became busier. There were more little shops and cafes as we continued our walk. Women, bundled up for the cold weather, were out shopping and greeting one another. The old men were gathered in the little cafes drinking demitasse. It was as though I had walked into a fascinating bazaar with music, bright colors, laughing, foreign dialects, and shops with treasures from distant shores. I felt an excitement just being on that block, and then I spotted a tarnished domed structure above the other roof tops.
I just stood and gazed at the building on my left. It was the centerpiece of all this energy that surrounded me; a serene beauty in the midst of so much hubbub. Beneath the grime on the copper domes, the huge curved windows and the magnificently carved wooden doors stood a fabulous jewel of architecture. A chain link fence surrounded the grounds of the building and one of the upper floor windows was boarded. But the structure was superb. Oh, to be able to enter and explore this paradise. My guide gleamed with pride as he saw my look of awe.
“This was a masterpiece of design and a ballroom built for the pleasure of dancing and flirting when people believed in romance. During the day the older people played cards and dominoes. Oh, they too danced at night and Sunday afternoons. People weren’t so separated by age then. Back then it was called a casino. No gambling; at least not in public view. What marvelous times we had.
“Now it would be too expensive to repair and nobody wants to take a chance on this neighborhood. People here can’t afford such luxuries. But they would be a perfect fit for this building. They love life.
“Do you want to take a closer look? I have the keys. I’m the caretaker.”
Words I’d been waiting to hear. We entered the gate and walked through the modest but well groomed grounds. The brick structure is a work of art built during an era of grandeur and opulence. We pushed open massive outer oak doors and went into the vestibule – a cool, darkened area with a high reflective ceiling, marble colonnaded arches, and floors of terrazzo. A faint musty odor mingled with the scent of wooden walls. A few of the many light fixtures had little bulbs which, when the caretaker turned on the electricity, cast a warm glow and soft shadows. Such a stunning room, but unpretentious when compared with the ballroom.
This ballroom could have been designed for the mansion of an aristocrat. The few sconces with light bulbs emit a misty sheen; the quiet has been disturbed and dust floats around the pale light. A mellow, golden patina on the long wooden floor dramatizes the pits and scars from years of dancing shoes. Hundreds of spectacular mosaics and hand painted tiles catch the low light and transform the walls into an ethereal presence. I’m almost dancing as I turn in circles and look up and down and all around at this room filled with adornment. Floating across the ornately painted ceiling are sweet gilt edged cherubs, faces smudged from weathering, trailing garlands of fruit, flowers, and ribbons among airy clouds of apricot and lavender. What splendor under layers of tarnish and dust. I open the French doors that lead onto the terrace and there’s a delightful fragrance of some exotic plant that has managed to survive its neglect. This speaks to me of the hope I have for this tarnished beauty.
I feel so privileged to have met this kind caretaker and to have been invited into his world. I don’t know the future of this magnificent building, but I will strive to keep it from being destroyed. It needs to be opened for people who love beauty, who love life, and who are filled with joy. It belongs in this neighborhood and with these people.