Alcatraz Ballroom Has Led A Charmed (and Charming) Life

October 13, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

The construction fences are beginning to come down around Cathedral Street's old Alcazar Ballroom as the Baltimore School for the Arts completes its renewal of this complex of Baltimore treasures. For months now, an adjoining Cathedral Street double-width brownstone has been architecturally knitted into the Alcazar.

The old Alcazar possesses a curious social pedigree. The word Alcazar is Spanish for palace or fortress, based upon an Arab word. In Baltimore, this translates into a classic 1920s ballroom and hotel in a neighborhood of churches, dentists and grand rowhouses.

Archbishop Michael Curley presided over cornerstone laying ceremonies Oct. 12, 1924, flanked by members of the Roman Catholic fraternal order, the Knights of Columbus, in plumed hats, silk capes and ceremonial swords. Rabbi William Rosenau of the Eutaw Place Temple spoke at its 1926 opening night.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline on Page 2B of yerterday's editions of The Sun should have referred to the Alcazar Ballroom, not the Alcatraz Ballroom.
The Sun regrets the error.

The Alcazar Ballroom was a fabulous palace of dance, with a domed ceiling and beaded chandeliers. The fraternal order also had an adjoining hotel, where much of classwork at the School for the Arts now takes place.

The Alcazar, like any good palace, has several components, including a basement swimming pool that is now off limits. A projecting marquee over the Cathedral Street sidewalk kept the rain off visiting dignitaries. who included aviator Charles Lindbergh (an early luncheon honoree) and Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman, once the leader of U.S. Roman Catholicism.

Most Baltimoreans of a certain age have at least one very happy memory under the Alcazar's revolving glass ball. My father, Joe Kelly, likes to tell the story of hiring the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra to play for his senior prom here. By the 1960s, my classmates at Loyola High School engaged the Admirals, a local band, for the annual Easter Monday dance.

By the 1960s, the Alcazar hotel was a home to single gentlemen, many of them elderly pensioners. Perhaps the best-known were the Conway twins, who dressed identically and took walks through downtown Baltimore. One brother spoke one part of a sentence while the other finished it. Many of the Alcazar tenants watched television in the lobby and took their meals at downtown luncheonettes.

By the middle of the 1970s, times were not kind to this esteemed relic. The city of Baltimore stepped in and acquired it for the arts school. As a young reporter, I was assigned to the auction of its contents and was surprised that its lobby still held an amazing art collection. The bidding was brisk on a huge canvas of the Hudson River School. It was reported to be by the artist Frederic Edwin Church, and I recall it went for $10,000. A portrait of Cardinal Gibbons by Marie deFord Keller had few takers and I think was purchased for only several hundred dollars.

The Alcazar, freshened up and now enlarged, has led a charmed life.

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