Backstory and Context
The Crystal Ballroom was founded by Michael “Montrose” Ringler, an athlete, dancer, and director of Portland’s YMCA and founder of Ringler’s Academy, an athletic training institute that later turned into his dance studio. He was an accomplished dancer, and his academy became the key location to learn the most fashionable dances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the foxtrot and the tango.
Ringler founded the Crystal Ballroom in 1914, just as the First World War was beginning in Europe and when jazz music was just becoming popular in Oregon. He commissioned his close friend and architect, Robert F. Tegen from Germany, to create the building known as the Cotillion Hall. It contained a magnificent open ballroom on the third story, distanced from the noise and commotion of the street level. The Ballroom was subject to a number of regulations and even police raids during its early years, as jazz music and dance was initially quite controversial amongst Portland’s conservative leaders. Remarkably, dance positions were standardised and strictly enforced by dance hall inspectors that would attend all sessions in the Ballroom. There were a number of arrests made there by those who infringed upon the regulations, to the point that the Ballroom had to close in the early 1920s.
During the Great Depression and under the new management of Dad Watson a number of family friendly old-time revival dance shows were performed in the Crystal Ballroom to raise peoples’ spirits. The dance hall continued to operate throughout the First and Second World Wars, and continued to preserve the “old time” styles of music and dance when tastes were changing throughout the city and country. However, from the late 1960s the musical scene of the Ballroom changed, as it became a popular centre of Portland’s rock, gypsy, R & B, and later psychedelic music scenes. A great number of illustrious names danced and performed within the Crystal Ballroom over its long lifetime, including Merle Haggard, Rudolph Valentino, Ike and Tina Turne, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, SleaterKinney, Little Richard, Tito Puente, Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young and Stephen Stills, and many more.
The Crystal Ballroom is on the third story of the post and beam building. It featured high ceilings, bright skylights, floor to ceiling mirrors, and enormous arched windows that promoted a sense of floating in mid-air to those within. The walls were decorated with murals depicting pleasant garden scenes and rolling meadows. The walls were also decorated with ostentatious sconces and light fixtures. There was a corner stage and beautiful curved “Musician’s Balcony” above the main floor, framed by a three-centred archway. Of particular note was Tegen and Ringler’s “floating floor” (also known as a sprung floor). This was composed of a layer of maple floor boards laid atop a network of rockers and ball-bearings. These would cause the floor to fluidly move up and down when danced upon, and the intensity and speed of this racking could even be modified according to the requirements of different dance styles.
In 1968 the dance hall shut down. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s the Ballroom was no longer a public space, but was instead occupied by squatters and artists, who made use of it as a studio. However, since 1997 the building was been managed by new owners. It has been reopened with a bar, brewery, and restaurant on the ground floor, and a new dance floor on the second floor. The Crystal Ballroom itself is extremely well preserved. The mechanical dance floor has been conserved throughout the 21st century, and is fully functional to this day.