El Torreon Ballroom was born as a Jazz Age ballroom. In the seventies, the building became a counterculture hub as The Cowtown Ballroom. New owners have big plans to give it a new life.
Twice in its lifetime, the brick building at 31st and Gillham has been the hippest place in Kansas City. It could be again, thanks to a bold renovation plan by the building’s new owners.
Glance at the building and you’ll see “El Torreon” painted on its front windows. El Torreon means “The Tower” and was the original name of this space when it opened in 1927 with two large ballrooms and its own house band led by Phil Baxter. Baxter would open and close each night with the band’s theme song, “El Torreon,” and their performances were frequently broadcast by KMBC. While El Torreon’s upper ballroom hosted jazz-era luminaries like Cab Calloway, its lower ballroom was used for galas, dinner parties and other events. Like other ballrooms around the country, it closed during the Great Depression.
And like other ballrooms, it was revived by the Vietnam-era counterculture. From 1971 to 1974, the space was known as the Cowtown Ballroom, a venue mentioned alongside legendary contemporaries like the Fillmore and The Electric Factory. Era-defining acts like Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and The Eagles played there.
Between its ballroom eras, it was El Torreon Skating Rink from 1937 to 1962, reflecting the national craze for roller skating. After the Cowtown Ballroom closed in 1974, El Torreon was used for art events, movie premieres and flea markets. In the early 2000s, metal, punk and ska bands performed shows there. Currently, Bridgeport Church owns the building. In 2017, they started hosting events—weddings, quinceañeras, holiday parties and corporate events.
Now, Bridgeport Church is planning a multimillion-dollar renovation project to restore the upstairs ballroom into a music venue. We talked to Chris Colvin, general manager of El Torreon, about those plans and toured the space.
Prohibition tunnels in the basement
One of the first things Colvin mentioned about El Torreon was what’s below it: “There are Prohibition tunnels in our basement.”
There are two visible tunnels near the ceiling of the basement. “I’ve been in one of them,” Colvin says. “I will not go in the other one—it’s too narrow. It goes straight back about forty-eight feet, which I measured with a laser. It takes us to the edge of the building, then there’s a brick wall. I’m pretty sure that if we knocked down that brick wall we would find that the tunnel keeps going.”
The wider tunnel goes straight back about eight feet to a concrete pillar and then to the left about another twelve feet, where it has been filled. “One person I took up there found a really old whiskey bottle,” Colvin says.
During Prohibition, Kansas City’s railroad connections, central location, bustling music scene and all-night entertainment earned it the title “Paris of the Plains,” and El Torreon was its Moulin Rouge.
Colvin tells us the basement has been visited by a team of paranormal investigators, but he doesn’t know whether they found signs of otherworldly activity.
The upstairs ballroom
When El Torreon Ballroom was built near the end of the Roaring Twenties, it had the largest vaulted ceiling in Kansas City.
“It was also the first place in Kansas City where Black musicians could play for white audiences,” Colvin says. And while Black musicians could perform at El Torreon, they were not allowed to patronize the ballroom. However, after gigs at nightclubs and dance halls, it was common to have all-night jam sessions where musicians of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds played together after hours. Such sessions helped create the improvisational tradition of Kansas City jazz.
The upstairs ballroom is said to have a one thousand-person capacity, but there are reports of over three thousand people being in the space at once. “There was never any air conditioning, so people stood there burning hot in August, just watching shows,” Colvin says.
There are three layers of hardwood flooring still visible—the original flooring from the twenties, hardwood from the roller skating rink decades and a top layer of flooring from the seventies. Underneath the three layers of flooring is a thick layer of concrete.
A Pendergast building
Right after Bridgeport Church purchased El Torreon, a storm caused the roof to collapse in the northeast corner of the upstairs ballroom, crushing an entire staircase and causing major electrical problems. Luckily, the church had insured the building—something they had debated doing due to lack of funding.
“Had the church not kept the building insured, it would likely no longer be standing because it would have been too expensive to fix,” Colvin says.
But what really helped El Torreon survive the recent storm is its legacy as one of Kansas City’s Pendergast buildings. Pendergast-controlled companies were awarded prime building contracts in Kansas City. Ready Mixed Concrete Co. was one of those companies and also one of the first in the country to deliver concrete to the site. Ready Mixed Concrete Co. produced concrete for several construction projects during the Depression.
“The more concrete Pendergast used, the more money he made,” Colvin says. “The thick layer of concrete beneath the flooring in the ballroom actually helped save it after the roof collapsed.”
A new blueprint
“We are hoping to open the upstairs ballroom again for live music in January 2024,” Colvin says. “We started a nonprofit to help with fundraising. But more importantly, we got the building on the historic registry, which will help cover some of the costs.”
The north and west sides of the building—the street-facing sides—will remain intact, as those are the parts prioritized by preservationists. There are plans to build new apartment buildings around El Torreon in Midtown. The new streetcar extension will run down Main Street to 31st, where El Torreon is positioned on Gillham.
With luck, the streetcar extension will be running around the same time El Torreon is restored to its former glory.