City Dancers Search for Space

City councillors, local administrators, and Cantabrigian dancing enthusiasts gathered last night in a special roundtable meeting to discuss the fate of a West Cambridge dance hall, but architects involved in the project cautioned that the end of planning and construction is at least two years away.

The 28,000-square-foot facility, at 688 Huron Ave., was owned by the Mount Auburn Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) until last December, when the city purchased it for $2.9 million with the aim of expanding it into a youth and community center.

Renovations to the building have forced two weekly gatherings of dancers­—a tango group and a contradance group—to relocate to a smaller facility in Medford, according to John Gintell, a contradancer who was invited to speak to the Council yesterday at City Hall.

As a condition of the sale, the VFW post will continue to operate part of the building, and will retain some current features—including on-site parking and a towering model rocketship, implanted into the facade and a testament to its year of construction, 1965.

The city’s hired architect, Gary Johnson, presented four possible plans for transforming the site. Two plans would expand the existing building; two others would demolish it and raise a wholly new structure.

All plans included provisions that would separate the VFW, which operates a bar, from the other parts of the building, and allow for the community center to be incorporated into the youth center for daytime activities, or isolated for adult events.

“You can’t make a mistake and end up at the bar by going downstairs,” said Richard C. Rossi, the deputy city manager.

The dance community at last night’s meeting declared its support for a plan that would reconstruct their dance floor anew. Philip Burling, a tango dancer, said that dancers are fond of the floor but understand that it may have to be renovated. “The reason we love it so much is that it’s got this give—it bounces a little, but that also makes it structurally unstable,” he said.

The plan that received the broadest support calls for demolishing the current building entirely and creating a new three-level complex that would include a VFW post, youth center, and dance hall. A parking lot would also stay on the site.

Following the architects’ presentation, dance supporters and city administrators sparred over details of the plans that would make the building more or less suitable for dancing. The current dance hall has a sloping ceiling that is 23 feet high at the center, but architects said that if a youth center is to be built on top, the ceiling must come down to 12 feet.

When Gintell argued that lower ceilings would worsen acoustics in the hall, Healy responded sharply: “You are not going to design this building.”

Healy has previously written to city councillors arguing that spending money specifically on an adult dance hall “is not an appropriate expenditure of community funds.”

—Staff writer Virginia A. Fisher can be reached at vafisher@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Brendan R. Linn can be reached at blinn@fas.harvard.edu.