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The Restored Mahler Ballroom

"I want people to feel like they're walking into a palace ..."

Marsha Shepley bought the fabled though long-faded Mahler Ballroom in 2004. Located on Washington Boulevard near Euclid Avenue, the building is now fully restored. With Shepley is Don Peterson, Mahler Ballroom events coordinator, and Shepley’s dog, Shakespeare. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
October 19, 2011
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Their names are Betty and Gene, but they might as well be Ginger and Fred. In medium-heeled dancing shoes, she effortlessly swirls her hips. Unbent by age, his body seems especially straight with her in his arms.

The fact that Betty Fedor, 83, walked in with a now-discarded cane, and that her husband, 84-year-old Gene, is a cancer survivor who also has two artificial knees, matters little.

Not tonight. Not under a monumental crystal chandelier, shimmering on a lofty, 24-foot-high, sky-blue ceiling whose perimeter is studded with more than a dozen freshly installed, also glimmering, new crystal fixtures.

The Fedors are celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary at the newly, fully restored Mahler Ballroom, located in the Central West End, an "oh, it's nothing," 70-minute round trip from their Edwardsville, Ill., home.

As Betty and Gene do every Wednesday, they pass the Italianate-feel landscaping, the 160 boxwoods, topiaries and urns, to join classmates and Republic of Belarus-born instructor Vassily Lyashenko for the group's regular Argentine tango class.

Gene gave Betty their first tango lesson for her 80th birthday. With Lyashenko's accented tones audible just above the pulsating melody, the instructor confides that when he reaches the Fedors' age, he dreams of dancing as they do.

From left: Dennis Larson and Tammy Fadler; Jenny Cohen and Don Peterson; and Mary Brong and Edward Spevak. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
No slouch himself, Lyashenko, with his wife/fellow dance instructor Elena Lyashenko, taught both physics and dancing before leaving Eastern Europe. Now, with 30-year track records as international ballroom champs, they focus strictly on dancing.

Occupational therapist Marsha Shepley had a somewhat more modest aim when she chanced upon the three-story Mahler Ballroom some nine years ago. A relative newcomer to ballroom dancing, which had already stolen her heart from a 17-year, several-times-weekly love affair with doubles tennis, she simply wanted to practice dance somewhere other than her condo's basement.

The reason for her passion switch-over, she says, is that "When I hit 50, I decided I needed to find something to do for the rest of my life. At the level we were playing tennis, I could tell my knees were going to give out."

Driving around the Central West End, where she has lived for three decades, Shepley chanced upon the discreetly "exterior-ed" Mahler Ballroom, 4915 Washington Blvd. She had never noticed the building before, never heard of it.

The Mahler Ballroom, at the time, was largely occupied by the remains of a software business.

Seeing past accumulated computers, desks and office partitions, Shepley was smitten by what turned out to be the legendary ballroom's original 2-inch-thick maple floor.

Could she practice on it? Please. How soon? When the owners insisted the rental fee would be too steep, she met with her lawyer. Should the owners ever decide to sell, she was ready to buy.

The Mahler Ballroom, 4915 Washington Blvd., was designed by St. Louis Union Station architect Theodore Link in 1907. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
The courtship began. As Shepley tells it, the owners came up with a figure. She never quibbled, though she spent two years, she says, persuading them to set a closing date. In 2004, Shepley bought the fabled, though long-faded, Mahler Ballroom.

Designed by Theodore Link in 1907, just 13 years after he served as architect of St. Louis' Union Station, the Mahler Ballroom was commissioned by Albert Mahler, an Austrian immigrant.

In 1860, Mahler had opened a dance academy here at Third and Pine streets. Later, fueled by success, he had Link build him a 16,000-square-foot family home with a 4,000-square-foot ballroom in the Central West End.

Dignitaries visited. Debutantes, often arriving by carriage, danced. And over the years, 38 future Veiled Prophet queens learned their deep curtsies.

Shepley now lives in part of the building's second floor. With continuing help from decorator and dance aficionado Sam Clark, the retired vice president in charge of the display division for the old Famous-Barr Co., plus umpteen engineers, roofers and other workmen, she sequenced the development plans, served as general contractor and gave the building a seven-year total face-lift.

Dance instructor Elena Lyashenko coaches Russell Fadler and Amya Christopher. Seen in the mirror behind them are Courtney and R.J. Fadler. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
First, crews had to haul away 40 containers of debris, each 20 yards long, she says. Other than leaving the ballroom floor intact, Shepley wound up replacing every system, from heating and cooling to plumbing and electrical. The ballroom's now-taupe walls retain the original marbleization on some of the moldings.

"Even in Italy, which is loaded with real marble," Clark said, marbleization was prized because "it was done by hand and, at times, became more important than what nature actually created."

With his iconic eye for detail, Clark even tinted the ballroom niche, the one that holds the cherubs, in the same sky blue as the ceiling. He re-mirrored the ballroom walls.

Freshly painted 8-foot arched Rococo-style molding crowns the ballroom balcony, which can accommodate 70 standing guests, 50 if they're seated.

The Ballroom Dance Academy of St. Louis, a 501c3 charitable organization, rents out the ballroom for weekly group dance classes for students as young as age 6, for individual lessons, dance parties and dance workshops. Instructors teach dances from Swing to Merengue, Samba, Waltz, Tango and Foxtrot. The ballroom is also available for weddings, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, and corporate events.

Shepley said her initial vision is now mostly complete. She's decorated the building with her tapestries, sofas, gilded accessories and other antiques.

"It's the Belle Epoque again, with fresh flowers and candles," she said. "I want people to feel like they're walking into a palace, a fairy tale."

More information on the Mahler Ballroom and the Ballroom Dance Academy of St. Louis is available online at www.mahlerballroom.com and www.ballroomdancestl.org.

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