Iowa's Surf Ballroom named National Historic Landmark


(Clear Lake, IA) -- The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The ballroom was best known for hosting Buddy Holly's last concert, before he died in a February 3rd, 1959 plane crash. The crash also took the lives of Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.

The U.S. Department of the Interior says the Surf Ballroom has had an enduring role in the history of American music.

National Historic Landmarks are buildings, sites, districts, structures, and objects that have been determined to be nationally significant in American history and culture. The ballroom’s nomination was officially approved on Jan. 13.

“The Surf Ballroom is a national treasure. You can almost feel the energy and hear the echoes of all the concerts over the years,” said Chris Kramer, who directs the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “The soundtrack of the 20th century played live, right here in Clear Lake, Iowa.”

The venue was on the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour, which was a national phenomenon that music industry officials helped establish touring as a legitimate business in the industry.

"The Surf exemplifies a pivotal time in music history, one that should be honored and celebrated,” noted Laurie Lietz, the ballroom's executive director. “It is our organization’s highest honor to achieve this designation, and we know this will ensure that the music lives on here at the Surf for generations to come.”

The ballroom is operated by the nonprofit North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum.

The Surf Ballroom opened on July 1, 1948, on the north shore of Clear Lake and replaced an earlier ballroom that had burned down the year before.

The venue offered musicians a convenient stop to perform between Minneapolis and Des Moines but gradually became a destination in its own right, attracting early 20th century stars such Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey Brothers before a parade of more recent legends: The Everly Brothers, Little Richard, The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Conway Twitty, Santana, REO Speedwagon, ZZ Top, Martina McBride, Alice Cooper, Robert Plant and countless others.

The ballroom became famous worldwide in 1959, when it was the twelfth and final stop on what was scheduled to be a 25-city Winter Dance Party Tour of the Upper Midwest featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. After their concert in Clear Lake, however, the three musicians and the pilot died when their plane crashed amid a snowstorm on the morning of Feb. 3, 1959.

The death of these three influential young musicians shook the nation and changed the course of rock and roll, as well as the broader sweep of American pop culture.

The Surf Ballroom is an excellent and well-preserved example of the Moderne style of architecture. The building’s clean lines, curvilinear forms, minimal ornament and use of chrome illustrate the aesthetic influence that technology and the machine clearly had on the Moderne style. 

In 2009, the Surf Ballroom was designated as a historic landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

Today, the ballroom continues to host an annual Winter Dance Party every February, as well as dozens of concerts and special events throughout the year.