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The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson gave their last performances before the "day the music died," has joined the nation's official list of some of its most significant historical sites.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs announced Friday that the U.S. Department of the Interior had designated the Surf as a National Historic Landmark, making it part of an elite group of about 2,600 properties nationally.

The ballroom is best known for hosting the last Winter Dance Party concert by Holly, Valens and Richardson before they died in a plane crash in the early hours of Feb. 3, 1959. The loss of Holly, later to be one of the initial inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was especially significant, and singer Don McLean immortalized the tragedy as “the day the music died” in his 1971 hit “American Pie.”

The ballroom’s nomination was officially approved Jan. 13.

Then-U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt toured the ballroom in September. The interior secretary chooses landmarks annually from a list of vetted nominees.  

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

"The Surf exemplifies a pivotal time in music history, one that should be honored and celebrated,” Laurie Lietz, the ballroom's executive director, said in the release. “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 style moderne building, which opened in its current form in 1948 after a fire destroyed an earlier ballroom built in 1933, is operated by the nonprofit North Iowa Cultural Center and Museum. The group’s president, Jeff Nicholas, said its mission to celebrate the lives and legacies not only of Holly, Valens and Richardson, but all the musicians who have taken a turn on the ballroom’s stage.

“As long as the Surf Ballroom is here,” Nicholas said, “their music will never die.”

Like all performance venues, the Surf has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It recently had to cancel its 2021 Winter Dance Party, scheduled for early February and slated to include McLean, whose appearance has been indefinitely postponed. It currently has no shows scheduled until August. But the ballroom and its museum remain open to visitors.

In an October interview with the Des Moines Register, Leitz said receiving the designation would be the culmination of a nine-year effort to win nomination for the Surf, which already was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The landmark designation increases its eligibility for preservation grants while opening it to technical assistance from the National Park Service, which administers the landmark list.

The Surf is Iowa's 27th National Historic Landmark, joining sites that include the "American Gothic" house in Eldon, the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines and the Sergeant Floyd Monument in Sioux City, which was named the country's first National Historic Landmark in 1960.

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