Second Act

Inside the Renovation of D.C.'s Landmark African American Theater

At the end of a row of shuttered storefronts in Washington, D.C., behind a padlocked chain-link fence, stands the historic Howard Theatre.

When it opened in 1910, the Howard was advertised as the world's largest, most elaborate and sophisticated venue for African American entertainment. But long gone are the original columned portico and oversized statue of Apollo and his lyre. A 1940s renovation bricked-up all the windows and removed the Beaux Arts and Italianate detailing, yielding a stuccoed, Streamline Moderne exterior. The 1950s brought a new marquee, rock and blues artists, and a younger audience.

Neither the stucco nor the marquee remains today. The historically black neighborhood of Shaw suffered extreme economic instability in the 1960s. Attendance declined, and the Howard closed in the early 1980s.

But two months ago, the Howard Theater celebrated its 100th birthday with a "re-groundbreaking," kicking off a planned $25 million restoration. Today, a banner on the facade reads "rebirth."

"This was too important, too major, for the African American community to lose," says Roy "Chip" Ellis, a native Washingtonian, graduate of nearby Howard University, and president of Ellis Development Group, the local contracting firm overseeing the rehabilitation. "Everybody thinks the Apollo or the Regal [theaters] came first, but to tell the true story, this was the most important theater of its kind."

On a windy October afternoon, Ellis gave me a tour of the building's brick shell. Wearing dusty jeans and Timberlands, he unlocked the gate, let me in, and handed over a hard hat. We walked toward the theater entrance, pieces of concrete crunching underfoot.

"Believe it or not," Ellis said as we walked under yellow caution tape and into the building, "when it opened, this theater was unrivaled in terms of its ornate, intricate ornamentation. This ceiling alone was amazing; it was something to behold."

I followed his pointed index finger to an oval outline above and noted a gaping hole in the ceiling. "We would have loved to bring the interior back to its original state, but aside from those columns, there was virtually nothing original left, and to recreate it would have been exorbitant," Ellis said.

Help from the National Trust

Two years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Field Office gave a $5,000 grant toward the fundraising effort for the Howard Theatre. That year the project also won a $350,000 matching grant from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Corinthian columns were buried in layers of paint, the last of which is chocolate brown. The orchestra seats were removed years ago, but the deep, rectangular stage remains intact, its curtain half-raised and flanked by tattered red-velvet drapes.

 When it reopens in November 2011, the theater's new interior will feature a 600-square-foot "Hall of Fame" museum commemorating the notable artists who performed here. Duke Ellington was a regular on the stage in the 1930s, and the theater's amateur contest featured emerging stars such as Billy Eckstein and Ella Fitzgerald. Dinah Washington and Sammy Davis, Jr. played the Howard, and the Supremes made their group debut at the theater, Ellis says.

Architectural plans call for the renovated space to become a multi-use venue with bars, a lounge, and a kitchen. Cabaret-style seating will hold 600 or 700 theater-goers for music and comedy shows, and the seats can be removed to fit as many as 1,000 people for fundraisers and rallies.

"There will be both history and entertainment here," Ellis says. "We want people to come in, walk through the past and into the future."

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