Greater Greater Washington

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Can the Ontario Theatre be saved?

The Ontario Theatre at 17th Street and Columbia Road NW has been neglected, abused even, for many years, and it hasn't functioned as a movie theater in more than two decades. Although it takes some imagination to see what its possibilities are, one thing is certain: the theater has a long cultural legacy that will be lost if the building is demolished.


Photo by the author.

As I recently detailed in a post on Streets of Washington, the Ontario has lived many different lives in a neighborhood that also changed dramatically over the second half of the 20th century.

It was one of only two movie theaters built in DC during the 1950s, and, according to Robert Headley's Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC, it was the first neighborhood theater to show first-run movies. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music were first seen by Washingtonians at the Ontario, and premieres like these were gala events.

By the 1960s, the neighborhood was changing. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and the ensuing riots, the theater's old clientele were virtually gone. The following year, the theater switched to a Spanish-language format, the first theater in DC to cater to the burgeoning Latino community.

By the early 1970s, Sunday afternoons at the Ontario became the social center of the Latino community. Extended families would show up every week; for recent immigrants, spending Sunday at the Ontario represented a chance to attend an enjoyable, affordable social event on the one day of the week they had free.

This stability was threatened in 1977 when new owners took over and tried to convert the theater back to its former first-run format, on the theory that Adams Morgan had been taken over by yuppies. "There is no Spanish Community here any more," one of the new owners was quoted as saying. In response, Latinos picketed the theater, issuing a statement asking, "Who says we don't exist?" The Spanish-language films were soon restored to the all-important Sunday afternoon time slot.


Photo by the author.

Throughout the rest of the week, the Ontario took on a new life as the venue for some of the leading rock and punk bands of the era, including The Clash, Blondie, U2, and the Police. The promoter who booked these and other artists would go on to organize the celebrated 930 Club downtown in the mid 1980s. At that time, the Ontario was sold yet again, and the new owners tried to re-establish a first-run movie format.

The attempt didn't work this time either, and the theater closed in 1987. The building was then divided up for various retail businesses, including a drug store, discount store, and other shops. The theater has been vacant for the last several years.

The Historic Preservation Review Board is scheduled to consider a landmark nomination for the Ontario at its November meeting. The current owners are reportedly considering redeveloping the property as condominiums.

It would certainly be a shame if nothing can be saved of the Ontario. Besides its rich cultural history, the theater is also unique architecturally, representing a mid-century modern aesthetic as expressed by one the leading movie theater architects of the 20th century, John J. Zink, who also designed the Uptown Theatre.

The Ontario, of course, isn't nearly as beloved as the Uptown, and it has several potential strikes against it. Many people just don't care for the mid-century style, which has far fewer followers than does the art deco design of the Uptown. Additionally it's been decades since it was actually in use as a theater. An entire generation hasn't had the chance to see a movie there. Furthermore, it's run-down and simply looks ratty.

There have been other occasions when historic buildings were destroyed because they were decaying and dilapidated. Perhaps the most notable was Rhodes Tavern, one of the most historic buildings in the city at the time, which was torn down in 1984 despite a citywide referendum endorsing the need to preserve it.

Built around 1800, the little tavern at 15th and F Streets NW, had been one of the first meeting places of the young city's new government. Designated an historic landmark, it was the subject of an intense effort at preservation. But it was in bad shape. Part of it had been torn down in the 1930s, and the remainder looked out-of-place and even "ugly," in many critics' view. So in the end it came down and was replaced by a large, respectable-looking office building.

Will the Ontario share this same fate? Should it? Isn't there some way to develop this underused property without completely obliterating the old theater?

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His first book about DC history, Lost Washington, DC, was recently published by History Press. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 

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Way back in the late 70's or early 80's, I saw the movie "Driller Killer" in the Ontario.

by w on Oct 24, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

My coop is on the same block at the Ontario Theatre. It's currently an anchor of the community... a heavy weight dragging us all down. I'd love to see SOMETHING done to that space. Now that CVS has moved to a new storefront across the street, nearly the entire theatre space is available for some sort of renovation. I'd love to see some retail and nightlife at that location, with or without some new apartments above. I believe there's a plan for a mixed-use development going in there with underground parking.

by MDE on Oct 24, 2011 2:17 pm • linkreport

The only neighborhood movie theatre, other than the Uptown, I can think of that remains running is the Avalon.

Don't turn Ontario into condos! Put it back to use!

by jose on Oct 24, 2011 2:18 pm • linkreport

Not a big fan of what's euphemistically referred to as "mid-century modern" becasue its usually the same old glass box they still build today, but this building has real swagger!

I can't speak to the economics of movie theaters in the hood, but that front entrance would make for a great entry feature to what-ever ends up going inside.

by Thayer-D on Oct 24, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

As a native of Portland I have always dreamed that mcMenamins (http://mcmenamins.com/) would open in DC. This is exactly the type of property they thrive at converting. While obviously it is a long shot for them to come, surely someone can operate along the same model. Good restoration, good beer, decent food, and movies/other entertainment.

by nathaniel on Oct 24, 2011 2:55 pm • linkreport

It would be nice to find an adaptive reuse of this building. It does provide a sense of place and is worth preserving IF it can be put to use.

Theaters are nice, but cable and netflix and other innovations have made their survival difficult. DC taxpayers are already ponying up hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep worthy theaters open.

I can't imagine anyone coming up with a reasonable business plan for the Ontario Theater. So the question is what do you do with it? And Mr DeFerrari has an open mind, but no ready plan or suggestion, other than possible landmarking. Without a plan or road map, that would only make more difficult any possible development.

I think that the Rhodes Tavern argument diminishes the case for saving it, though. Rhodes Tavern was a dump and the effort to save it was highly controversial and costly in many ways to the preservationist cause.

by Mike S. on Oct 24, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

I agree with MDE that the neighborhood needs some "ooph" on that site. Lydia DePillis wrote about a proposal for redevelopment (that appears to include the existing entrance canopy) in June.

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/2011/06/01/ontario-theater-owner-dreaming-of-condos/

by Christine on Oct 24, 2011 2:59 pm • linkreport

Sure it would be great to bring the Ontario back, but the finances would be daunting. Look at the mess in the Lincoln Theater. The Avalon mentioned above has also faced some difficulty. DC has a lot of theaters and other venues for large events of several hundred people. We don't "need" another venue.

Seems to me the city would be better off building something other than a theater.

by Michael D on Oct 24, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

Yeah, condo's! I am sure they will be awesome.

I always dreamed of a brew pub in that location, with live music and a nice roof deck. Dreams are awesome. If the owner has really paid 800K in taxes ... he is def. holding out for the max profit.

by greent on Oct 24, 2011 3:37 pm • linkreport

The neighborhood is too pricey, and the building is too dilapidated. Replace it with a tall, respectable-looking condo or apartment tower with lots of affordable units!

by Jeff on Oct 24, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

the only format i could see working is something like the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse. and if there is enough space, having a bar in addition would help fund the ongoing theatre use. Arlington maximizes the use by hosting comedians, showing second viewings at lower costs, serving food & drink. You could add to that with kitchy things like Rocky Horror nights, local films, community events, local bands, and the like. All that is probably nowhere near the profitablility of condos, especially in the short term.

by dano on Oct 24, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

Everyone here has the right idea. Preserve the facade for a bar or brewpub, build housing on top. It's a great location and more people should be able to take advantage of it.

by dal20402 on Oct 24, 2011 5:08 pm • linkreport

Condos... the fate of all semi-interesting architecture.

by Neil Flanagan on Oct 24, 2011 10:26 pm • linkreport

While it's a lovely and romatic idea for a brew pub/cinema to open in this space, I'd be curioius to know how many folks suggesting that actually have experience running a food-and-drink business and/or managing a theatre.

Restaurants and cinemas are both high-volume/low margin businesses. Unless the rent and other fixed costs are very very low, these businesses have a very high risk of failure. It wasn't too long ago that the Visions Cinema at 20th and Florida had to close down, and I'd argue that place was in an even more yuppified part of Adams Morgan/Dupont.

With all of that in mind, I have no doubt the owner of this property has figured out that a 4-5 story condo is going to maximize his return and give a lot less headaches in the long run. Seems to me the only way to get the theatre back is to set up some kind of non-profit/volunteer group like those who run the Avalon and pool resources and worker time to make it a community-based business.

by Anonny on Oct 25, 2011 10:09 am • linkreport

DC NEEDS A ROLLER RINK AND THE ONTARIO SHOULD BE REDEVELOPED AS SUCH!

by Anne on Oct 25, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

I agree with Anne! Lets get some rollerskating up in this joint.

by Eddie on Oct 25, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

anything- just not another cupcake place PLEASE !!!!!!!!!!

by w on Oct 25, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

Condos... the fate of all semi-interesting architecture.
by Neil Flanagan on Oct 24, 2011 10:26 pm

Sing it brother.

I have so many issues with the transformation of neighborhoods into semi-occupied condo-land, but I'll just pose this question and see what kind of answers it generates if any.

Let's say that the proposed condo refered to in the City PAPER article is realized. Sooner or later the place becomes unaffordable to some people living there. I know there are those on this blog who say that the owners can cash out and live elsewhere. Those who rent will also have to leave. So building in density with new condos (a questionable notion to me since most are single-owner occupied) is good because it saves land and people can live further in. So what happens to the people who have to move out? Where do they go? The price going up in the city with the trend now, is inevitable I understand that. But if on this blog we say that creating density is good, where do those (already-'dense') people go who must move? Don't they go ... further out, to places that are cheaper. Sometimes they might even move into a new subdivision, built on what used to be, for example, farmland. And these people (many of whom are part of families) will have to get a car or cars. I'm just trying to square this. Are we not, in this hypothetical scenario, trading singles for families?

by Jazzy on Oct 25, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

The building is kind of ugly, architecturally, but if it can be rehabbed, it might have some potential. I think it would be a nice use as a large clothing, furniture, hardware or food store ... Trader Joes, Eataly (not gonna happen, but a guy can dream), H&M, Banana Republic, Ace Hardware, Crate & Barrel, etc. I don't think the neighborhood needs another tavern. But if it can be converted back into a theatre, and a bar is the best way to earn profit, then so be it.

Condos on top would be a nice addition.

by Scoot on Oct 25, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

Jazzy - I don't really understand your logic. Maybe you can elaborate on who you believe is being pushed out when residences are built on top of what is currently a vacant single story building.

Some people who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood move to suburbs or exurbs, but no one is forcing that lifestyle onto them. Many people move to cheaper neighborhoods within the city ....

by Scoot on Oct 25, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

"Some people who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood move to suburbs or exurbs, but no one is forcing that lifestyle onto them. Many people move to cheaper neighborhoods within the city ...."

Get out poorer people get out! Go to the poor undeveloped, areas of DC, where there are fewer amenities within walking distance, no metro and fewer buses. But you're not being forced out, you are being gently and permanently pushed out.

Whiter, Wealthier Washington indeed. (I provided the Wine).

by greentdc on Oct 25, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

Go to the poor undeveloped, areas of DC, where there are fewer amenities within walking distance, no metro and fewer buses. But you're not being forced out, you are being gently and permanently pushed out.

People have been doing that in Washington for more than 200 years, whether they be rich and poor, black or white .... Not one neighborhood, not even Georgetown or Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan can claim to have never been poor or undeveloped or lacking in transit options at one time or another. When the density increases, the amenities and transit options build on themselves. People act as if the market forces that compelled people to establish areas like Logan Circle, U Street, Columbia Heights and the Atlas District were a function of something other than being forced out of existing neighborhoods for one reason or another, whether it be from economics, race or politics. There is nothing permanent about a neighborhood or its inhabitants.

by Scoot on Oct 25, 2011 4:51 pm • linkreport

"There is nothing permanent about a neighborhood or its inhabitants."

I second that emotion.

The scope of the reasoning behind my question - where are those who are forced out/no longer able to afford the neighborhood supposed to go? - is perhaps too much for a drive-by medium like blogs, but I think unless we look holistically at the issue, then building tall structures for single people does not really solve the problem of building on land in the ex-urbs, something this blog says building tall buildings in cities accomplishes.

by Jazzy on Oct 25, 2011 5:38 pm • linkreport

@Jazzy

I'd suggest that the scope of your question is perfect for blogs - the problem is that you've phrased it as a rhetorical question, and you're only asking it to try and prove a point. At least, that's how it comes off to me as I read it.

First, I'd dispute the fact that apartment living is only for singles.

Second, even if that's true, the demographic shifts we're seeing in this country show that we'll have more singles and couples without kids in our country, not fewer. What's wrong with satisfying that market?

Third, these are people that want to live in the city. If you don't build them a condo tower, they'll end up buying an old house - because they are drawn to the place, to the location. All of that equates an increase in demand. I can assure you that simply denying additional supply in the face of additional demand will not do a thing to improve affordability.

Fourth, development within in the region isn't purely a zero-sum game, and it's innacurate to say that just because you build one residential tower in the city that you've prevented those potential residents from living in the burbs - but the aggregate levels can't really be argued.

Fifth, I think you misread the intentions of urbanists if you think it's only about tall buildings in cities. It's about increasing the supply of urban, walkable places. Urban doesn't mean inner-city, though that's probably the easiest way to get it. There are lots of examples in this region of suburbs that have developed in a walkable, transit-oriented, dense fashion.

Sixth, on affordability in particular - there's a clear need to preserve and maintain affordability in our neighborhoods, but there are a variety of tools to help with that.

I don't think your hypothetical is well thought out (this proposed tower would displace zero residents).

by Alex B. on Oct 25, 2011 5:54 pm • linkreport

Thanks for telling me exactly what I'm doing Alex B. That's nice of you.

"Second, even if that's true, the demographic shifts we're seeing in this country show that we'll have more singles and couples without kids in our country, not fewer. What's wrong with satisfying that market?"

Nothing.

"Fourth, development within in the region isn't purely a zero-sum game, and it's innacurate to say that just because you build one residential tower in the city that you've prevented those potential residents from living in the burbs - but the aggregate levels can't really be argued."

I know that the editors of this blog to not say it is a one to one ratio. That's not what I'm saying. I'm asking, yes, asking, how -- SHOW ME something -- building tall buildings in the cities curtails building on land in the exurbs? This is one of the tenets of this blog. It is not a rhetorical question,a nd I'm sorry you see it that way. Is it too much to ask for some proof? You do say "but the aggregate levels can't really be argued.". What are they?

I don't sit around contemplating this all day. I have my experiences to guide me, so sorry if my writing is not up to your hhigh standrds.

by Jazzy on Oct 25, 2011 6:56 pm • linkreport

@Jazzy

The aggregate levels of demand and growth are documented through decades and decades of census data. That growth is what it is - given the macro-level data that we collect, we have a pretty good idea of what the region's growth is going to look like. The census also has plenty of opportunities to self-correct and adjust those projections on an ongoing basis.

I'm not sure what proof would satisfy you. If you want proof that building in the core means less pressure on the exurbs, I don't really think that's the right question to ask - the situation is more complex than that. There are far too many confounding factors to simply look at prices and make a determination.

However, as my earlier point suggests, if there's a market for the new construction in the city, then there is clearly a demand for it. The market does tell us broadly that the urban areas of DC near metro stations have held value in the real estate crash while the exurban prices have collapsed.

So, there's plenty of evidence - I don't know that it's possible to put that together into a kind of geometric proof - but I do think it's a slam dunk case. Land use policy and transportation investment shapes development - it shapes that aggregate demand.

Your hypothetical asked "are we not trading singles for families?" And my reply is no. The hypothetical involves a new building and an increase in housing units. Even if we were trading singles for families (which I don't think is true, exactly - we're just seeing more singles as part of a larger demographic shift), we'd still be seeing a net gain in the city. And DC's growing population reflects that.

by Alex B. on Oct 25, 2011 9:29 pm • linkreport

I love grand old movie palaces too, but this one hardly fit that description when it was new. No comparison to the Fabulous Fox in St. Louis, or Atlanta Fox, or Radio City Music Hall in NYC, or even historic like the old Biograph Theater in Chicago where Dillanger was gunned down by the Feds in the 30's (now that's fun history!). As to restoring, restore what? Abandoned for 20 years and cut up into retail spaces before becoming vacant, so just what is left inside of any value?

Hey, here is a constructive idea to use it as is, no cost. Halloween is 6 days away, we could still use it as a Hell House this year. Plenty of time to do it, after all there is no need to spend any time or money on decorating it, just open the doors and let people in to see what 20 years of rot and decay looks like. It will scare the BeJezas out of the kids and send the parents running like crazed villagers, pitchforks high and torches blazing, to the November landmarks meeting demanding that the evil castle on the corner be torn down forthwith.

P.S. The proceeds of the Hell House night can be donated to CM Graham's campaign fund.

by Greg Hacke on Oct 26, 2011 12:05 am • linkreport

REM played there in 83, and Dee Lite with Bootsy Collins in 92!

Please anything but no more ugly condos filed with vapid yuppies!

by Hardships on Oct 26, 2011 7:50 am • linkreport

The Ontario has not been abused or neglected, because that assumes it had some higher potential over the years. It just hasn't been useful, not as a theater or much else. Other than the canopy, it is just brick walls and high ceilings -- look at the side of the structure, for example.

Sure, you could imagine a high investment eatery like a biergarten, or condo's with ground floor retail. But, I don't see this structure as deserving any special effort to preserve its appearance or use.

by mtp on Oct 26, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

Saw Thin Lizzy @ The Ontario during their "Renegade" tour. One of the best rock shows I've ever been to. The theatre was awesome - the sound incredible!

by Richard on Feb 24, 2012 10:10 am • linkreport

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