Once great Howard Theatre will be great again
Earlier this month three dozen people donned hard hats to get a sneak preview of the ongoing renovation of Shaw's historic Howard Theatre, at 620 T Street, NW. The nearly $30 million project will restore one of Washington's most storied performance venues.
The grand opening is scheduled for April 12, 2012, though renovations could finish as early as February.
According to Washington's U Street: A Biography, Howard Theatre opened on August 22, 1910, with 1,500 seats. The Washington Bee proclaimed it "the finest theatre in the city." The Bee added, "[T]he private boxes were filled with ladies of society. The orchestra was monopolized with the social elite of Washington, gayly and gorgeously dressed in gowns fit for goddesses."
In its earliest days, the theatre hosted vaudeville, musicals, road shows, stock company productions, and even a circus or two. For a short time during the Great Depression the building hosted a church, but by 1931 the theatre was restored to a lively performance space. Over the decades the theatre hosted stars of jazz, rock-n-roll, rhythm and blues, and some early front-runners of go-go.
Unable to survive the economic troubles of the era, the Howard Theatre closed shortly after the 1968 riots that decimated so much of central Washington. It re-opened in the mid-1970s, but closed again by the early 1980s. It has been shuttered for the past 3 decades.
Immortalized in song and verse by Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and others, the theatre's pending reopening, along with the adjacent development of Progression Place on 7th Street, is already triggering memories of Washington's "Black Broadway."
"The Howard was the first major theatre built for and by black folks," said Timothy A. Jones, ANC 4C08, as he gripped a binder filled with photocopies of old photos, show programs, and newspaper clippings.
"The Howard seems to have been a place where local kids who thought they might be able to be musicians could come hang out back stage. Several discovered that they did want to be musicians," says Blair A. Rube, author of Washington's U Street.
The ground breaking for the renovations was held in early September, 2010, just weeks after the theatre's centennial anniversary.
Unfortunately, not much from the building's interior could be saved. According to construction project manager Ryan Colombo, water damage caused by leaks in the roof had destroyed most of the interior.
The renovated interior will have a standing room capacity of around 1,000, and seating capacity of between 400 and 500. There will be fewer than 100 permanent seats, all of which will be located on the 2nd floor balcony. The first floor will be flexible for either standing or banquet seating. The renovated stage will include DJ booths set to either side.
A new basement has been built which will have bathrooms, dressing rooms, a green room, and a large kitchen.
On the exterior, the façade's original 17 windows have been restored. Additionally, a new free standing statue will be added to the building's front. The statue will consist of stainless steel rods in the shape of a trumpet player, and will be called "Jazz Man".
In 2002, the DC Preservation League named the Howard one of its Most Endangered Places. According to Executive Director Rebecca Mller, "The Howard is a cultural as well as an architectural landmark." It is gratifying to see it restored and put to good use.
With the re-opening of the Howard Theatre, the revitalization of the U Street district continues to creep eastward, bringing neighborhoods back to life and returning a piece of the city's past glory.
A version of this story appeared in The Washington Informer.
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