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Lost Washington: the Trans-Lux Theater

Trans-Lux theater
The Trans-Lux was once located on the west side of 14th Street, NW, between New York Avenue and H Street. The Trans-Lux was designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb in 1936. The theater opened on March 13, 1937.

One of Washington's most elegant art deco buildings, the streamlined theater was designed to show exclusively the latest newsreels from all corners of the globe together with an assortment of shorts, comedies, and travelogs.

The theater had many features unique for its day in Washington -- well-spaced seats, indirect lighting, rear screen projection, wall-to-wall carpeting, sound-absorbent walls, and one of the first air-conditioning systems in a public building in the city.

Efforts were made to save the Trans-Lux but they proved futile. In the end, Washington preservationists lost as the parking-lot firm PMI razed it in 1975. Pictures of the demolition below.

Trans-Lux demolition 1

Trans-Lux demolition 2
Kent Boese posts items of historic interest primarily within the District. He's worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He's been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and is the force behind the blog Park View, D.C.


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That's odd, because just a few posts ago, I read all these scathing comments about historic preservationists as obstructionist NIMBYs.

I guess property rights don't matter in DC.

But really - can the denizens of GGW give me an answer to this question: how strong should be preservation laws be?

I already know the answer. Historic preservation is great when it's applied to buildings you happen to like; and for buildings you don't like (The Church), it's obtrusive.

by MPC on Jul 9, 2009 8:02 pm • linkreport

I really don't understand why property rights are more important to you than whether or not a building is interesting, but then again, I don't admit to trolling someone else's blog, either.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 9, 2009 10:01 pm • linkreport

My fellow bloggers need to know whether or not MPC is a troll, we let me tell you, I am not a troll.

I've been very consistent with support of property rights and aversion to the powers inherent within historic preservation. Check my record on here.

What I am saying is that it seems that hist. pres. can be so arbitrarily enforced. Who's to say that this theater is worthy of being saved and the downtown church isn't? If property rights are to be supplanted, you can't replace it with arbitrary renderings by bureaucrats.

by MPC on Jul 9, 2009 11:02 pm • linkreport

Historic preservation began not only because it's important to preserve some of one's history, but because people thought the buildings worth preserving to be charming. In other words, the subjective will always be a part of the preservation process no matter how scientific one tries to be in ones approach. So all those banal 50'-70's glass and concrete boxes won't be treated as well as buildings that where actually designed to be aesthetically appreciated, and that shouldn't surprise anyone.

by Thayer-D on Jul 10, 2009 7:31 am • linkreport

So you're saying it's fine for property rights to be trumped by preservation, even when the preservation power is subjective and arbitrary?

by MPC on Jul 10, 2009 7:44 am • linkreport

What I said is "the subjective will always be a part of the preservation process". Part, not completely. As for the "property rights" issue, how about the acres of poor (and historic) neighborhoods that where bulldozed? Life's a bit unfair, sorry to break it to you. BTW, does troll mean that one reads whatever one likes in other posts just to keep hammering their own point?

by Thayer-D on Jul 10, 2009 8:05 am • linkreport

I imagine in 1975 post-riot, shrinking D.C., there wasn't any foreseeable economic viability to this beautiful building, so economics trumped saving a vacant building.

by shaw rez on Jul 10, 2009 9:54 am • linkreport

"My fellow bloggers need to know whether or not MPC is a troll, we let me tell you, I am not a troll."

The Nixonian language is prescient, given that you're on record as a troll.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 10, 2009 10:19 am • linkreport

Also, Thayer, in this context trolling means more or less being disruptive in discourse for its own sake and the sake of your own amusement (or "for the lulz", in net.troll parlance).

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 10, 2009 10:20 am • linkreport

MPC's comment's may be aimed at getting reactions, but there is something to his views on property rights in DC.

In neighborhood debates, it often seems as if many vocal DC residents feel like they own everything in their neighborhoods, right down to the store front windows.

Yes, we live in close proximity to one another and we need zoning/land use regulations. But its common to hear residents demanding very specific kinds restaurants, stores and buildings.

At some point, I have to say, if you want a kid-friendly coffee shop with an open mike night and a great selection of pastries that never makes any noise, than open one yourself!

I think a more hands-off approach would benefit the city and make the city lively and vibrant.

by Daniel on Jul 10, 2009 10:46 am • linkreport

I remember that building. Back in the day, that was a really seedy part of town. Seriously seedy. I doubt it had very little economic value at the time as a theater (if it was still even open) - and it's not as if it's art deco was unique - the old art deco bus station was only a couple blocks away. We see 20s/30s art deco now as sort of charming - in the 60s and 70s it was seen as old-fashioned, out-moded and shabby.

Should this building have been saved at the time because 30 years later people might appreciate it? Taking up potential prime downtown space with a low-rise building that would have needed huge amounts of money to be economically viable (and would have had to be converted to other use than as a theater) was a very iffy proposition at the time. There was no critical mass in the area to support building the sort of Class A buildings incorporating the theater such as has been done with the National and Warner theaters. And there was no historical significance associated with the building, as, say, Ford's Theater (which was also quite derilict at the time). So what do we do - because someday someone might find it charming do we wait for 30 years for the neighborhood to turn around and someone find a use for it while it sits there old abandoned and crumbling hoping that day might come while in the meantime helping to prevent the neighborhood from achieving the critical mass needed to economically justify saving it?

I don't see this so much as property rights as it is a question of simple economics. Why should we have to save something that has little or no economic value for an indefinite future simply because someday someone might find it "interesting"?

by andy on Jul 10, 2009 11:00 am • linkreport

But it was destroyed for a parking lot, for chrissakes.

by Marian Berry on Jul 10, 2009 11:14 am • linkreport

@marian - It only stayed a parking lot for a few years.

If a building is in rundown derelict condition, and has little or no economic value to justify maintenance and upkeep and it's rundown condition and being vacant prevents otherwise desirable building near it - what is the point of keeping it around in that condition for the foreseeable future "just because"?

The land was put to economic use until the market finally changed. Now that site is a fine Class A office building. Do you propose that we should keep all such buildings run-down and intact and an eyesore (and think of a run-down neighborhood where there are many such buildings as that area used to be) until the market changes enough to justify high-end re-development? At some point, wouldn't a mulitude of "protected" derelict buildings such as this was at the time actually work against re-development because the area is undesirable?

by andy on Jul 10, 2009 11:30 am • linkreport

At some point, wouldn't a mulitude of "protected" derelict buildings such as this was at the time actually work against re-development because the area is undesirable?

That wasn't the case in South Beach. The area was derelict when it was designated a historic area, and it was only after that that it was re-developed into a chic place to see and be seen.

If it can happen for an entire area, happening to a single building doesn't seem so far-fetched.

by Korat on Jul 10, 2009 2:09 pm • linkreport

There's also Soho which was a derelict area of Manhattan in the 60's and 70's. The only reason the landowners didn't pave their paradise into parking lots was because they where waiting for the government to pay them for their properties in anticipation of the cross island highway slated for the area. Now, instead of fine class A shclock modernist office buildings, we have a unique and beautiful asset which does no damage to the city cauffers.

by Thayer-D on Jul 10, 2009 3:37 pm • linkreport

Preservation is really only supposed to apply to properties of significance at the national, state, or local level (though I guess the state level doesn't apply to DC).

Below are the criteria necessary to get a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which is usually one of the steps in getting a historic building saved from demolition.

The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and:

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or

C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history

If it doesn't meet these criteria, it's just old.

by Stephanie on Jul 13, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but I obviously missed something here. Where in the original post does it say anything about the demolition of the building being improper or inappropriate? All I can find is this:
Efforts were made to save the Trans-Lux but they proved futile. In the end, Washington preservationists lost as the parking-lot firm PMI razed it in 1975.
This seems to me like a statement of fact, more than an indictment of the process that allowed the demolition.

Can't people lament the loss of buildings that were innovative, beautiful, or otherwise outstanding without being accused of violating property rights?

by Stanton Park on Jul 13, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

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