Greater Greater Washington

Recently Lost Washington: Allen Theater in Takoma Park

Early Saturday morning, a clothing store and former Allen Theater in Takoma Park was destroyed in a three-alarm fire. Police from Montgomery and Prince George's counties were called into fight the blaze at what was Gussini Fashion and Shoes, located at New Hampshire and Ethan Allen avenues. The story quickly made the rounds on firefighter blogs drawn to the spectacular flames.


The former Allen Theatre in Takoma Park. Photo by Dan Reed.

The fire could be a setback to the City of Takoma Park's The New Ave campaign, which seeks to draw customers to local businesses and eventually revitalize the New Hampshire Avenue corridor. The building and the adjacent strip mall were one of the major properties along New Hampshire targeted for redevelopment. A pair of The New Ave banners can be seen on the corner of the building, partly singed but still intact.

Allen Theater & 'The New Ave' Sign

The building originally opened in March 1951 as the 946-seat Allen Theater, whose neon marquee was so bright that it was never fully turned on due to fears of distracting motorists. Shuttered in 1990, the Allen joined a handful of now-closed single-screen cinemas in the Takoma Park area, including the Langley Theatre at New Hampshire and University, the Flower Theatre at Flower and Piney Branch, and the Takoma Theatre on 4th Street NW in the Takoma neighborhood of DC.

In the 1950's, the Allen Theater didn't discriminate against black patrons, unlike other local theaters. Burtonsville resident Jeffrey Fearing would walk to the Allen Theater as a kid while living nearby on Sheridan Street in the District. "It was one of the Maryland theaters that my parents knew was integrated. Not all of them made people of color welcome," he writes in an e-mail. "Only movie I remember seeing there as a kid though was Peter Pan, though I went there at least once as a grown-up when it was more of a grindhouse theater."


The Allen Theater on opening day in 1951.
Photo from Maryland's Motion Picture Theaters by Robert Headley.


The Allen Theater, now Gussini Fashion & Shoes, in 2008.
Photo by Jack Coursey.

While many of the Allen Theatre's original features had been removed after its conversion to a clothing store in 1990, the marquee and double-height lobby windows remained. They were emblems of the area's dwindling supply of Mid-Century Modern or Googie buildings, which after fifty or so years are old enough to be irrelevant but too young for many people to appreciate for its history. One well-known example would be the Perpetual Building in Downtown Silver Spring, which has long been threatened with demolition despite being neither abandoned or in poor condition.

On Monday, the Montgomery County Fire Department told the Gazette that the Allen Theater will be razed. "Three of the walls were still standing ... they were eventually knocked down," said Capt. Oscar Garcia. "Essentially, the building is going to be demolished."

Check out this photo of the theatre in 1985, these photos of the fire taken by firefighter (firefighter enthusiast?) Bill McNeel, and below, a slideshow I took of the destroyed Allen Theater.

Crossposted at Just Up The Pike.

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Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 

Comments

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In the same strip shopping center, in what I think now is "All Star Carpet & Flooring" was one of the first brick & mortar health cooperatives in a suburban area. I don't think it was damaged during the fire. It was formerly the site of the non-profit Group Health Association clinic. As GHA expanded, it eventually moved out and leased from the Presidential Building near Prince George's Plaza. Later, GHA simply couldn't compete against the deep pockets of the Kaiser's & Humanas of the 80s and was sold. The center on New Hampshire Ave was known then as the "Labor-Management Health Center."

by kreeggo on Dec 8, 2009 4:40 pm • linkreport

very sad..

...makes me think of all of those grand movie theatres that used to be in downtown DC prior to the mid 70's when there was a mad rush to tear all of them down.

I saw Doctor Dolittle when it first came out in one of these old movie houses- all ornate and with big huge velvet seats and beautiful in it's decrepitude.

by w on Dec 8, 2009 4:43 pm • linkreport

Wow, I drove by this on Sunday and wondered what the story was - thanks for posting this.

by DC_Chica on Dec 8, 2009 5:39 pm • linkreport

A few thoughts. This may actually be for the good. The eventual plans for redoing New Hampshire Ave probably would have required removing the shopping center and the theater, so this will avert a fight over preserving the theater.

The Greenbelt Theater in the Roosevelt Center in old Greenbelt is still a single screen, and in operation. As far as I can tell, there is still something left of the Flower, which was some kind of church until recently. And the Takoma Theater is also still around, although its current owner seems more interested in destroying it than in selling it for a nice capital gain.

by KenF on Dec 8, 2009 7:37 pm • linkreport

An interesting looking building. Quite a few suburban theatres went up at the end of the 40s/beginning of the 50s around the country. Usually they had an old school design with a big marquee extending over the street and lots of neon or small lights. They could have been built in the 20s or 30s from the outside, but typically they were more utilitarian on the inside. This building is not really googie or other "classic" architecture but still unique. Most mid century stuff here consists of depressing-loking red brick garden apts in the burbs or yellow mid-rises in DC. The retail usually has been altered beyond recognition or badly neglected.

by Rich on Dec 8, 2009 10:46 pm • linkreport

Dan, can you explain why this might detract from efforts to redevelop New Hampshire Ave? As KenF rather directly says, the concept that TNNHA lays out redoing that parcel. Which included demolishing the old/historic theater, I suppose.

I don't have much idea how far along this project is (like with changes to zoning), but the landowners have more incentive now to engage with the redevelopment process now, don't they?

On the other hand, they were engaged enough before to hang up a sign, and other buildings are basically falling down, so the plan has a long way to go.

by DavidDuck on Dec 9, 2009 11:03 pm • linkreport

It is so sad to see such a big theater in this condition.

by Timberland Schuhe on Dec 10, 2009 2:53 am • linkreport

My father worked the Allen for many years I remember him driving myself and friends to and from for Saturday Matinees. I still remember seeing Ursula Andrews in Dr. No,. Went to see Soupy Sales and Fabian in-person there. We drove up to say goodbye on Saturday it was sad. I love the movie Majestic and hoped one day the Allen would follow suite but not the Allen not today.

by R Warren on Dec 15, 2009 7:08 pm • linkreport

I remember the Allen Theater very well, but I don't think you all remember, before it was Gusini Fashion and Shoes, wasn't it called Fashion Warehouse?

by Jeremy Long on Nov 20, 2010 2:58 am • linkreport

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