Monday, April 30, 2007

Howard Theater - Permit me a detour out of CoHi to the 2nd bloggiest neighborhood in the US

So I know that I've been writing more about my neighborhood up here in Columbia Heights/Mt. Pleasant/Petworth, but hopefully you 15 people won't mind the diversion to somewhere else.

Two Saturdays ago, we were planning on going out on some of the Cultural Tourism walking tours all over DC, but after a late Friday night and a misunderstanding about times, we ended up getting out to Eastern Market a little too late to catch the alley tours. I've got some pictures and stories forthcoming from that...but on the way home, we took the 90 bus up Florida, which passes right by the Howard Theater, pictured below.

Howard Theater photograph by whiteknuckled.

Fortunately, the bus stopped long enough for me to get a picture through the open window before we started bumping along again. (And let me first say, God bless all you people who have to ride the 90 bus from NE/Capitol Hill over to U Street. There was about 8 gazillion bus stops and the road is in terrible shape and quite bumpity bumpty.)

I'd biked by it before, but usually not along Florida Avenue, so I hadn't stepped back to see the whole thing like this. I got a little curious to see if I could find some older pictures of the theater, because I could tell that the fa├žade didn't match the bricks and the detail down the side. It looked like there was a bit of a mismatch where a renovation had been done at some point.

Sure enough, I found this picture made back near the theater's opening in 1910

© from WHUT's "Duke Ellington's Washington" website project and their virtual tour of Shaw.

I mean, wow. I never would have guessed a Baroque and Beaux Arts exterior underneath that awful slab of concrete on the front of the thing today. I read somewhere (can't find it now) that there was a messy art-deco type renovation sometime during the 40's or 50's, which is I'm sure where the "HOWARD" sign and marquee came from.

Interestingly, integration was actually the beginning of the end for the Howard Theater. With integration, some of the notable black artists who frequently played there were able to play at larger venues elsewhere in the city. Combined with the devastating effects of the '68 riots and the flight by many to the suburbs, the Howard Theater was abandoned in 1970.

One effort to reopen the theater fizzled in 1975 after a few weeks, but did result in the national historic landmark designation. It's owned today by the DC city government, as best as I can tell.

It should definitely be handed off to someone who wants to renovate it and restore it to use, whether as a performance venue, movie theater, or future home of a place like HR57. It's an important piece of Shaw's heritage and should find a way back into circulation. It's a travesty that this place is chained up and vacant. It predates the Apollo on 125th/MLK in NYC by more than 20 years and was the earliest, biggest, and best venue in the U Street Corridor for years.

I'd tell you who all has played there over the years, but the answer is mostly — "everyone who mattered."

A few posters are still around....

© 1999 George Washington University and their "Historic U Street Jazz" project

© 1999 George Washington University and their "Historic U Street Jazz" project

Read more about the Howard Theater:
• DC Cultural Tourism
• WHUT Duke Ellington's Washington
• GWU Historic U Street Jazz project