The renovated interior at The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Tim Cooper)

In its heyday, The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood launched the careers of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. But in the late 1960s, the times were a changin’, and race riots and urban flight took its toll on the area, known as “Black Broadway.”

The theater, unused since the 1980s, fell into decay — the seats rotted away, the catwalks rusted and fell, and photos of its former stars, including Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder, were left hanging on walls, covered with graffiti.

Last week, after a $21-million renovation, The Howard reopened. Its developers and designers said the venue was crafted for versatility, and will cater to all audiences. 

“It has a storied history,” said project architect Gary Martinez, of Martinez+Johnson. “The Howard was very important to the city, and the country, and the impact of The Howard, for a small venue, was huge. We tried to keep that in mind.” 

When the theater opened in 1910 — in a Jim Crow segregated city — it was the jewel of “Black Broadway,” hosting vaudeville, live theater, talent shows, and the Lafayette Players and Howard University Players. While it catered mostly to a black audience, it was a place where color barriers blurred, and earned the nickname, “Theater for The People” because it attracted both D.C. dignitaries and everyday people. 

A SHOT RANG OUT IN MEMPHIS 

Social harmony gave way to social unrest on April 4, 1968, when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Cities like Chicago, Baltimore and Washington erupted into five days of crippling riots, leaving 12 dead and over 1,200 buildings destroyed. The Howard Theatre escaped damage, but closed anyway. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, but was only open for a few weeks between 1970 and 1980, when it was permanently closed. 

In 2000, the venue was designated an American Treasure under the federal “Save America’s Treasures” program created by President Clinton. In 2006, the nonprofit Howard Theatre Restoration group formed to raise money for the restoration, bringing in $2 million. The city of Washington — which owns the building — gave the project $12 million in grants, incremental financing and tax credits, and the overhaul began. 

“We had a lot of discussions with [Roy “Chip” Ellis, president and CEO of Ellis Development Group] about what it should be like,” Martinez said. “If the early concept was to be successful, it had to be for more than a single purpose. It had to fulfill broad programming and needed support areas it did not have. But since it was an icon, it had to speak to its past.” 

Renovated facade of The Howard Theatre (Photo Credit: Tim Cooper)

Martinez and his partner, Thomas Johnson, opted to restore The Howard’s facade to its original 1910 appearance with elements of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance and neoclassical design. 

“This theater is older than many of the movie palaces, and we didn’t find a set of drawings,” Johnson said. “The vision was pieced together from snapshots and oral histories.” 

SHINING A NEW LIGHT 

Onsite investigation uncovered other clues. Under the layers of facade, they found windows time had forgotten, Martinez said. 

“It’s set up with natural light, so a gospel brunch has more natural light that can be shut down for hip-hop concerts,” he said. 

“We were recreating the historic facade, but there was no original lighting, just The Howard Theatre sign,” said Paul Whitaker, lighting designer and theater consultant for Schuler Shook, the company that planned the lighting throughout the building, from exterior to stage. “It took a lot of time to hide the lighting, but we were not going to just add some sort of ugly thing to the building.” 

Schuler Shook concealed fixtures in places like the doorway header to maintain the historic look while letting light enhance the building, Whitaker said. 

The restoration also included gutting the interior, formerly 1,200 fixed seats, to create a flexible space capable of transforming from a 650-seat supper club to standing room for 1,100 in less than half an hour. Early bookings will put flexibility to the test, with acts ranging from Wale, Wanda Sykes, Taj Mahal and rapper Mos Def plus Blue Oyster Cult, the Harlem Gospel Choir and D.C. punk legends Bad Brains. 

Blue Note Entertainment, owner/operator of the Blue Note Jazz Club, B.B. King Blues Club, and the Highline Ballroom in New York, were hired to book and operate the venue. 

Martinez and Johnson are convinced the design is up to the challenge. 

“When we first went in, it was very bare, but we could understand where the balance was, there was potential for intimacies,” Johnson said. “Theaters in those days, you grabbed a seat and saw what was on.” 

LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR 

The space includes a $2 million state-of-the-art acoustic system, 10-foot video screens and recording capabilities, a deeper stage, basement and additional wing space, and a gourmet kitchen in the basement to support the supper club layout, as well as the venue’s potential use for political and corporate events. Celebrity chef Marcu Samuelsson designed the menus, inspired by the theater’s cultural heritage. 

“In creating additional space, we had to think about how it might best serve the venue and the audience,” Martinez said. “The driving fact was patron experience, and how to protect and enhance the intimate experience of the original building, and weave another whole layer of service in the hall.” 

“We spent a lot of time planning out how spaces would work,” Whitaker said. “It will be primarily music, but it is equipped for whatever the owners need it to do — rock and roll, jazz, gospel, or corporate events. We provided new lighting positions, new catwalks, a new truss that raises and lowers, and a motorized curtain that comes in and out and can hide the stage.”

Gutting the interior made the interior lighting job easier in some ways, Whitaker said. 

“Because the interior space was so abandoned, the interior is fairly modern and we didn’t face a lot of restrictions, but we did face issues,” Whitaker said. “Getting a catwalk in above the house was very difficult. It fit within the existing structure, but we had to weave it in to fit above the dining rooms.” 

They also had to take into consideration the Howard is in a largely residential neighborhood. 

“We knew the base building, the [brick] wall system in particular, was a good start,” said acoustic designer Rick Talaske, of Talaske|Sound Thinking. “The walls are often the limiting factor, but they were quite sound. But we knew the door openings had to face in the direction of residences.” 

He advised an acoustically-rated door for the exterior, and a multilayer gypsum board ceiling that adds an extra layer of sound protection to the concrete planks and steel in the roof. 

“We put pink noise through the system, and played that at the loudest level we could safely play on the audio system,” Talaske said. “It was quite loud inside — we were all wearing ear protection. But outside, you could barely hear the sound from the doors, and from the roof, you couldn’t discern it at all.” 

The sound may stay in, but the word is out, and the neighborhood has warmly welcomed the theater back into its fold, Martinez said. 

The theater’s revitalization is but the first step. At a gala opening on April 12, which honored Motown Records founder and producer Berry Gordy and featured performers including Smokey Robinson, Al Jarreau and Savion Glover, Howard Theater Restoration began looking toward the future. They kicked off a new capital campaign, which will add an educational center and museum behind the theater. 

“The fortunes of the theater very much parallel the fortunes of the neighborhood,” Johnson said. 

“We want it to attain that [former] level of significance again,” Martinez said.

Interviewed for this story: Gary Martinez and Tom Johnson, (202) 333-4480; Rick Talaske, (708) 524-2800; Paul Whitaker, (917) 686-4745

 

A New Life for a D.C. Icon

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