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A restoration returns Howard Theatre to its former glory

When the Howard Theatre opens its doors to the public next week for the first time in nearly 30 years, there will be very few people alive who can recall its original look.

The theater — one of the nation’s first to cater to an African-American clientele in segregated times — opened in 1910, during the days of Black Broadway. It continued to host acts through the Motown years of the ’60s and even saw some of Washington’s early go-go acts. The theater’s red-lettered marquee, added in the ’40s, remained a landmark on T Street NW, even as the theater sat in ruins after it was finally shuttered in 1980.

By then, the theater’s facade had changed dramatically. So when architects got to work on the $29 million restoration project, in September 2010, they kept chipping away until the building’s 1910 exterior remained.
 EHT Traceries, a company that specializes in architectural history, and historic preservation firm Martinez + Johnson Architecture worked from photographs to re-create the building’s original design. Even the new, blue marquee is a throwback to the theater’s early playbills.

Inside, the feel is decidedly modern. Local firm Marshall Moya Design has managed to blend Kennedy Center class with the urban chic of the Park at Fourteenth. Towering lighted portraits of legends who performed at the theater in its heyday — Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong — grace every floor. Even the elevators are fly.

“The Howard wasn’t just going to be a paint-up, fix-up thing,” said Michael Marshall, principal architect at Marshall Moya Design. “We wanted a very finished, tailored space, not a space that looked like it was a garage converted with a bunch of lights thrown in. This is the Mercedes of theaters.”

It’s also been designed to be a multipurpose space, with a full-service kitchen and a menu by chef Marcus Samuelsson of New York’s Red Rooster Harlem restaurant.

“There’s a flexibility of being [able] to have this as a dance hall or [for] a festival-style concert,” Marshall said. “Those are the things that will make this economically viable. I like to call it economically sustainable. You do this once and it’s here to last a long time.”

That’s important if the surrounding neighborhood is to benefit from the theater’s revival. The riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 took a toll on the area, and many businesses never recovered.

The long-term development plan around the theater, managed by Ellis Development, calls for an education center behind the Howard and, eventually, the addition of a mixed-use structure down the block. Such sweeping plans raise concerns for some about the fast-encroaching gentrification of Shaw and nearby LeDroit Park. But across the street from the theater, an employee at CityCare Medical Supplier Inc. smiled at the thought of some new energy.

“It’ll be totally good for the area,” said the man, who declined to give his name but said he had worked there for 20 years. “There was nothing here before — no establishments. It’ll be nice.”

Other residents are excited about the live music the theater will bring to the neighborhood.

Charmon Anderson, a hairdresser at Reese’s Unisex Barber Shop on Florida Avenue, remembers spending many good nights at the Howard during the years it was open in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“We had fun at Howard Theatre,” she said. “We’d see Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, EU — all the bands. That was a good time, back then. It was the joint.”

Opening Acts

Our picks from the theater’s just-announced schedule.

April 9: Community Day and ribbon-cutting ceremony, noon-3 p.m., free. Performance by Wale, 9 p.m., $35.

April 13-15: Wanda Sykes, right, 8 p.m., $95-$125.

April 14: Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), 11:30 p.m., $45-$50.

April 15-16: The Roots, Sun., 11 p.m., $55, Mon., 8 p.m., $55.

April 20: Bad Brains, with GZA, 8 p.m., sold out.

April 21: Chuck Brown, 9 p.m., sold out.

April 28: Chuck Berry, 8 p.m., $95.

May 5: Chaka Khan, 8 & 11 p.m., $75.

Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; 202-803-2899.
Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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Marc Silver | April 4, 2012