Opened in 1910, the Howard was the first large music venue in the nation for black audiences, opening more than two decades before the Apollo in New York. Through the ’60s, it thrived, hosting the most important musicians on the circuit, including Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes.
But those were the good days, before riots in 1968 devastated the neighborhood, before urban flight, before the crime of the 1980s. The Howard Theatre was deemed a national landmark in 1974, but by then the calls to save the Howard — and the city itself — were reaching the level of a tea-kettle scream. By 1981, The Post had dubbed Seventh and T “D.C.’s meanest corner.”
Everyone wanted the Howard reopened, but “no one wanted to touch it,” recalls Chip Ellis, whose Ellis Development Group was tapped by the city in 2006 to restore the theater and, effectively, the neighborhood, with a major office and apartment project next door. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do this. One, we’ve got to bring back the history and make this a real destination, and two, if we lose it, we’re going to lose a part of our culture.’ ”
The audience on Monday will be treated to a sight that for a long time was unfathomable: The outside of the theater has been restored to look as it did in 1910 (a feat that required uncovering windows that were bricked over in a previous renovation). Inside is a venue that didn’t just receive a slap of paint, but fully embraced the zeitgeist.
The $29 million renovation has done away with the neoclassical architecture of the Howard’s heady early days and stripped the venue of its dingy, too-small theater seats. In their place are curvaceous black-walnut walls, dozens of cushy banquettes, 200-inch HD screens and VIP areas. The 12,000-square-foot venue will make room for more than 1,000 standing and — here’s what will set it apart from some other area music venues such as the new Fillmore — it will seat 600 at tables for more intimate supper-club-style concerts.
The Howard was also outfitted with a gleaming kitchen. Celebu-chef Marcus Samuelsson of Harlem’s Red Rooster (and a winner on “Top Chef Masters”) was brought in to create Southern-tinged dinner and brunch dishes (think: crab cakes in curry sauce, shrimp and grits, steak frites and herb-crusted salmon) and train the Howard’s staff.
The first several months are already booked with shows by Bad Brains, the Roots, Chuck Brown and Wanda Sykes, as well as Blue Oyster Cult and Michael Bolton. “We’re booking the space very eclectically,” explains Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note Entertainment Group, which will operate the Howard. “One night we’re having a rock show, and another night we’re having an R&B or hip-hip show. We want to keep the room going.”