Washington is about to get a new movie theater. When it begins operations, it will also be the city’s oldest movie theater.
The century-old Barracks Row structure originally known as Meader’s Theater has served as a church for the past 50 years. But the building’s new owner, National Community Church , recently went public with plans to operate a cinema as well. In June, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission backed the church’s application to the city’s historic-preservation board to install a retro-looking, 17-foot-high sign on the facade.
The Capitol Hill theater opened in 1909 at 535 Eighth St. SE, hosting movies and vaudeville performances. The 480-seat venue operated until 1962 under a variety of names, including the New Theater and the Academy. It was then used as a church, a role that will continue after the structure is reborn as the Miracle Theater. The building once had a large “M” on it, but the insignia was removed decades ago.
“We hope to be able to start showing movies . . . in late November or December,” Mark Batterson, National Community Church’s lead pastor, wrote in an e-mail. “It’s always been our desire to share it with the community,” he added.
The new theater will not compete with local megaplexes, of course.
“The Miracle will be a sub-run theater that will show a variety of films,” Batterson said. “In addition, for the many families on Capitol Hill, we plan to feature a heavy dose of children’s programming, mixing family films and live performances by children’s entertainers.”
The hall will also be available for community meetings, school productions and other neighborhood events.
The pastor’s group bought the former theater from the People’s Church last year for $3 million and soon began to restore the building to something resembling its early-20th-century appearance. Batterson declined to comment on the cost of the ongoing renovations.
“We haven’t found any photos of the interior of the Meader theater,” he noted, “but we want to restore it to resemble a 1920s or 1930s theater. The theater seats are 1929 originals.”
The building has pressed-tin ceilings in the lobby and under the marquee and balcony. Traditional red curtains cover the side walls, framing old-fashioned light fixtures. Photographs of some of the building’s earlier incarnations are among the vintage images that decorate the lobby and the auditorium.
“We love the sense of history,” said Joel Schmidgall, the campus pastor for the Barracks Row church.
Currently, the Avalon is the city’s oldest cinema in operation; it opened in 1923 as the Chevy Chase Theater. A few other movie houses from the silent era remain but have long since been adapted to other uses. The Minnehaha, a 1910 vaudeville and movie venue on U Street NW, is now Ben’s Chili Bowl.
National Community Church began at the now-shuttered Union Station megaplex, where its first service was held in 1996. It has six area outposts, mostly in movie theaters, including the Georgetown AMC Loews, the Regal multiplexes at Ballston Common and Potomac Yard, and the GALA Hispanic Theatre (in the former Tivoli movie palace). The Barracks Row facility is the only one owned by the organization.
Some of the services are presented entirely on video, some are live, and others are a mixture of the two.
On a recent Sunday morning, the congregation at the soon-to-be Miracle Theater saw a video sermon, a live performance by a Christian-rock band and prayers led by Schmidgall.
Although the theater has the capability to project movies, Schmidgall said it will be upgraded with newer equipment and a bigger screen. The church, he noted, has already dabbled in movie exhibition, hosting occasional outdoor screenings in nearby Lincoln Park.
National Community Church also operates Ebenezers Coffeehouse (“Coffee With a Cause”), which opened in 2006 near Union Station.
“We wanted to build something that could serve the community seven days a week, so we built a coffeehouse,” Batterson wrote.
Its profits, he said, support local projects such as the Southeast White House and Strive DC, as well as the building of orphanages in Congo and Uganda.
“It is one of NCC’s core convictions that the church should be in the middle of the marketplace,” he said. “We didn’t want to build a traditional church building that we used only for our own purposes on the weekends.”
Currently, the church uses the theater on Eighth Street only on Sundays and for an early-evening Saturday service. That leaves plenty of time for movies. But most contemporary Hollywood fare probably does not fit the concept.
“We just want to be a blessing for the city,” Schmidgall said. “And we’re trying to be a blessing for families.”