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For the Atlas, A Bold New World

In a Neighborhood That Once Burned, New Arts Center Fuels Hope for Renewal

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page N01

Jane Lang held a meeting recently with some of her new neighbors on H Street NE, where she is spearheading the construction of what may turn out to be, among an astonishingly varied array of theaters and galleries going up across the city and the region, one of the most exciting and significant new arts complexes of them all.

The question on the table was the extent of the neighborhood's emotional ties to the edifice that she is restoring, the Atlas, a 67-year-old former movie palace, a building in such horrendous shape when she took it over that people all but gagged when they walked through it. Now, with architects and contractors gently nursing the structure back to health, the issue for Lang, a Washington lawyer and daughter of Eugene Lang, a celebrated New York philanthropist, was fully understanding what the Atlas represented for a part of the city impatiently waiting for its renaissance.

Joy of Motion's Helen Hayes breaks into a dance step during a tour last month of a large studio with Doug Yuell. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

When the question was put to the meeting participants, one merchant spoke up, and what he said, Lang recalls, elegantly summed up the sentiment of everyone in the room:

"In 1968, everything burned," he said. "But the Atlas stayed."

Even with water and garbage in the basement, vermin in the halls and mold on the ceiling, the Atlas still stood for something. The rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 devastated the H Street shopping district, once one of the city's proudest retail hubs. (The Atlas is in the 1300 block.) The violence razed dozens of buildings. But the Atlas stayed.

And now its durability is reaping unanticipated rewards. Having acquired the boarded-up building from a local community-development corporation three years ago, the nonprofit group Lang organized has begun transforming the Atlas into a $18.5 million performing arts center. The first phase, a renovation of part of the structure for three dance studios and two laboratory theaters, has been completed. And this month the center, its facade almost entirely restored, took its first baby steps, opening to the public with a cabaret performance and the start of classes by a school of dance.

In the next phases, two more theaters -- a 275-seat main stage and another with flexible seating -- as well as a cafe and costume and production shops, will be added. The Atlas has already hired an executive director and signed two major tenants. African Continuum Theatre, which specializes in theater on African American topics, is making the Atlas its first permanent base. Joy of Motion, the longtime Washington dance school, has set up shop in the row of studios that look out onto the street.

On any given night, a building on a long-neglected strip could soon be alive with jazz, modern dance and drama.

"It's not just an arts center, it's a revival," says Phyllis Thompson, a lawyer who grew up shopping on H Street and is now vice chair of the Atlas board. "It makes H Street a part of the city again. And it's a sign that the neighborhoods of H Street are more than about subsistence and getting by."

In the life of an inner city, the arts are often viewed wistfully, as a lovely impracticality. Budgets tighten and school music programs get cut, or the local library lapses into disrepair. But the arts play another role in the evolution of a neighborhood, especially when citizens with vision see a need and seize an opportunity. A vibrant theater can be the anchor for wholesale renewal, a role Studio Theatre, for example, has played for a burgeoning stretch of 14th Street NW. Already there is the air of expectation on this block of H Street, where the Atlas joins a smaller theater, the pioneering H Street Playhouse. Some storefronts are being remodeled, and new restaurants are opening their doors.

"The Atlas, as with other theaters, like the Lincoln or the Tivoli, plays a very important role in reviving a neighborhood and corridor, in helping generate interest from private investors who want to be part of the renewal," says Derrick Woody, an expert in retail strategy in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. "The Atlas is seen as a catalyst."

How successful a catalyst will depend, of course, on how well the Atlas does its job. The performing arts center has been set up as an institution to present the dance, theater and music of others, not to produce its own, and the Atlas staff and board are still talking to a range of arts organizations throughout the city, trying to determine which will be a fit for their intimate but not tiny spaces. The challenge, however, doesn't end there. The nearest Metro stop, New York Avenue, is a hike and a half -- make that two hikes. The issue of adequate parking has not been resolved. Beyond that, there is the question of once they've built it, who will come? Though only a five-minute-or-so drive from Union Station, the Atlas is located in a neighborhood many theater and dance patrons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, until now the block at night has seemed rather deserted, at times even a little menacing.

Jeremy Skidmore, artistic director of the Theater Alliance, says that when his troupe began performing at the H Street Playhouse in 2002, "it was a nightmare getting people out there." Even educating cabbies about the existence of the theater was daunting. "I'd say, 'I swear there is a theater there,' " he recalls.

The situation has improved since then, Skidmore adds, as more and more people have ventured to the theater and police have stepped up patrols. Still, his experience illustrates how much energy must be invested in changing entrenched patterns and attitudes.

Lang, who has a second career as a theater producer -- she brought her brother, the actor Stephen Lang, to Arlington last year for the world premiere of his one-man show "Beyond Glory" -- seems aware of the work cut out for the Atlas. Her vision for the place is ambitious, a center that can both sustain itself and nourish the next generation. "If you want to keep renewing the arts in D.C.," she says, "we have to have the space for them."

At the same time, she thinks the Atlas will have only limited success if it is not embraced by the people who live nearby. An indication to her of how much the community wants to be part of it came after the center sent out a mailing to its neighbors asking for donations in any amount. Among the many contributions was a poignant one, a $5 money order. "It's a pure act of faith," she says. (With her husband, Paul Sprenger, Lang has made her own commitment, contributing $2.75 million to the project.)

Initially, Lang was not set on such a major mission. She'd been looking around the city at properties that her company, Tribute Productions, might convert for use as a 150- to 200-seat theater. She toured the vast Atlas and thought: too big.

But something stuck. "It's really true," she says. "It spoke to me in my sleep. I woke up the next morning, and suddenly this new vision became clear, that this was something we could do that so far exceeded my own ambitions but was something that would be worth all the time and effort that would be required."

If the Atlas was a symbol of survival after 1968, it also was a reflection of how far H Street still had to go to become vital again.

Early on, Lang escorted her father -- whose philanthropic efforts on behalf of impoverished New York schoolchildren have been well publicized -- through the squalid building. He took the tour, she says, in absolute silence.

"Gee, Dad, is something wrong?" she recalls asking.

"No," the elder Lang replied. "I'm just impressed by your imagination."

Her father would sign on as a major benefactor. Just as importantly, she won the support of some who'd known the Atlas way back when. For example, local developer Orlando Brooks had inquired about buying the theater and was miffed at losing the project. "But I got to know Jane, we got to talking and we kept talking," he says. "I realized she had integrity, even though she's not from the community." Brooks ended up on the Atlas's community advisory board and now sits on the center's board of trustees.

Giving the African Continuum Theatre a home was a confirmation to Brooks that the Atlas was not being co-opted. A broad range of D.C. performance groups, including the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and the Washington Chorus, plan to use Atlas's facilities, too. What the center can provide groups like ACTCo, says Patrick Stewart, the center's newly hired executive director, are the ancillary services, marketing, ticketing and office space, thereby allowing a company with limited resources to concentrate on what it does best.

"Jane said to us that we can think of it as a mini-Kennedy Center," explains Jennifer L. Nelson, ACTCo's artistic director. The troupe, in fact, had been an occasional tenant at the Kennedy Center, putting on some productions in its Film Theater, which is now being turned into a children's theater. Nelson was a bit concerned about basing her operation on H Street; a lot of the Kennedy Center audience, she believes, won't follow her company to the Atlas. Still, she says, she's intrigued by the idea of becoming a fixture in a part of town where the group can assert its identity. "We're hoping there will be some community people who will love the idea of having a local company."

That is central to Lang's way of thinking, too. She hopes to stage some of her own productions in these new spaces -- like every other organization that wants to settle in for a few weeks or for good, Tribute will have to pay for the privilege. But the possibilities of a more far-reaching impact on the city are what intrigue her.

"I'm not Bill Gates, but Paul and I are blessed with extraordinary good fortune in our lives," she says. "I saw here that this could be not just a theater but a place where the community would have something to restore its pride of place."

The goal at the Atlas goes far beyond putting fannies in seats. "If you hear my father talk about it, he sees this as Paul and I do, as a vehicle of change. It's not a question of giving back as much as it is a question of creating something of lasting value."

And, of course, ensuring that the Atlas stays.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company