Mayor Marion Barry, interceding to save the Howard Theatre from a possible foreclosure, has notified the Small Business Administration that the city is willing to buy the landmark theater.
In a letter sent yesterday, the mayor said, "In light of the pending foreclosure on the Howard Theatre, I would like to notify you that the District Government is interested in acquiring the property as part of our effort to restore the Howard Theatre as a living memorial to its past and to ensure its place in future history."
The Small Business Administration, which owns the building; the Howard Theatre Foundation, a group of citizens that holds the first trust; and the city's Office of Business and Economic Development have been talking over the past few months about how to save the theater. Kwasi Holman, the executive director of the city's development office, said yesterday that the foundation "had not satisfied the first trust . . . they did not pay their note in a timely matter."
Holman said the city was also checking whether the foundation owed any taxes on the property or if there were any other liens. "I have been talking to SBA over the last six to eight months to work out a solution," he said. "We had asked the foundation for development plans, which they didn't produce. We hope this will give them time." He said the SBA's plan to send a foreclosure notice to the foundation was "imminent."
Until the late 1960s, the Howard -- which opened in August 1910 -- was considered Washington's premiere showcase for black culture. The theater launched the careers of many great black entertainers, such as Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey and the Clovers. And its history rings with names like Duke Ellington, Billy Daniels, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, Laverne Baker and the Temptations. The theater closed in 1970, in the aftermath of the 1968 riots and amid changing musical tastes. In 1974, the year the theater was declared a historic landmark, it was purchased and reopened by investors, but they were forced to close it two weeks later.
In 1977 the foundation took over an earlier SBA loan, hoping -- along with the city -- that the Shaw neighborhood around Seventh and T streets NW, where the theater is located, would be revitalized. A Metro stop is planned for that intersection. But the theater has only been rented sporadically and is, in the words of the mayor, "abandoned and in disrepair."
The cost of the theater has not been determined, Holman said, nor how the city would buy the property, nor the future role of the foundation. "The mayor was concerned that the government do everything it can," he said. "By purchasing it, he thought we could get it restored to its rightful role." Barbara H. Yorrick, an offical of the foundation, could not be reached for comment last night.
In his letter, the mayor said, "It is our understanding that SBA will be publicly issuing a notice of foreclosure shortly, and that following a 30-day period, the project will be subject to a public auction. To acquire the theater, the District may either bid on the property, along with other interested buyers, or move to acquire the SBA lien on the theater property prior to foreclosure."