Once upon a time, on the site where the E Street Expressway now speeds automobiles across town, the city of Washington had a convention center.
Built in the 1920s and ballyhooed as a shrine to culture, a magnet for conventions and a sure money-maker, the Washington Auditorium departed this world in 1963, a pile of rubble at 19th and E Streets NW.
The history of the Washington Auditorium is a story of zealous promotion and great expectations that ring with phrases almost identical to arguments offered today in support of a city civic center. The auditorium, however, ran into at least one obstacle that doesn't confront the current project - the Great Depression.
The auditorium, like the proposed convention center, had the vigorous support of the Washington business community, which predicted great things for it. It opened in January 1925, with a performance of Faust, followed by a convention of missionaries addressed by President Calvin Coolidge.
But it went rapidly downhill. Physical problems developed during the first yar. As the Depression approached, the auditorium fell on hard times. The hall that once provided a stage for Paul Robeson, Jascha Heifetz, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow filled with dance marathons, wrestling matches and revivals in its waning years.
Seven years after its glittery opening, the auditorium's days as a stage ended in 1932, when the federal government stepped in to lease it for offices.
In the predictions of the auditorium's boosters - the Board of Trade, the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, the Lions, the Elks, the local newspapers and other business presences and civic do-gooders - there were no questions about the auditorium's viability, no hint of its future.
"We're not going to let any grass grow under our feet . . . There is a particular need for this in view of the conventions that want to come to Washington this year and which cannot come unless we have an adequate building in which they can hold their meetings and exhibits," said Col. Robert N. Harper in 1922. Harper, a former Chamber of Commerce head, was chief among a group of businessmen who supported the auditorium.
"It is estimated that the yearly receipts for meetings and entertainment, shows, etc. will be $90,000," a Washington Board of Trade bulletin predicted in 1922. "Yearly expenses are estimated at $38,950, leaving an estimated profit of $51,050 - a sweet 20 per cent return."
From another: "With this auditorium, Washington will become the Convention City of America. Millions of dollars will be left here annually to be distributed among the local people, benefiting everyone either directly or indirectly."
"The businessmen of Washington are unanimous in the view that this is one of the most laudable projects ever undertaken for the good of the city," said The Washington Post the same year. "Reports from the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade show that many large associations are forced to choose other cities for their annual meetings because of our small auditoriums . . ."
The city gushed over the design of the building, which seated slightly more than 6,000, and the massive pipe organ built for the auditorium.
"From the architect's drawings of the building as a whole, an idea may be conceived from frist glance which places the auditorium of Washington nost only on a plane with American public buildings so far as accommodations go, but also well in the forefront of public buildings throughout the world, the famed structures of continental Europe included," said the Washington Star. "Simplicity with elegance is the keynote of the architecture."
The organ, built by a Hagerstown company for about $50,000, drew even grander praise. "It will mark a new epoch in music in the Nation's Capital," said the Washington Times in 1924. "In every city where the mammoth pipe organ, a huge orchestra in itself, has become part of a great civic auditorium, the city has taken enormous strides forward in its civic and artistic life."
With special traffic regulations in effect for the big affair, the auditorium opened in Jan. 26, 1925. By February seats in the balcony were being remodeled because of complaints that people couldn't see. "Complaints whcih have been made about the flat downstairs floors are not more justified than would be complaints about the great Cleveland auditorium which also has a flat floor, but which the people of Cleveland have accepted and are proud of," said Harper, somewhat peevishly.
In June, the pipe organ was dedicated and about 5,000 turned out for the occasion, although some of the audience drifted away as the speeches went on. Harper "dwelt at length on the statistical aspects of the great house," but also "spent considerable time answering some of the criticisms of the practicality of the auditorium and called it a great civic institution," said one news account.
Some of the speeches were inaudible in the balcony and part of the orchestra section, said the same account. When the organ concert began, however, the noise from the organist playing fortissimo blasted some of the same audience out of the balcony.
By 1930, the owners of the auditorium were actively trying to get off their hands. There were congressional proposals to purchase it and turn it into a National Guard Armory, then a plan to raze it for future Army or Navy development. In 1932, the government leased the building for offices.
Even as the auditorium was foundering and its owners were trying to unload it, some members of the Congress and the Washington business community looked around Washington and found it wanting.
"So far as the City of Washington is concerned, there is only one difficulty," said N.Y. Rep. Sol Bloom, associate director of the celebration of George Washington's bicentennial, which was coming up. "Washington does not have a suitable auditorium."
He didn't want to disparage existing auditoriums, he said, but he added that he knew "personally of many great organizations that would like to meet here but will be unable to do so because of the lack of a suitable meeting place."
Postmortems attributed the Washington Auditorium's failings as an auditorium to various causes, including the Depression, physical problems and competition - for instance from DAR Constitution Hall, which was built after the Washington Auditorium.
In 1935, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration moved about 200 people into the building. Later the Central Intelligence Agency was housed in the balcony, behind a wire mesh wall apparently designed to keep bureaucrats form tumbling into the orchestra.
"On my walk today I dropped into the Washington Auditorium," wrote Washington Daily News columnist Ernie Pyle in 1935. "You wouldn't know the Auditorium now."
"Take, for instance, that seat on the right-hand aisle in row 6 of the orchestra, where I sat and heard Paul Robeson sing; the seat from where I listened to Clarence Darrow and old Sen. Stanley of Kentucky debate prohibition; the seat I occupied the night Ameilia Earhart told of her flight across the Atlantic.
Do you know where that seat is now?
"I don't either, but where it stood is the cubby hole office where Mr. Spinko, minor executive of the WPA, sits talking into a dictaphone."
Pyle recounted other visits to the auditorium, to "whoop-em-up revival meetings," to see "the apemen known as 'rasslers'," to auto shows. Even in the balcony, "they've taken out seats and put in partitions and built offices up the incline."
In 1957, the General Services Administration announced condemnation of the building. The Washington Auditorium corporation went out of business in March, 1960."Ironically the corporation has turned out to be more valuable dead than alive," a Post account said. The building brought $1,030, 100 at a condemnation trial, touching off a four-year battle over the money.
Half of the first $800,000 used to build the auditorium was raised with stock subscriptions from about 800 businessmen. The other half came through a mortgage. A second mortgage for $250,000 was obtained later. The condemnation award, more than twice what the federal government had estimated, touched off a scramble by mortgage holders and other creditors to try to get some of their money back.
In 1961, GSA was still trying to get rid of the famed pipe organ, which was finally sold to a Richmond man for $1,000, after the University of Maryland and others turned down GSA's free offers of the instrument.
In 1963, wreckers brought down the final curtain on the Washington Auditorium.