The Tivoli Theater was one of Washington's largest and grandest enterntainment palaces when it opened in 1924 at 14th Street and Park Road NW. Its richly decorated 2,500-seat, two-balcony marble auditorium and 10 French-style boutiques along the upper floors brought elegance to the busy commercial intersection.
Today, the Tivoli is an empty, fire-scarred hull near the heart of the 1968 riot zone on 14th Street. Its exterior is rusted and grimy, its shops abandoned, hundreds of marquee bulbs broken off in their sockets and the walls covered with faded protest and show posters.
Now the long-ignored Tivoli has been pushed back into the spotlight by a group of preservationists who want it saved and made a historic landmark. They oppose developers and some residents who favor tearing it down.
Both sides view the Tivoli as a spark to long-delayed revitalization of the neighborhood; they disagree on whether to raze it or restore it.
The restorationists, organized as Save the Tivoli Inc., have challenged the owner, the District government, on its contract with the development group, Park Central Associates, which plans to tear down the Tivoli and build commercial establishments.
"I don't see how razing the theater is going to add anything to the neighborhood," said Deloris Brandon, a Save the Tivoli board member and Howard University information officer who lives in the area. "The developers are out for one thing--to make a buck--and if the neighborhood suffers, it's too bad."
"The Tivoli theater, for reasons beyond the control of the developer, must be removed," Park Central Associates said in its written proposal to replace the theater with a supermarket, a financial institution, a parking lot and apartments. "This development on Square 29 the Tivoli site has been perceived by all jump involved to be perhaps the most urgently needed in this area."
A representative of the developers was unavailable for comment.
Those who favor razing the Tivoli say it is an eyesore and a barrier to the kind of development that is booming in other parts of the city, but only creeping along in this section. Officials of the Department of Housing and Community Development described the barricaded, condemned building as so damaged inside that it is hazardous to enter and possibly beyond salvaging.
"DHCD has not come to the foregone conclusion that it will be razed or not," said James Kerr, administrator for development. "It is clear that some people in the community want to save the Tivoli, but on the other side are those who are vocal that it should be razed."
Park Central Associates has been granted exclusive rights to develop the site under a contract with the Redevelopment Land Agency. The project's cost was estimated at $50 million when it was submitted last year. Kerr said the developers must submit evidence they can finance it before the plan wins final approval.
The alternative cost of restoring the theater has not been determined. Brandon said Save the Tivoli is raising money for an architectural survey on the building to determine the cost. The developers also are required to submit an estimate on the restoration cost before the theater's fate is determined, Kerr said.
Park Central Associates includes the architectural firms of Robert J. Nash and Mariani and Associates, minority enterprise specialist and businessman Arthur McZier, Dart Drug president Herbert H. Haft, businessman Gerald Lustine and the Temple Church of God in Christ, on nearby Park Road.
Restoration advocates argue that the Tivoli represents the theatrical and architectural grandeur of its time, as well as a significant period of city history, and will help to spark redevelopment in the area.
Some black residents of the area consider it a monument to racial segregation, however. Advisory Neigborhood Commissioner Larry Bonner (ANC 1A) said many in the area "could care less because when it was fully going, the Tivoli was segregated anyway," but that others would like to have an active theater in the area.
"You gotta remember that when the Tivoli was in its heyday, it was segregated," said Ruth Webster, former director of CHANGE Inc. (Cardozo Heights Association for Neighborhood Growth and Enrichment) and a 32-year resident of nearby Oak Street. Webster said she supports restoration of the Tivoli so that "we don't end up with a city like when I was a child," when segregation confined most blacks to second-rate neighborhoods.
Patricia Meyer, executive director of Save the Tivoli, said that for 10 years "the community has been becoming much like it was in the '50s, with many solid, middle-class values." Meyer, a psychiatric social worker who lives a block from the Tivoli on Holmead Place NW, said most of the group's supporters are " . . . people who don't want to see the crime, the people hanging out and deteriorating the community."
When she and her husband moved into the area about five years ago they had one white neighbor, Meyer said. "Now there are about five white families and about four new black families."
Meyer said the city has ignored several bids from private investors to buy and restore the theater. Kerr of DHCD said he knew of no such offers. He said the city's contract with Park Central Associates prohibits selling the Tivoli property to anyone else.
In its heyday, the $1 million Italian Renaissance-style theater offered moviegoers the splendor of rich draperies and painted murals under an enormous ceiling dome with a crystal chandelier for a 25 to 55 cents admission fee. It had one of the country's first movable orchestra pits and a $35,000 Wurlitzer organ to accompany silent films before the Tivoli introduced "talkies" to Washington.
The intersection of 14th Street and Park Road was then a popular stop on the streetcar line, and the Tivoli promoted the interests of women. "It was very popular to come up for tea and an afternoon movie," Meyer said.
But by the time it closed on Christmas Day in 1976, the Tivoli had been reduced to showing "Kung-fu and limited types of movies," Deloris Brandon of Save the Tivoli recalled. "You could smell urine in there, and the people who went there were rowdy."
It had become "nothing but a haven for addicts and alcoholics," agreed Dick Jones, former head of the defunct Fourteenth Street Project Area Committee, who favors razing the Tivoli. "There had been fires and flooding in there, and it was a fire trap."
Jones said the preservationists do not know how deteriorated the theater is or the history of urban renewal efforts in the area. Nor have they considered, he added, that about 1,200 households already have been relocated from the area on the basis of urban renewal planning that called for razing the Tivoli.
According to Meyer, the theater has suffered only "cosmetic damage" and is structurally sound. She emphasized that its builder, a leading theater developer of the 1920s named Harry Crandall, took care to construct a sturdy building.
Plans for the Tivoli were interrupted in 1922 when the roof of Crandall's Knickerbocker Theater, at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW, collapsed under a heavy snowfall, killing 98 persons in one of the worst theater disasters in history. Crandall did not want to have the tragedy repeated at the Tivoli and made sure its construction was sturdy, she said.
Neighborhood residents have expressed mixed reactions about the theater's fate. Many said they are unconcerned. Others fear that "it's basically whites who are interested in saving the Tivoli if it's going to benefit them economically," ANC member Bonner said.
At Speedy Liquors, across the street from the Tivoli, proprietor William H. Rogers expressed indifference as he dispensed cheap wine and vodka to a steady stream of customers from behind a wall of bullet-proof glass.
"I don't go for it restoration ," Rogers said. "Not that it would hurt or help my business, but that old building is too old. . . . It would cost just as much to do that thing over as to tear it down and start over."
Around the corner, Park Road beautician Mozel Beene took the opposite view as she worked on a customer's hair in her mezzanine-level salon above a tattered and stripped clothing boutique.
"I think they should leave one historic area, even if they tear this [the Riggs National Bank opposite the Tivoli] corner down. This is the ugliest corner I've seen, [but] the theater, it's got good potential," said Beene, who has operated beauty shops in the area for 22 years. "When they do tear it down and put in new shopping centers, black people can't afford to rent in there anyway," she said.
Bonner said ANC members have taken a position of "Why not save the Tivoli?" Three of the four ANC's in Ward 1 have passed resolutions supporting the preservation effort, according to Meyer.
A restored Tivoli "could be generating entertainment, sales and property taxes. There's a whole lot of revenue we could bring back in to complement the restaurants and shops of Adams Morgan," Meyer said. "It could provide teaching and technical jobs, support jobs."
Although long in decline, the Tivoli managed one brief glimpse of its lost glory. In 1963, when the award-winning film "Lilies of the Field" was shown there to raise funds for the NAACP, CORE, the SCLC and SNCC, it brought notables in the civil rights movement, as well as the film's star, Sidney Poitier, to the theater.
For that last moment, Meyer said nostalgically, the Tivoli was made glamorous again by "furs, jewels and lots of glitter."