Jane Lang, the founder of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, at the center's Lang Theater in Washington, D.C. Lang helped to procure the space in 2001 and raised the $24 million to renovate the space from a movie theater to a live performing arts center. (J.M. Eddins, Jr./for The Washington Post)

Not that long ago, vermin and puddles of rain filled the building that is now the Atlas Performing Arts Center. But that’s impossible to envision now, in this blur of glittering masks, ball gowns and cocktails.

The scores of people who have flooded into the annual fundraiser this fall evening at the H Street NE arts center have taken even Jane Lang — the powerful Washington litigator who founded the Atlas in 2001 — by surprise.

“I almost don’t believe it. It seems like it’s so beyond . . . ,” Lang says, pausing to find the right words but also, it seems, to catch her breath. “Beyond my imagining.”

She’s wearing a striking, sequined blue gown cut close to her frame, but Lang has a way of blending into the crowd.

“She is not someone who is in search of being in the spotlight, at all,” says director Mary Hall Surface, who has worked with Lang and the Atlas since the center’s early days.

But the revelers who do recognize the woman who transformed that decrepit building into a burgeoning arts center — and setting off a wave of positive change in the neighborhood — invariably stop to envelop her in hugs, to squeeze her hand warmly.

What they seem to know but dare not say is that this night is bittersweet. It is Lang’s final gala as Atlas chairwoman, her last few weeks in charge. At the end of this month, she’ll step down as chief fundraiser, liaison and all-around cheerleader.

In 2005, when the Atlas flipped on the lights to its dance studios and small lab theaters, H Street was an inhospitable place, even for its residents. The Atlas was one of the first cultural institutions to open in the blighted corridor, along with the H Street Playhouse, a black-box theater that had taken up residence a few doors down a few years before.

The center brought dance classes to the community, and then plays, classical music performances and children’s theater. It also carved out a niche as a home to defiantly unclassifiable pieces of modern theater — works that meld poetry and performance, music and politics — shows that would have no other place to go.

The tab for the arts complex, which houses dance studios, large theaters and offices, was nearly $25 million, rivaling the $29 million spent in 2012 to remake another ramshackle historic building: Shaw’s Howard Theatre. But the Atlas’s iconic neon sign became a lighthouse for new residents, bars and restaurants. And, more important, community members say, it signaled a safe harbor for other investors.

Now, on this warm October night on H Street, a small throng is queued up outside the rock club that took up residence in an old funeral home. A pie shop braces for a flood of bargoers with the late-night munchies. Taxis deposit couples at every corner, and a lumbering streetcar rolls out awkwardly on a Friday-night test run — testing, mostly, the patience of everyone else on the road.

For all this, the Atlas was a spark. Jane Lang was the flint.

‘Testing the waters’

Lang’s decision to step down is an acknowledgment that the arts complex, despite its strides, must evolve. When H Street’s bars and restaurants are the hot tickets (case in point: the nightly lines for Toki Underground’s bowls of ramen), there’s work to be done. Change is already in the works: Mosaic Theater — a new venture by the longtime Theater J artistic director, Ari Roth, who was recently fired from that job — will launch at the Atlas next year, which Lang says could bring new audiences to H Street.

“I think that Jane really is testing the waters to see if the Atlas can become sustainable without her,” says Douglas Yeuell, who became the Atlas’s executive director this year, in part to kick the next phase of its growth into gear. “I hate to compare it to a mother and child, but you know, you’ve done a lot to raise your kid and bring it up right, but at some point they’ve got to be able to fly without you.”

For the center’s first decade, Lang’s role as founder was to drum up interest and money, hire staff and help generate big ideas, such as the center’s annual Intersections performing arts festival. In recent years, Lang, 67, has voluntarily ceded more and more control, a development she has found deeply satisfying. She’ll remain on the board, she promises, but no longer will it be her show.

“My basic philosophy about founders is that they must come to a point when they give over the leadership or the organization will never be more than about them,” she says. “You have to know when that point is.”

Surface recalls that her first reaction to the news was panic. But, she adds, “the second reaction was, absolutely. In any arts organization, when the founder moves on, there’s a sense of quaking in their shoes. And then everyone just grabs onto their bootstraps and says, ‘Okay, here we go.’

“We can’t always turn to Jane and say, ‘Jane, what do we do?’ ”

Taking a big risk

The streetlights were on permanent hiatus. As for the 1938 movie house, once a whites-only establishment, calling it a dump would have been kind. Riots had torn across H Street in 1968, but riots didn’t leave the holes in the roof so large that they startled Lang when she first saw the theater in 2001. Neglect had done that.

As Lang tells it, concerned developers sent kindly worded letters urging her to consider any other neighborhood. But Lang was familiar with hurdles and rarely deterred by them. In her 20s, and at a time when few women were even welcome in the profession, she was named partner at the D.C. law firm Steptoe & Johnson, and she subsequently made her name in groundbreaking corporate race- and sex-discrimination suits.

Anwar Saleem, a longtime H Street resident and executive director of the community development agency H Street Main Street, recalls the years after the riots and subsequent drug epidemic: “The banks redlined H Street for a long time. The average person didn’t walk through H Street. The average person ran through H Street. We were still trying to find a way to bounce back.”

A year before seeing the H Street building, Lang and her husband, Paul Sprenger, had sold their law firm, Sprenger & Lang, and she was hungry for a new project. They had become passionate about the blossoming D.C. theater scene (the Kennedy Center hadn’t even opened when she moved to the city in 1970). Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” Lang commissioned her first stage play. Only one theater could accommodate it — Roth’s Theater J, it turns out — and only in June, when Washington theaters took a summer break, along with most of the city’s residents. After that — and despite having produced just one play — Lang convinced her husband that they should open a small theater and rent it out to troupes in need of space, as Theater J had done for her.

Lang’s search for a venue led to a former restaurant (too many columns) and an old bank building on U Street (too expensive). Then a friend pointed her to that derelict building nowhere near the Metro.

“I saw it and said, ‘No way,’ ” Lang says. “The condition was just appalling. There was lots of stuff living there that you don’t want to talk about, and it was huge. I said, ‘Call me in 10 years. This is not for me.’ ”

But by morning, she had changed her mind. As a lawyer, Lang specialized in affirmative action and spent time as general counsel at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during a period of urban reexamination. Overnight, Lang had begun to believe that she could help rebuild not just a theater, but also the neighborhood itself.

Her goal, then and now, was for the Atlas audience to look no different from the fans at a Wizards basketball game. “I had this idea we could turn it around,” she says of H Street. “I know that sounds naive.”

Complicating matters was that Lang, who lives in a large but cozy home in Cleveland Park, had never lived on H Street. But the neighborhood didn’t seem to mind.

“She saw what I saw, and what many of us saw: that H Street had great promise. She decided to land here, to put herself here,” Saleem says. “Jane is a warm soul. One thing about H Street, no matter what we’ve gone through in the past, H Street is always a warm place. When she came and started mingling with us, people accepted that warm spirit.”

It helped that Lang kept the neighborhood’s diversity and history in mind, says D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, whose ward includes H Street NE. “She’s a courageous straight shooter. I do think she’s very mindful of the context of the theater, in terms of history and race. I admire her for that.”

Roots of Lang’s philanthropy

Lang’s gamble makes more sense when you know where she came from. Her father, multimillionaire entrepreneur Eugene M. Lang, is a well-known East Coast philanthropist. The lifelong New Yorker, inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., started the I Have a Dream Foundation in the 1980s, first promising a group of Harlem schoolchildren that he would finance their college tuition years down the road, as long as they did the work to get there. There are now thousands of “Dreamers,” even in the suburbs of Washington, where Eugene Lang’s friend Abe Pollin, the late owner of the Washington Wizards (then the Bullets), sponsored a class of his own.

Lang and his wife, Theresa, raised Jane on the edge of New York City, in Jamaica, Queens. Theresa, who was Irish Catholic, devoted most of her life to improving health care in the borough where she had grown up. Until her death in 2008, she maintained a deep relationship with New York Hospital Queens. Eugene, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary, became an entrepreneur, starting his own business in the then-esoteric field of technology transfer. (Now 95, he still lives in New York and suffers from dementia; Lang devotes a portion of her week to managing his care and oversees his foundation.)

Her parents, Lang says, “believed the world is not about us. We’re part of something larger. And our job is not just to give away money, but to make opportunities to those who weren’t born to it.”

Lang, her husband and her father have poured a not-insubstantial sum into the Atlas, but Lang has made opportunities, too. The Atlas has hosted the music of wunderkind classical composer Nico Muhly, as well as one of the few performances of “Ten Freedom Summers,” jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s groundbreaking song suite. There was a production of “Goodnight Moon” and a glam rock act from China. This year’s Intersections festival drew 12,000 people.

Still on Lang’s wish list as she steps out of the spotlight: an artistic director, someone who will continue to shape the voice of Atlas. But it’s no longer a matter for her to work out.

It’s time for her to go.

“I think we’re on a trajectory that is growth, that is positive, that is very joyful,” she says. “And we’re in a community now that’s coming together.”

In the audience, however, Jane Lang will still be cheering — for the Atlas, and for H Street.

Update:

Jane Lang’s husband, Paul C. Sprenger, who with his wife ran the Sprenger Lang Foundation, a nonprofit specializing in arts promotion, and who was a member of the board of directors of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, died soon after this story was published, on Dec. 29, 2014.