The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. gay nightclub Cobalt closes with little warning

As light swirls around them, patrons dance at 30 Degrees at Cobalt in Washington in 2012. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)
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District gay nightclub Cobalt announced Tuesday it had closed its doors for the last time.

But unlike last year’s tearful, sequin-drenched send-off that shuttered Town Danceboutique, a gay nightclub off U Street NW whose building was sold to a developer of high-end apartments, Cobalt’s exit was quiet.

A sign taped to the front door this week alerted patrons that the bar had been “closed for water problems,” but questions began to swirl over the bar’s future.

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The building at 17th and R Streets NW, which was Cobalt’s home for 20 years, was sold last summer to the real estate firm Marwick Associates for $4,750,000, according to D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue records. Cobalt, which leased the building, said at the time that the bar had “options” and would be around until “at least 2021,” when its lease was to expire.

But on Tuesday, bar owner Eric Little posted a message to social media indicating that the bar would close much sooner.

“With the combination of the sale of the buildings, the start of demolition, costly infrastructure repairs and upgrades that we would need to shoulder to remain open for the short remainder of our lease (without an opportunity to extend the lease) along with a slow decline in sales we decided it was the right time to close the business to focus on our other businesses and some personal family needs,” Little wrote.

Little could not be reached for further comment. General manager Brian Blanchard did not respond to a request for comment.

The closure surprised patrons and members of the LGBTQ community, who took to the Internet to recall memories of days and nights spent at one of the District’s best-known gay clubs.

“Cobalt had a good gay Cheers kind of feel for a while. Like you could come in on any day of the week, and there was something going on,” said Cassidy DuHon, 33, who performed drag at Cobalt as LaTavia LaCroix.

Cobalt had three floors, regular entertainment, themed parties and karaoke. But, patrons said, it struggled to endear itself to the LGBTQ community in a way that other such bars and clubs have.

It was not clear why Little shut down the bar on such short notice, but in his social media posts, he pointed to broad societal trends as key causes.

“The gay bar industry has been changing over the past few years with the popularity of dating apps, changing social norms, and pop-up parties/events at non-gay venues and we applaud these evolutions as positive progress,” he wrote.

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The bar survived a fire that tore through the building in 2000, forcing it to rebuild, and a class-action lawsuit in 2014 that alleged it was shorting bartenders by paying them less than minimum wage while also requiring them to split tips.

“Cobalt failed to maintain a loyalty to a crowd who loved it,” DuHon said. “If you have a tribe that is loyal to you for a long enough period of time, they will support you through hard times. But Cobalt was a much more with-the-wind kind of bar, who was willing to go with whomever would show up and pay the cover. So when the neighborhood got pricier and times got harder, it didn’t have that die-hard tribe.”

The building’s new owner announced plans to turn the building into apartments.

“We wish the new building owners and future residents the best success and hope that the buildings will bring them all as much joy and happiness as it has brought the entire Cobalt family,” Little wrote.

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