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D.C.'s Howard Theatre Gets A New Lease On Life

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Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., is bringing back the Howard Theatre’s original neoclassical façade, built in 1910.
Howard Theatre Restoration
Howard Theatre Restoration, Inc., is bringing back the Howard Theatre’s original neoclassical façade, built in 1910.

The Howard Theatre was built near the corner of 7th and T Street NW in 1910. But now, after 30 odd years of neglect, the Howard is being rebuilt.

Chip Ellis of Ellis Development is heading up the $29 million restoration of a landmark once billed as "the largest theater in the world for African Americans." The team is introducing new things, like supper club-style seating and state-of-the-art acoustics, and bringing back old things, like the original neoclassical façade, which got stucco'd over, Art-Deco-style, just before World War II.

"We wanted to really reflect on just how rich the history was by going back to that 1910 façade," Ellis says. "And then as you enter into the building, you'd be stepping into the future."

The two-tiered, walnut-paneled theater is a jumble of sanders, ladders and drills right now, but Michael Marshall, an architect with Marshall-Moya Design, says this mess is nothing compared with the utter disaster they encountered when they started the project five years ago.

"It was debris everywhere," Marshall recalls. "There were birds, and the pigeons were inside."

"We were fearful the roof would cave in before we could actually strip out everything out of the Howard that had already been completely just destroyed through water damage and everything else," add Ellis. "So we caught the Howard right before its collapse - literally!"

But because so much had been destroyed, as Marshall points out, the team didn't have a lot to work with, to help them replicate original details.

"There were so few pictures of the inside of the Howard that it was hard to tell," he says. "Except for the exterior, there were a few things. But even there, we don't know the exact color."

So they came up with another way to make the theater's past come alive. Throughout the building, there are huge, light-box images of luminaries who've graced the Howard stage: Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday in the lobby, B. King and James Brown at the first-floor bar. At the second-floor bar, there's Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sammy Davis, along with someone whose career began at the Howard, during amateur night.

"Ella Fitzgerald was found here," Ellis says, "before she went up to the Apollo and did the amateur show there."

In fact, not only did Lady Ella, the First Lady of Song, get her start at the Howard, the whole concept of amateur night did, back in 1931, thanks to theater manager, Shep Allen.

"Then it later went up to New York, in 1935 when the Apollo opened up for African Americans in Harlem," Ellis says. "But before that time, Billy Eckstine, Dr. Billy Taylor, The Clovers, Marvin Gaye, when he was with his doo-wop group, he was first found and won the amateur night here."

But the Howard Theatre hasn't just been a breeding ground for musicians.

"The actual Howard Players from Howard University did Shakespearean plays," Ellis says. "And we actually have some photographs from the Howard Players in their actual costumes from those days."

Ellis hopes to display these photographs soon, at the Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center. Once built, Ellis says the $5 million facility will feature a museum, classrooms, a listening library and recording studios, "so that people can learn about the history of the Howard Theatre [and] also educate young people in classical jazz, and grooming the next great artists of tomorrow, so they can perform on the Howard stage one day."

In the meantime, many great artists will be performing on the Howard stage next month, at a Grand Opening Gala and Benefit Concert. It will include a tribute to the late co-founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegün. Legend has it he once said that everything he knew about music he learned right here, behind a neoclassical-turned-art-deco façade, just near the corner of 7th and T.

[Music by: "Chile Bowl" by Duke Ellington from Jazz Profile]

Photos: Howard Theatre

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