The Howard Theatre is nearly complete. You may have noticed that the sidewalk on the north side of T Street is now open, giving residents a close-up view of the new façade. More importantly, the plaza at T Street and Florida Avenue is now open and the new sculpture of Duke Ellington stands prominently at the vegetated plaza. The sculpture depicts Ellington seated on a treble clef while playing a piano keyboard.
The most delightful feature of the sculpture is the energy it portrays. As Ellington plays, the keys appear to fly off the keyboard and into the sky behind him, signifying a magical quality to his music.
Duke Ellington grew up in Washington and even lived on Elm Street in LeDroit Park for a year. He played at the Howard Theatre and frequently visited the adjacent Frank Holliday’s pool hall, most recently known as Cafe Mawonaj.
The hall was a popular gathering spot for Howard scholars, jazz musicians, and city laborers alike. Duke Ellington captured the scene at the pool hall:
Guys from all walks of life seemed to converge there: school kids over and under sixteen; college students and graduates, some starting out in law and medicine and science; and lots of Pullman porters and dining-car waiters.
And now Ellington’s statue sits on the same storied block.
The JBG apartment project on the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida Avenue NW moved forward last week when the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gave partial approval to the project. The modernist design will likely have to endure a few more refinements before the board grants its final approval for the site.
Building alterations, additions, demolitions, and construction in historic districts are subject to review by the Historic Preservation Review Board. Since the site sits in the U Street Historic District, it must also gain HPRB approval before it can receive building permits.
Though we are supporters of historic preservation, we can see why this extra level of review frustrates builders and property owners. The main problem is that historic review requires property owners, architects, and developers to adjust their designs based on subjective judgments of historic compatibility.
The historic review process is less predictable that the typical building process, which simply requires that a builder meet unambiguous zoning regulations and building codes. For instance, the JBG site is zoned C-2-B, which permits residential projects to rise to 65 feet or to rise to 70 feet if they include affordable housing.
Distances are easy and unambiguous measurements, but how does one determine if a proposed design is historically compatible?
As in most cases where subjectivity needs analysis, you can easily define the extreme cases. The Weaver Building (HUD’s headquarters) is undoubtedly incompatible with the Victorian rowhouse architecture of the U Street area. Likewise, a good number of preservationists despise projects that attempt precise replication of historic structures. The right answers lies somewhere between aping historic forms and shunnig them all together.
Modernism, a 20th century invention, can work well in historic districts if done right and Miller Hull has worked to refine its designs to pass HPRB muster.
Though the HPRB asked for further refinement that will have to go to the board again, the board did support the design on six features so far:
- Relocation of the front, original section of 1933-35 9th Street to the southern portion of the site, adjacent to the row of similarly-sized and scaled historic buildings, and removal of the later rear additions
- Reconfiguration of the alley on the western parcel to exit on 9th Street
- Subdivision to allow lot combination on both the west and east sites
- Overall site organization of the new construction
- Height and massing along Florida Avenue
- General architectural direction, subject to further development and material selection.
Here are the concept designs the board reviewed when it reached this decision:
To reduce the liklihood that patrons will park on residential streets around the Howard Theatre, the theatre will sell prepaid private parking through Ticketmaster. The passes are for private lots owned by Howard University and other private owners.
In fact, we were looking on Ticketmaster at prices and availability for April’s Wanda Sykes show and spotted this prominent parking add-on at the bottom:
The lots described above are as follows:
- Valet shuttle Lot B – Howard University’s large parking lot at Georgia Avenue and W Street.
- Self-parking Lot A – Howard University’s HURB-I parking lot at 7th & T Streets.
- Premier Valet – private triangle lot at T Street and Florida Avenue, across from the theater.
When Progression Place, the office and apartment project at the Shaw Metro, finally opens, the theatre will lay claim to a significant number of the project’s underground parking spaces during nighttime hours, thus adding a another option.
Come meet Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D – DC) at Tuesday’s meeting of the LeDroit Park Civic Association. The meeting will be on Tuesday, March 27 at 7 pm at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church (enter at U and Bohrer Streets NW).
Ms. Norton is this month’s guest speaker. We’re inclined to ask her about National Park Service (NPS) stewardship of the many parks and reservations in DC. The NPS runs Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Farragut Square, and other parks within the L’Enfant Plan, but does a poor job of programming and managing these parks.
We will also hav e representatives from Progression Place, the construction site at the Shaw Metro, update us on the progress of their project.
Plans for the dilapidated Wonderbread Factory are moving along. Last night at the ANC 1B Design Review Committee we heard representative from Douglas Development Corporation share their latest plans for the Wonderbread Factory at 621 S St NW.
Though apartment projects are the hot thing in Washington real estate right now, Douglas is sticking with its usual market of commercial tenant space. Their latest plan for the Wonderbread Factory includes a ground floor and basement floor for retail space, which they imagine may include restaurants or a microbrewery. The upper floors will include loft-like office space.
They are setting an agressive timeline to have the project finished in the spring of 2013 and they say they have had numerous inquiries about the space, especially from restaurateurs.
We first encountered Douglas Development’s proposal several months ago when the company had more rudimentary drawings for the site. The building, known as the Wonderbread Factory, is now under local historic preservation protection and Douglas Development has produced the latest renderings based on feedback from the Historic Preservation Review Board and the staff at the Historic Preservation Office. The designs are quite impressive.
Eastern elevation along Wiltberger Street (before and after):
Western elevation along the alley between the site and Progression place (before and after):
Rendering of what the front will look like:
Renderings of what the rear (northern end) will look like form Wiltberger Street and from the alley:
Rendering of what the new rear will look like:
Rear (northern) façade before and after:
[Update: I have added wording and link to note that the building is in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, though it does not yet appear to be in the National Register of Historic Places]
The Howard Theatre developers want the new interior to come as a surprise on opening day, so they are not letting people take photographs inside right now. Nonetheless, the City Paper described it as “opulent”.
The ribbon-cutting, which is open to the public, will be on Monday, April 9 from 11:30 am to 3 pm. You can get a tour of the theater and witness the unveiling of the Duke Ellington statue for the plaza and the “Jazz Man” sculpture on the cornice.
Will the Howard Theatre, soon to open in April, end up bankrupt like the Lincoln Theatre on U Street? Both are historic U Street area theaters that were revived at significant public expense. Both are owned by the District government and are under the control of non-profits.
There are, however, some significant differences between the Lincoln and the Howard: the floor, the kitchen, and the management.
The Lincoln Theatre is a traditional theater with fixed rows of seats. This makes the venue unsuitable for a variety of performances. All concert venues nearby have few if any seats— just an open floor where patrons stand.
The Howard Theatre’s floor is a little different. The theatre will have few permanent seats. Much of the space will contain seats and tables for the performances where food is served, such as the weekly gospel brunch, a comedy show, or certain jazz performances.
When tables are unsuitable for the type of performance, they will be stowed beneath the stage, thus opening up the first floor like the 9:30 Club or the Black Cat. This flexibility allows the venue to attract a greater variety of acts.
Another important difference is that the Howard Theatre will contain a large kitchen. Food service, particularly on the sale of alcohol, is where the venue will make money. The Lincoln Theatre’s food and liquor operation can’t compare.
Finally, while the Lincoln Theatre was managed (or mismanaged, some say) by an ad hoc non-profit, the Howard Theatre will be run by Blue Note Jazz Clubs, which runs the Blue Note Jazz Club, the Highline Ballroom, and B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York. This gives us confidence that a similar success can happen at the Howard.
The Howard Theatre’s renovation, in which the District government invested $12 million, got us thinking about the role of public finance in development projects. The use of public money or, alternatively, the granting of tax abatements to private projects, elicits controversy. Opponents argue that such investments are give-aways to well-connected businessmen.
In the case of the Howard Theatre, the District’s investment in the venue, which the District government technically owns, is a good investment that is economically justified. The new venue and streetscape in front will improve the perception of the area and thus improve property values in LeDroit Park. The former is an improvement to the quality of life while the latter is an improvement to the District’s tax base.
Though the theater is technically just outside LeDroit Park, the path from the Shaw Metro Station to LeDroit Park typically brings people in front of the theater. When the District-owned theater was decaying and vacant, it served as an awful first impression of the area. A barbed wire fence under the awning and marquee made visitors well aware that a strong wind gust could cause the awning to collapse. The heaps of litter and scurrying of rats certainly didn’t help perceptions, either.
Work crews are reconstructing the entire street, including sidewalks and lamp posts, and when the renovated theater opens next month, much of the former blight will be removed. Smooth, wheelchair-accessible sidewalks will replace broken concrete. Lamp posts will provide ample light. A statue on the sidewalk and a statue atop the theatre will add to the sense of place for this important historic venue.
The theater itself, renovated and gleaming, will attract patrons several nights a week and the building will have to remain in good order. Clean surfaces and façade adornments will replace trash, decay, and danger. The block will be unrecognizable from before.
These improvements will undoubtedly improve how visitors and residents view the block and perhaps how they view LeDroit Park. The quality of life improvements are certain. From a financial standpoint, the improvements will likely boost surrounding property values and thus property tax revenues for the District. In doing so, the additional revenue may far exceed the $12 million of public money invested in the site.
Correction: An earlier version of this post understated the dollar amount of the city’s investment.
What do Wale, Wanda Sykes, the Roots, Esperanza Spalding, and Chuck Berry have in common? They are all performing at the Howard Theatre in April. Also, each Sunday the theatre will host a gospel brunch and gospel choir.
The Howard Theatre is set to open in April. While construction crews are finishing the theater’s historic restoration, the District government is renovating the entire street in front of the theater. The streetscape project involves replacing the sidewalks, curbs, road pavement, storm drains, and lamp posts on the 600 block of T Street NW and along the one-block Wiltberger Street NW, which abuts the Howard Theatre.
Construction work started at the beginning of February. We were able to get this photo of construction crews removing the old streetcar tracks that were paved over after the streetcar system ceased operation in 1962. In fact the old tracks still lie under many of Washington’s streets; paving them over was cheaper than tearing them up.
Though the streetcars ran along 7th Street/Georgia Avenue and along Florida Avenue, a 1958 streetcar map shows that a short connector linked both of these routes along the 600 block of T Street NW.
DDOT’s plans for the block are ornate and are designed to complement the restored arts venue. The street will feature decorative pavement for both the sidewalk and the roadway. We certainly hope the decorative pavement can withstand the stress of traffic once the street reopens.
Below is the plaza section where T Street intersects Florida Avenue in front of Zenebech. Earlier today we noticed that the sculpture plinth is in place already. The deciduous tree will certainly be a welcome addition to what is now an uninterrupted expanse of concrete.