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The Historic Howard Theatre

John Muller | 12/8/2011, 1:47 p.m.

On the brink of a comeback

Saturday morning, Dec. 3, nearly three dozen people donned hard hats as they were given a sneak preview of the ongoing renovation of the historic Howard Theatre, 620 T Street, NW. The nearly $30 million project will be completed as early as February with a red carpet opening gala and concert planned for April 12, 2012.

According to Washington's U Street: A Biography, published in 2010, the 1,500 seat Howard Theatre opened on August 22, 1910. The Washington Bee proclaimed it "the finest theatre in the city." The Bee added, "[T]he private boxes were filled with ladies of society. The orchestra was monopolized with the social elite of Washington, gayly and gorgeously dressed in gowns fit for goddesses."

In its earliest days, the theatre hosted vaudeville, musicals, road shows, stock company productions, and even a circus or two. During the beginning of the Great Depression, the theatre hosted a church, but by 1931 the theatre was restored to a lively performance space. Over the decades, the theatre was the place for some of the biggest stars of jazz, rock-n-roll, rhythm and blues, and some early front-runners of go-go.

The 1968 riots exacerbated economic problems within the community and the theatre soon closed. The Howard Theatre was re-opened in the mid-1970s but closed again by the early 1980s. It has been shuttered for the past three decades.

Immortalized in song and verse by Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and others, the theatre's pending reopening, along with the adjacent development of Progression Place on 7th Street, is already triggering memories of Washington's "Black Broadway."

"The Howard was the first major theatre built for and by black folks," said Timothy A. Jones, ANC 4C08, as he gripped a binder filled with photocopies of old photos, show programs, and newspaper clippings.

"The Howard seems to have been a place where local kids who thought they might be able to be musicians could come hang out back stage. Several discovered that they did want to be musicians," says Blair A. Rube, author of Washington's U Street.

"Overall, I am fascinated by the building," Krystal Branton, a Shaw resident and employee of Howard University, said. "I am excited this is being resurrected."

Just weeks past its centennial anniversary, the ground breaking for the renovations were held in early September 2010. Ryan Colombo of Whiting-Turner, the lead construction company, has been the project manager since construction began. He led Saturday's tour.

"There wasn't too much to save in the building with all the water damage," said Colombo. Due to leaks in the roof, whenever it rained water streamed into the theatre destroying its interior.

A new basement has been built which will have bathrooms, men's and women's dressing room, green room, and large kitchen. On either side of the stage, set 25 feet deep, there will be a DJ booth. There will be less than one hundred set seats, all in the 2nd floor balcony with the first floor being banquet seating. According to estimates, the seated capacity will be between 400 and 500, with a standing room capacity of around 1,000.