Like a Phoenix Out of the Ashes, Howard Theatre Arises

Denise Rolark-Barnes | 4/4/2012, 12:05 p.m.

One of the most respected symbols of a bygone era for African-Americans in the District is slated for rebirth. Howard Theatre will open with great fanfare after decades of neglect and decay almost led to the permanent demise of the venerable old lady of the Shaw community.

On Monday, April 9, the community is invited to a ribbon cutting and community day, while Thursday, April 12, is set as the date for a grand opening gala and benefit concert for the historic 101-year-old landmark which launched the careers of Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, the Supremes and other entertainers.

April 9 activities - which last from noon to 3 p.m. - include the installation of the "Jazz Man" sculpture in the facade of the theatre. The sculpture was created by Brower Hatcher of Mid-Ocean Studio, Inc. There also will be the unveiling of the Duke Ellington Encore statue by Zachary Oxman.

The Ellis Development Group was awarded the contract to redevelop the city-owned building in 2006 at an estimated cost of $25 million. Company officials formed Howard Theatre Restoration, a nonprofit, to manage the property and complete the project.

The Historic Theatre Restoration website highlights the theatre's majestic history.

"Before the Apollo, before the Regal, there was The Howard Theatre," it said. "At its opening in 1910 it was 'the largest colored theatre in the world.' ... For most of the 20th century, The Howard Theatre, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., near the corner of 7th and T, held audiences captive with music, dance, drama and comedy. Speakers like Booker T. Washington shared the stage with musicals, road shows, vaudeville acts, theater productions and community programs. Later, Washington's favorite son Duke Ellington opened a new era of jazz big bands on The Howard's stage."

"...When the nation was deeply divided by segregation, The Howard Theatre provided a place where color barriers blurred and music unified."

From the outside, the newly restored Howard Theatre looks much like it always has - just better. Built in 1910, the Historic Preservation Review Board wouldn't have had it any other way. But on the inside, the theatre's new look is different and unlike anything Washingtonians have seen before- not at the Howard - not in D.C.

The Howard Theater, located at Sixth & T Streets, Northwest, is scheduled to reopen next week. The renovation and restoration work that began five years ago is just about complete but for a few finishing touches. Local residents, organizations and the media have been given a sneak preview of the new facility and there is no question that the Howard Theatre is new and improved.

"It's like the Cotton Club inside The Apollo," said Michael Marshall, partner at Marshall Moya Design, the District-based architectural firm hired to create the theatre's new interior. Marshall and his partner, Paola Moya, did away with the old stadium-style seats and created a cabaret-style ambiance, with tables and chairs on the main floor, a balcony with Banquettes for private parties, two full bars, a full-food service restaurant and, of course, the stage with one of the best sound systems in the Washington area.