a photofeature which takes you inside and behind the scenes of the newly restored Howard
It’ll be a hot time in DC’s Shaw neighborhood this week as the venerable, historic Howard Theatre stages its grand re-opening celebration. Once the home to Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr, the new Howard is ready to welcome Wanda Sykes, Yasmiin Bey and a new generation of entertainers.
Festivities began informally with a neighborhood Community Day on Monday, April 9th.. A gala benefit Grand Opening with a Tribute Concert led by such superstars as Smokey Robinson, Savion Glover and Al Jarreau inaugurates this newly renovated venue on Thursday, April 12th.
A continuing stream of performances through the weekend will also include a Sunday Gospel Brunch (April 15) in the Howard’s new dining facility. Featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir, the all-you-can-eat Southern brunch is intended as a regular weekly event.
The extensive $29 million renovation of the theater’s exterior and interior is already so impressive that the neighborhood surrounding the theater is experiencing a revival itself.
Back to the Future: A short history of the Howard Theatre
The original building at 630 T Street NW has undergone several renovations and facelifts since it was first erected by architect J. Edward Storck for the National Amusement Company in 1910.
Named in honor of Civil War Union general Oliver Otis Howard, Storck’s original edifice was meant to host a variety of musical, dramatic, and community events including traveling vaudeville shows and also served as the regular venue for two theatrical troupes, the Lafayette Players and the Howard University Players.
The theater flourished until its operations—like those of many arts venues and businesses alike—were brought to a close by the stock market Crash of 1929. The building served for a while as a church, but reopened again as a theater in 1931, launching it on its brief but impressive Golden Age as part of DC’s famed “Black Broadway.” Duke Ellington himself, already on his road to stardom, performed at the theater’s grand reopening night.
The theater’s new management began a series of extraordinarily popular “Amateur Night” contests, a kind of early precursor to “American Idol.” The contests produced winners of the caliber of Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine.
For years thereafter, the Howard was firmly on the circuit of jazz and pop performers ranging from Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis, Jr., to Smokey Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie. Diana Ross and the Supremes made their first live stage appearance there. As music evolved after the Second World War, R&B and jazz musicians began to make the Howard an important part of the performing circuit.
Unfortunately, after the 1968 DC riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Shaw, the District, and the Howard went rapidly downhill. Even though the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, deferred maintenance and continuing, rapid deterioration led to its closing in 1980, followed by years of neglect. Eventually, the roof began to collapse.
But things started looking up in 2006 with the founding of Howard Theatre Restoration (HTR) a nonprofit organization tasked with raising the considerable funds required for the building’s renovation. Boosted by a variety of tax incentives and a generous grant of $12 million from the District, an aggressive restoration effort was begun in 2010. The spectacular results open to the public this week.
Duke Ellington’s landmark “Encore”
Traveling east on T St. NW and approaching the intersection with Florida Avenue, you’ll begin to note the area has been resurfaced with vintage-looking pavers as opposed to the city’s ubiquitous urban asphalt. But then, a surprise. Your eye is immediately caught by the sudden appearance of a gleaming new sculpture as you look slightly beyond and note the impressively renovated Howard Theatre itself.
What you’re seeing at this pocket plaza at Florida and T is DC’s newest landmark: “Encore,” a striking, lively, stainless steel sculpture featuring Duke Ellington seated on a fanciful treble clef sign that’s mounted on a granite pedestal recalling the Duke’s ubiquitous piano. Ellington, as locals know, was born in the District and grew up in Shaw, not far from where his new monument is located.
Spiraling upward from Ellington’s hands is a twisty, jazzy keyboard, no doubt meant to symbolize the distinctive gifts that the maestro and his orchestra bequeathed to his old neighborhood, to America, and ultimately to the world. For all its heft, this portion of the sculpture is surprisingly light, airy, and unpredictable, like the endlessly inventive improvisations that embodied Ellington’s distinctive jazz style.
Creating this eminently eye-catching sculpture, appropriately, embraced the entire DC Metro area. It was crafted by Rockville, Maryland-based sculptor Zachary Oxman. He was actually born in the District of Columbia and grew up in the neighborhood of 8th and I Sts. SE. And just prior to its installation a little over a week ago, his finished sculpture was shipped to American Stripping in Manassas, Virginia, where a durable, distinctive, all-weather finish was applied prior to its final installation at Florida and T.
The Howard’s new façade
Looking beyond “Encore” and noting the renovated Howard Theatre building for the first time, it’s the building’s façade that immediately communicates that something very new is going on at this once-neglected street corner.
Freshly restored , the Howard’s spiffy new façade brings back the building’s once glamorous look and feel, which dates not from its 1910 inception but from more modern 1941 renovation. As opposed to the ugly, unbroken concrete slab façade familiar to residents of Shaw for decades, the new exterior re-creates that earlier, tasteful combination of Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance, and neoclassical Greek elements into the redesign and adds a touch of color to the ornamentation, improving upon the design in subtle ways, as in its elegant windows and trim.
Inside the new theater space
DC Theatre Scene got an exclusive inside tour of the newly renovated venue last week. While the interior spaces were not quite finished, it was clear that something new and special has happened to this once dilapidated space—one that that nearly succumbed to the tragedy of a wrecking ball not so long ago.
Michael Marshall, principal of Marshall Moya Design, LLC, explained his firm’s approach to making the over all concept of the theater into modern design reality. “The interior was in extremely poor shape,” he said, “and we were forced to demolish a great deal of it.” In its stead, however, the idea was to re-create the historical space “to make it as flexible as possible while making sure the redesign was economically sustainable,” he said. “We aimed to restore the theater’s grandeur,” he said, “but without making it too intimidating.”
Chip Ellis, CEO of Ellis Development Group—the firm chosen by the Howard Theatre Restoration (HRT) project to implement Marshall’s new design—outlined his firm’s hopes for the updated interior. “The Howard Theatre,” he said, “will provide a true D.C. experience showcasing what Washington was and what it has become.”
We spoke onsite with Malik O. Ellis, the Ellis Development Group’s COO and Co-Principal, who provided further details. “The Howard is unique to DC,” he said, noting that HRT “wanted to embody this uniqueness in the renovation.”
Upon entering the new building, visitors will immediate note the huge, glassed-in ticket windows arrayed to the right. Ahead, through large clear-glass doors, are video screens that hint at the interior’s extensive redesign. To the left and right of this area are the entrance ways to the theater proper.
Entering the new entertainment area, it’s immediately evident why the small foyer/lobby should not be a problem for large audiences. The entire theater has been completely transformed into a modernistic, cabaret-style performance space with lavish, audience-friendly appointments. The new design balances “supper club” seating for about 650 people with both entertainment and dining elements. The Howard’s usual configuration will generally seat audience members in banquettes, creating a cabaret-style experience. But, via a special hydraulic lift incorporated into the floor directly in front of the stage, this restaurant-style seating can be removed, stored, and replaced by more conventional theater seating to accommodate a combined seated and standing room audience of 1,100.
Both the orchestra and balcony levels of the space are dominated to the rear by sweeping, gleaming full service bars—elegantly appointed in Brazilian granite—which look out on the surprisingly generous public space.
In short, most audience members will be spending virtually all their time inside the entertainment area, even during intermission.
Stainless steel, walnut veneers, and giant black and white, steel-framed portraits of historic Howard entertainers grace the bar areas, punctuated again by more and larger video screens whose presence has already been telegraphed to entering patrons via the building’s entrance. Marshall is particularly pleased with the elegance of the space, likening the effect on patrons to a fusion of an intimate private party with its surrounding “symphony of walnut.”
The theater space itself is a remarkable blend of old and new. Since the remaining hulk of the old Howard was indeed far too badly damaged to be restored, the new interior has evolved into a fresh, modernistic riff on what once was, replacing old rococo plastering and ornamentation with a clean, modern design. It also largely eliminates the fuss of an earlier era to provide a harder, more acoustically tuned venue suitable to a variety of live acts ranging from traditional soloists and cabaret and jazz music to arena-style pop groups whose big sound can be recalibrated to suit the space without diminishing its effect.
The Howard’s new stage is much lower than one generally expects, all the better to create a more intimate experience between entertainer and audience. It also replicates in large part the elevation and sense of the original stage, according to Malik Ellis, although it’s deeper and more flexible than the original.
The attractive, understated, masculinity of Marshall’s walnut-veneer dividing structures provides the space with a cool, calm, yet quietly aggressive frame while helping shape the interior’s impressive acoustics.
We stood on the stage, and could easily hear conversations going on even at the front of the first balcony. The sound is lively, yet intimate, easy to grasp without strain while never in-your-face. Like all theaters, there may be one or two secret dead spots, but we were hard pressed to find them during our visit.
None of this is particularly surprising as the project’s contractors actively consulted each other while engineering the building’s new acoustics. Employing sound reflective materials, “we wanted to adapt to those reflections, paying particular attention to low frequency resonances,” said Amit Peleg, principal of acoustic design firm Peltrix that created the new Howard’s ultra-sophisticated sound systems.
According to Peleg, the contemporary sound board and state-of-the-art speaker system will handle pretty much any kind of modern inputs and devices including cameras, Blu-ray players, and even streaming video and audio. The system supports an impressive ability to handle special audio situations and presets, and adjusting the sound and the sight lines for performers is helped by a system of carefully placed, flexible monitors and mirrors.
However, music isn’t going to be the entire experience in this new building. The renovated Howard Theater is not intended as simply a local watering hole with music as a lure. The Theater plans to offer a full, first-rate dining service as well, which will give the space an elegant nightclub atmosphere during many performances.
Rounding out the new interior space will be a 600-square foot museum and gift shop. The museum will feature photos and videos of the many artists and performers who appeared at the Howard over the many years of its existence, an exhibit that’s reflected in the vintage images displayed prominently inside the theater space.
Dining at the Howard
In perhaps the most remarkable and radical part of the Howard’s renovation, construction crews carefully excavated beneath the building to create a vast, basement level where none had existed before. In addition to housing some dressing rooms and most of the building’s mechanicals, the primary business of the new basement is to anchor an impressively huge, restaurant-style commercial kitchen.
A full dining menu has been created by the theater’s consulting chef, Marcus Samuelsson, lauded as “the youngest chef to ever receive two three-star ratings from the New York Times,” according the theater’s publicists. The chef was onsite during our visit, supervising the final delivery of some equipment along with the vast array of pots, pans, implements, and china that was being washed, stored, and readied for this week’s opening festivities.
The new kitchen will be ground zero for the venue’s dinner and brunch cuisines. The menu remained a secret during our visit. But audiences are promised “a great jazz brunch” headlined by the Howard’s soon-to-be signature short ribs.
But wait, there’s more…
The new Howard Theatre already has plenty of work on its metaphorical hands just getting ready for this week’s gala opening fundraiser tomorrow, April 12. This main event will be highlighted by a Tribute Concert that boasts an all-star line-up that includes Smokey Robinson, Savion Glover, Al Jarreau, Madeleine Peyroux, Keb Mo and others. There will also be a special tribute to Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.
And Howard Theatre starts its regular season on April 13-14, opening shows by Wanda Sykes, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, Yasiin Bey’s (aka Mos Def’s) Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron. And of course, there’s that first Sunday Gospel Brunch on April 15, featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir.
But that’s not preventing HTR from looking forward. The organization has completed its fundraising for restoring and opening the building. They’ve also wisely contracted booking activities to Blue Note Productions who own and operate numerous theaters and clubs including the Blue Note Jazz Club, BB King’s Blues Club, and New York’s Highline Ballroom. Blue Note’s professionals will hopefully be able to avoid the financial issues currently causing issues for the U Street Corridor’s other marvelously restored theater space, the magnificent Lincoln, located on U Street near 14th Street NW.
If all goes smoothly, HTR will next turn their attention to what the organization calls “Phase II” of the Howard project. This involves adding on to the rear of the building to create a brand new Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center. The large addition is intended to accommodate a larger museum as well as classrooms, an audio library, a full recording studio, and offices for HTR itself.
For tickets and information on these and additional events, visit TheHowardTheatre.com.