The American 1930s may be remembered as the era of big bands, the birth of true jazz and a time of economic discourse. Critics finally began to take Black art and literature seriously and African-American entertainment establishments flourished across the nation.
Washington, D.C. -based architect Gary Martinez will work to merge the soul of the New York Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s with the architectural design of the 15th century Italian Renaissance as he takes on the task of reinvigorating the old Howard Theater in Washington.
Located at 620 T St. in the heart of the District, the Howard was the first theater designed exclusively for Black performers and audiences. This historic theater has undergone several changes to its original façade since its establishment in 1910.
“Our goal with this reconstruction is to connect the past with the future,” said Roy “Chip” Ellis, CEO of the Ellis Development Group and Chairman of Howard Theater Restoration Inc.
Between $10 million and $14 million will be needed for the completion of the project.
Ellis said the designers and architects will restore many of the theater’s most distinctive features including the 17 windows in the front of the building and a statue of the Greek god Apollo playing a harp at the crown of the theater.
Set for a grand reopening in 2010, the Howard’s main floor will feature dining tables and chairs for about 650 guests. The balcony will accommodate hundreds more with tradition theater-style seating, while portraits of some of the performers from the theater’s heyday will grace the surrounding walls.
With a combination of state-of-the-art acoustics, video and recording capabilities, a deeper stage, a 600-sqare-foot museum and a gift shop, the Howard will attract new attendees and entertainers.
“This is a tourist attraction,” Ellis said. “People just don’t know it yet.”
Ellis said his company, the Ellis Development Group, contracted Martinez to help with architecture because of his expertise in the restoration of historic venues and his extensive record in designing performing arts centers. Martinez has restored some of the nation’s most celebrated venues, including the Boston Opera House and the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va.
Ellis said he hopes the rebuilding of the Howard will encourage the community to learn more about the city’s local landmarks.
“We want people to know and recognize its history,” he said. “This theater has a story to tell.”
Included in its history are some of the most influential and well-known entertainers in American history. The Howard Theater launched the careers of jazz greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine in the 1930s, and actress and singer Pearl Bailey in the 1940s. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and The Supremes are just some of the other entertainers that have all graced the Howard stage.
Although the building will undergo physical changes, Ellis said the theater will retain its historic value and nostalgia.
“We hope that the new theater gives Howard students pursuing a career in performing arts and the entire Howard community a greater sense of pride and history,” Ellis said.
The new Howard will be opened year-round, six days a week and will provide opportunities for various uses, including concerts and private events.