The Howard Theatre was built near the corner of 7th and T Street NW in 1910. But now, after 30 odd years of neglect, the Howard is being rebuilt. If walls could talk the historical significance of this building would undoubtedly awaken the sense of urgent movement towards not only restoring the legacy of other likened landmarks-but filling them with life birthed by authentic artistic creativity.
Chip Ellis of Ellis Development is heading up the $29 million restoration of a landmark once billed as “the largest theater in the world for African Americans.” The team is introducing new things, like supper club-style seating and state-of-the-art acoustics, and bringing back old things, like the original neoclassical façade, which got stucco’d over, Art-Deco-style, just before World War II.
“We wanted to really reflect on just how rich the history was by going back to that 1910 façade,” Ellis says. “And then as you enter into the building, you’d be stepping into the future.”
“Ella Fitzgerald was found here,” Ellis says, “before she went up to the Apollo and did the amateur show there.”
In fact, not only did Lady Ella, the First Lady of Song, get her start at the Howard, the whole concept of amateur night did, back in 1931, thanks to theater manager, Shep Allen.
“Then it later went up to New York, in 1935 when the Apollo opened up for African Americans in Harlem,” Ellis says. “But before that time, Billy Eckstine, Dr. Billy Taylor, The Clovers, Marvin Gaye, when he was with his doo-wop group, he was first found and won the amateur night here.”
But the Howard Theatre hasn’t just been a breeding ground for musicians.
“The actual Howard Players from Howard University did Shakespearean plays,” Ellis says. “And we actually have some photographs from the Howard Players in their actual costumes from those days.”
Ellis hopes to display these photographs soon, at the Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center. Once built, Ellis says the $5 million facility will feature a museum, classrooms, a listening library and recording studios, “so that people can learn about the history of the Howard Theatre [and] also educate young people in classical jazz, and grooming the next great artists of tomorrow, so they can perform on the Howard stage one day.”