When I first moved to Washington as a Georgetown undergraduate many years ago, I would wince as I walked past the old Georgetown Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, with its iconic but crumbling neon sign spelling out “Georgetown” on the facade. I never knew the building in its original incarnation as a movie theater, since it had long been sold and gutted on the inside, having been turned into a jewelry store where signs in the front window prominently announced that one could buy lengths of gold and silver chain by the foot. Back then there were still a number of other small cinemas in the neighborhood, which more recent transplants to the city would not be familiar with, but eventually they all faded away, replaced with the rather grand multiplex Georgetown AMC-Loews Theater down on K Street at the waterfront.
Now it has been announced that architect and longtime Georgetown resident Robert Bell has purchased the property, and hopes to redevelop it as a mixed-use retail and residential space. As happy as I am that this building will be brought back to life, I must admit that I am slightly jealous. Those who know me well can attest that in conversations about what one would hypothetically do with one’s winnings if one won the lottery, buying and restoring the Georgetown Theater has always been one of the top items on my list.
Of course, while it is probable that Mr. Bell will restore the current mock stone, post-war facade of the building as he renovates and reconfigures the interior, my own preference would have been to recreate the rather unusual – for Washington, anyway – facade of the building from when it began life as the Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater back in 1913. You can see in this photograph in the collection of the D.C. Public Library, taken about the time the theater was inaugurated, that it was a rather exuberant look for a city not known for innovative architecture.
Named for neighboring Dumbarton Street, the theater as it originally looked would have been perfectly at home in turn of the century Barcelona or Prague. Its mixture of Neo-Gothic elements, swooping Art Nouveau, and pure imagination, would have fit right in to the urban landscape which those cities took to extremes between about 1880 and 1920. Washington however, is a city which I overheard several tourists in Union Station yesterday describe as a “city full of rules”, and so perhaps it is not a surprise that this fantastical decoration was torn down in 1949, and replaced with something rather more bland and sensible.
Even though Mr. Bell may not be bringing back the whimsy of the old Dumbarton, his efforts to secure the renovation of this space is of long-standing duration and we should all pleased that someone who cares so much not only about this building but about his community has managed to obtain it. I am looking forward to seeing what will become of the place, and if rumors are correct that the ground floor may become a second branch of the excellent Politics and Prose bookshop and cafe, so much the better, for Georgetown desperately needs a place where locals and visitors can gather and linger. Just as the village’s many movie theaters disappeared long ago, so too our many bookshops have, with one or two exceptions, all but vanished as well.
These types of commercial spaces which lend themselves to community interaction are always very much needed to help bring life and a greater sense of neighborliness to urban areas. They serve, in a modern context, what the old assembly rooms of towns and cities in the 18th and 19th centuries did: as a bridge between the public and the private, where all are welcome. Given the success of these types of venues in revitalizing corridors in other cities and indeed in other DC neighborhoods, we can hope that this particular stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, which has suffered from retail blight and neglect for decades, will get a new lease one life through a creative and well-executed revival of this local landmark, one which both we villagers and those who visit us can come to enjoy and appreciate.
Current, dilapidated state of The Georgetown Theater