Entertainer and philanthropist Bill Cosby says the Howard Theatre is a gem “in our community’s crown,” and on Thursday, D.C. officials and well-wishers held a groundbreaking ceremony to restore that jewel of a historic playhouse.
Having slipped into darkness since integration and the 1968 D.C. riots ripped through the U Street corridor, the Howard is finally being readied to share in the renaissance that is taking place in Northwest Washington’s Shaw neighborhood.
“For far too long, the Howard Theatre has sat vacant and dilapidated,” Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said at Thursdays groundbreaking ceremony. “When the Howard reopens, a new generation of residents will have the opportunity to [attend] affordable musical and cultural events.”
The Howard, on T Street NW, opened in 1910 as the nations first full-sized playhouse for blacks. At the time, the black neighborhoods of Shaw and adjacent LeDroit Park were where the upper class and the working class rubbed shoulders and patronized the black-owned establishments that lined U Street and Georgia Avenue and their arteries. Integration brought cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s, and those changes hurt the Howard, which was losing money.
Its unlikely the Howard will feel like its former self. As a structure on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 1975, its physical and cultural integrity must be maintained.
But for visitors Thursday, who had never seen Duke Ellington tickle the ivories or swayed to a Sarah Vaughan melody in person, imaginations had to take flight once inside.
Sunlight now peers through rafters that once held in the raucous laughter from a Moms Mabley comedic turn. What once was a balcony that seated well-dressed patrons is now a leaning slab of concrete. And outside the exits - where, Mr. Cosby said, “bootleggers, screams and girls” used to greet performers - the hot, beaming sun intensified the odor of urine.
All that and more are being tackled by Ellis Development Group, which is overseeing the project.
The Howard’s renovations, which will take about two years and cost about $25 million, are the result of a public/private partnership, including $8 million in D.C. grants and $4 million from the city’s Great Streets increment financing initiative.
But more funds are needed, developers and supporters said, and that’s where Mr. Cosby’s concerns lie.
He has been visiting the U Street corridor as a patron and performer since his Navy days, and speaks frankly about the joys and pains that made the Howard and Lincoln theatres two of the hottest spots in segregated Washington in the “good old days” - and why it will take a village to sustain the Howard after new bricks and mortar are in place.
“You get off the train, but cant stay in the hotels,” Mr. Cosby said in a phone interview. “Black people bought clothes off the rack, but weren’t allowed to try them on. Now comes the renaissance.”
The mayor highlighted “the great change and revitalization” in Shaw in his remarks, including another groundbreaking this week for a new housing/retail development just a few blocks away.
Times have change since the segregation era, Mr. Cosby said, because gentrification and urban renewal mean the neighborhood establishments can no longer survive on black clients and dollars alone.
“Money can be spent on the front, middle and backstage … new equipment,” he said, but he questions whether the new U Street community will buy in once the new Howard opens and whether the people who will be running it will keep that changed community in mind.