Friday, January 7, 2005

Lights shine brightly from the newly restored marquee of the Tivoli Theater at 14th Street and Park Road in Columbia Heights. But don’t expect to see the latest flick in this preserved 1920s movie palace, now finally coming back to life after nearly three decades of neglect.

The cavernous hall that once seated 2,000 has been chopped up into spaces for offices, stores and a small venue for Hispanic theater. Its corner lobby, with vaulted ceiling, marble columns and decorative plasterwork, has been cut off from the rest of the building to be leased as a restaurant or shop.

Preservationists may lament the interior subdivision of the Tivoli, designed in 1923 by architect Thomas Lamb, as crude and insensitive. But the changes to this national historic landmark ought to be judged in terms of their larger purpose: urban revitalization.

The converted movie theater is but one part of a $37 million development project covering an entire city block. Stretching from 14th Street to Holmead Place, and Park Road to Monroe Street, the new Tivoli Square aims to economically rejuvenate this once-blighted Northwest neighborhood. If this ambitious project succeeds, it will certainly have justified its aesthetic compromises.

Closed in 1976 in the wake of the 1968 riots, the Tivoli suffered vandalism and water damage that obliterated its grandeur. Some residents and developers wanted the theater torn down, while others fought to save it.

Years of public squabbling were resolved six years ago, when developer Joe Horning stepped in. After negotiating a deal with the city and preservation and community groups, he began work on building 106,000 square feet of stores and offices both within the theater and in new buildings next to it, plus 40 residences.

The first signs of new life on the block are now stirring in the heart of the old Tivoli. Opening its doors this weekend is the GALA (Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanos) Hispanic Theatre, the belated permanent home of the eponymous 29-year-old theater company which has made do for years with a series of temporary residencies in theaters around town.

The 270-seat venue is built within the balcony of the 1924 auditorium and takes advantage of its stepped terraces for seating. Above the stage is the old Tivoli’s ornate ceiling dome and proscenium arch. Two smaller historic domes crown the rear aisles of the new theater.

To its credit, SmithGroup, the architect of the new theater, convinced the developer that this balcony space would best preserve some sense of the Tivoli’s beaux-arts beauty.

The designers also had the good sense to leave the grand dome as a musty ruin, with peeling paint and worn plaster. This allows some historical traces of the Tivoli to grace what is otherwise an uninspiring interior, more multiplex than majestic.

Faux-finished, mottled red walls, blond maple-paneled control booth and floral patterned carpet look tired and dated. Clumsy trusswork for rigging lights frames the stage and partially obscures views of the dome. These finishes and fixtures aim for a contemporary, industrial look, but aren’t edgy enough to create an exciting contrast between old and new.

In some places, however, the SmithGroup managed to inject some clever industrial touches. Draping the sides of the theater are chain-mail curtains. Suspended from the ceilings of the stairways and lobby bar are similar metal-mesh “clouds” that screen exposed pipes and ducts from view and cast patterned shadows on the walls. However, these elements aren’t enough to spice up the otherwise lackluster design.

Even more disappointing is the undramatic entrance to the new theater. Rather than strolling through the Tivoli’s grand corner lobby and ascending its marble staircases, theatergoers enter the building through a standard door at the center of the block. From a bland vestibule, they wind their way up a staircase or take the elevator to the theater ticket booth and lobby.

Still, the play’s the thing, and the Hispanic Theatre provides the Latino company with a much bigger venue than the 120-seat Warehouse Theater, where it most recently performed. The new 11,000-square foot performing space now allows the theater group to diversify its programs and raise its profile.

In bringing people to the Tivoli at night, the new theater also supports the larger mission of economic redevelopment in Columbia Heights.

Currently, it’s hard to tell how the other parts of Tivoli Square will fare because office and retail spaces in the complex are still vacant. But the commercial architecture already in place sets the stage for good things to come.

Attached to the Tivoli Theatre along Park Road is a new Giant Food supermarket and 230-car parking garage. The boxy brick building is crisply detailed with pilasters, patterned frieze and copper cornices that break up its block-long facade. A tall, glass-enclosed stair tower provides more visual relief and access from parking to street.

It’s no accident that this architecture recalls the Whole Foods store on P Street off 14th Street NW; the architect, Mushinsky Voelzke and Associates of Bethesda, designed both supermarkets as well as the master plan for the Tivoli site.

While the supermarket has a street-friendly presence on busy Park Road, it turns its back on the row houses of Holmead Place, just where it should be most gracious. Here, residents look out the front windows to the supermarket’s blank walls and parking ramp.

On the north side of the Tivoli, Mushinsky Voelzke designed a two-story commercial building in the same brick as the supermarket. It curves around the corner from 14th Street onto Monroe Street, where it will abut town houses now under construction. Windows are sized to relate to the storefronts of the old theater next door and the historic Tompkins Building across 14th Street.

As bookends to the Tivoli, the new buildings ably fulfill their supporting roles in complementing, rather than competing with their venerable neighbor. It would be hard to upstage Lamb’s romantic Renaissance Revival architecture.

Pebble-filled stucco walls, projecting storefronts, rounded arched windows, decorated friezes and soffits, cornice brackets and tiled roofs have all been returned to their original glory. The Tivoli is still the star of the show.

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