The greatest building boom for theaters in the United States occurred between 1906 and 1912. In the District, in 1908-09, the number of motion picture theaters exploded from three to 11. It was during this time that the first theaters appeared on Capitol Hill. They were not the grand palaces that came later, and they did not last long. Most of them were found in three places, Eighth Street SE, Pennsylvania Avenue SE, and H Street NE. Examples include the Atlas, the Penn, and Carolina theaters and an old but now new venue, Meader Theater, now Miracle Theater.
When the Atlas movie house opened on Aug. 31, 1938, H Street NE was a bustling commercial strip. The Atlas was one of four movie theaters in the H Street NE corridor. The art deco building was also the first new theater in central Northeast in more than 25 years. Originally the building that housed the Atlas was part of a complex that included stores.
The Atlas opened with the movie “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” accompanied by Leon Brusiloff’s Swing Band. Later the theater became the first in Washington to air a television show from its stage. It was also leased to present stage plays, provided live entertainment, and is remembered as one of the first theaters to offer air conditioning.
The Atlas originally admitted whites only. African-American moviegoers traveled elsewhere until 1943, when the Plymouth Theater opened in an old auto showroom at 1365 H St. Then in 1953 the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in DC’s public accommodations.
The Atlas closed in August 1976, some 38 years since it had opened. In 2001, a community group and a philanthropist discussed stimulating the area by focusing on the Atlas Theater and several storefronts. The DC government adopted a plan in 2003 to rebuild the H Street NE corridor and identified the Atlas as a cornerstone of revitalization.
The Atlas fully reopened in 2006 as a 59,000-square-foot performing arts center with four performance spaces, dance studios, offices, back-of-house facilities, and an expansive lobby with a cafe. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the recipient of the 2012 Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence in Service to the Arts.
Plans for Penn Theater began in 1930. It was designed by John Eberson to be an atmospheric Italian garden setting. The building was a streamlined art deco design called a stripped classical. Penn Theater was one of Eberson’s first in this style. The lobby walls were bright blue with red accents.
Built by Warner Brothers, the theater was a truly magnificent palace. It opened on Capitol Hill on Dec. 27, 1935, with Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood.” The theater boasted a 53-foot-wide proscenium arch that permitted the installation of one of the largest screens in Washington. It became an exploitation theater in the late-1960s.
The Penn originally was one of two sister theaters, but the other, the Avenue Grand Theatre, right across the street, burned down in 1970.
When the Penn closed, the auditorium was demolished but the façade was saved and incorporated into a new building designed by David M. Schwarz Architectural Services.
Designed by local architect Benjamin F. Meyers, the Carolina Theater was built in 1913 at the corner of 11th Street and North Carolina Avenue. It had 280 seats and was one of the first neighborhood theaters to open on Capitol Hill. It was a one-story brick building with a store and theater and was operated by Samuel & Herman Robbin. The cost to build was approximately $8,000.
In 1919, William C. Murphy, who had operated the theater for the Robbin brothers, bought the Carolina with plans for expansion, but the building was only slightly redone. The architect was William S. Plager, who had made a name for himself working for theater mogul Harry Crandall. The theater was enlarged by 40 seats, and the entrance was remodeled and moved to 11th Street. The renovation bought the theater another 30 years, surviving the Depression. The Carolina Theater closed in 1952 and was demolished in the early 1970s, when it was replaced by an office building.
The Meader (now the Miracle Theater) has also been a church for the past 50 years but was originally a movie and vaudeville theater. The Meader Amusement Company opened it on Dec. 27, 1909, at 535 Eighth St. SE, at a construction cost of $30,000. The theater housed 480 seats and presented third- and fourth-run movies that were changed daily. In 1910, it served as a Christmas venue featuring “Santa Claus and the Sousa Juvenile Minstrels.”
Over the next 40 years, the theater changed names and hands. In 1924, it became the New Meader Theater. In fall 1927, the theater was bought and renovated by the Stanley-Crandall Company. Between 1927 and 1930 it was called the New. For a short time in 1930 it was called the Family. It was renamed the Academy in 1933.
The theater continued to change names over the years. It became the Art Academy theater in 1960 and specialized in westerns and then foreign films. A year later it was named the Academy and showed discounted movies and then double-bills. In 1962, the theater was turned into the People’s Church.
The building was sold and the new owner, the National Community Church, decided to operate the current Miracle Theater. It shows second-run movies and live entertainment. The oldest movie theater in the city, it maintains the vintage look of an historic movie house.
We owe much to the organizations that have helped preserve DC’s theaters. The Art Deco Society of Washington and the DC Preservation League, as well as other organizations, have played a leading role in saving the cultural heritage of our neighborhoods.
Nina Tristani is co-owner of N&M House Detectives.