Should the Ontario Theater in Adams Morgan be Granted Historic Landmark Status?

“Dear PoPville,

I wanted to let you know that an application to nominate the Ontario Theatre for local landmark status has been submitted to the Historic Preservation Office. The hearing is scheduled for Thursday, November 17th.

I am working with the team that submitted the nomination to get the word out in the community. While significant in several ways, the theater is of particular importance to Adams Morgan’s historic Latino community, as the site operated as “Teatro Ontario” from 1969-1978. During those years, the Ontario ran exclusively Spanish language films for neighborhood residents – supposedly the only theater between here and Philadelphia to do so. You can read more about the full history of the theater through the links above.

We think the Ontario would be a unique and crucial addition to the local register, as we are reasonably sure that the register does not yet include any sites associated with Adams Morgan’s historic Latino community.

(For the other side of the argument, the owner of the property proposed a five-story, seventy foot mixed use condo development.)

If the building is accepted as a landmark, the defining physical characteristics of the building exterior (the triangular marquee, the store frontage, etc.) would be legally protected. The building interior could be freely altered, although hopefully the lobby interior – which is largely intact – would be preserved voluntarily by the owner. The building exterior could be modified in ways that the Historic Preservation Review Board agrees would not diminish its significant historic characteristics. The use of the building would be totally up to the owner.

On a cultural level, the Ontario Theater would potentially be the first site associated with Adams Morgan’s historic Latino community from the 1960s onward to be included on the local register.

Some other bite-sized pieces of its history:

* When first opened in 1951, the Ontario was one of the last large movie theaters (1,400 seats!) to be built in the city before the emergence of television, drive-ins, and multiplexes in the suburbs began to dominate the popular entertainment culture. It hosted DC’s premiere screenings of Mary Poppins, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Sound of Music, which played at the Ontario exclusively for two years.

* The Ontario is also a site importantly associated with the emergence of DC’s live music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it hosted such bands as The Clash, U2, Blondie, The Police, and Talking Heads, among many others. Music promoter Seth Hurwitz got his start in the music business programming movies and live shows at the Ontario before taking over the famed 9:30 Club on F Street in the early 1980s.”

Ed. Note: We’ve discussed the potential of this property and lamented its current state of disrepair since Nov. ’08. It has regularly come up in discussion every year since.

93 Comment

  • Only if the preservationists promise to invest millions into remaking the dilapidated thing into something useful.

    So…no.

    • exactly. I recognize that it has some interesting historical notes but preserving a run-down theater that is a blight to an already blighted stretch does not seem to be in the best interests of the community. Now, if the preservationist have some money and want to restore the theater – by all means, go ahead. But you don’t need landmark status to do that.

      • I think the city needs another underutilized theater that millions upon millions of dollars will be spent.

        It can host events maybe once a month and sit empty the rest of the time!

        Great idea!

    • andy

      agreed. current status is worthless. any route that makes it better is supportable. any route that prevents that is not.

  • How about a condo development with a restored Ontario Theater on the ground floor? It could be a multi-purpose space, showing films of all sorts.

  • The building right now I have always found to be an eyesore. I think that it would be one thing if the group that is looking to have it deemed a historic landmark was willing to come forward with a reasonable offer to buy the place from the owner then I could support it – but otherwise, I would much rather see a new condo building with mixed use on the lower level that is actually cared for then the current building.

    It would also be great to see it turned back into a music venue, but I bet the local neighbors may not like that idea very much.

  • No, No, No, No.

    There are PLENTY of beautiful historic buildings close to this theater.

    It has already been gutted once and holds no historical value.

    Tear it down and build something that would actually spark development in that area of AdMo.

  • God that is an ugly building. Absolutely not historic.

    • Actually, that’s pretty open to interpretation. The ugliness and disrepair are indisputable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not historic. There’s a debate among historic preservationists about things like, well, every building built in the 1960s and 70s that has that concrete institutional look to it. It’s an unfortunate chapter in America’s architectural history, but one that happened, nonetheless.

      • “It’s an unfortunate chapter in America’s architectural history, but one that happened, nonetheless.”

        This summation should be printed as the section on this period in all Architecture history textbooks.

        • Judging by so many of the new condo buildings that have gone up in DC recently, that chapter heading could still be very relevant today.

  • Ahhh…”Historic Preservation” the preferred weapon of Nimby folk who like to restrict progress and tell other people how they have to spend their own money.

    That place has been empty and abandoned for years. Why didn’t these sol called concerned preservationists submit it for protection 5 years ago? Oh, thats right…there were no plans for it then and they prefer the run down status quo

    So the answer is no. There is nothing remotely preservation worthy about the structure or its past use that would warrant it.

    The zoning and surrounding neighborhood screams high density residential with some street level retail. I know that gives heart palpatations to the local 80 year old set who pine for the day when horse and buggies were the predominant transportation, but you folks are the problem, not the solution

    • Dear Joker,

      I am a 26 year old student of Historic Preservation (it’s a thing, no need to use ” “) and I neither recall days of horses and buggies, nor do I think that this is what preservation should bring to mind when mentioned. However, the comments on this post make it clear that some serious public education is needed.

      You (and many others here) underestimate the value protecting historic infrastructure has in perpetuating diverse communities and in stimulating economic development. It’s certainly not applicable to all situations, but definitely has a place in this city. People complain that the theater is a current eye-sore, in desperate need of attention (I agree, it is not a physically attractive structure, in a conventional sense, but matters of taste and style are a topic for a completely different time and place). However, the building itself represents the fabric of fledgling communities, which would be all but be erased if the development of condos were to go forward.

      I agree that something needs to be done to fix the theater as is and funding the rehabilitation of this structure poses problems, but don’t we in the neighborhood deserve alternatives to improving this structure that do not involve simply tearing it down and building pricey condos? What impact would that have on the immediate community?

      • I get that, and I agree that certain buildings and areas do deserve to be protected because of their important status. But I think that the “historic preservation” status is applied far too broadly. Having shown spanish-language films in the 1970s and hosted a U2 concert, I think, don’t rise to the level of allowing the community to tell a private landowner what he should do with the property that he paid for. I think that the historic preservation community would be well-served by not only working a little harder on educating the public about preservation goals, but also setting maybe more realistic goals by targeting the real gems in DC, instead of the wide swath of targets as of late.

      • Agreed. Sometimes, the historic preservation folks can be a little over zealous, but living in Mt. Pleasant, I can personally attest to the positive impact that historic designtaion has had in preserving our beautiful housing stock and keeping out the ugly pop-ups that litter Columbia Heights and other parts of the city.

  • NO in English and No en español!!!!!!

  • Theaters are great public spaces – as evidenced by the historical impact this theater had on DC’s latino community. They are also a tough business to run in this city. Could they keep the historic architecture and theater space while also redeveloping the site for apartments/condos? The theater could be used like the cinema draft house with a new addition being constructed above.
    See the Views at Clarendon as a model for this project. http://viewsatclarendon.wordpress.com/

    Historic preservation wins and the owner is able to see a return on his/her investment.

    The tough part would be sound insulation, two separate entrances and finding a backer for a cinema draft house.

  • it’s a pretty awesome building. i’m find with condos, but they should certainly do something cool with the ground floor. can’t just give historic preservation to everything.

  • Valid points made here in the “No “category. However, it personally bothers me to see all of the unique features of any locale being torn down in favor of the construction of another bland, “could be anywhere” condo or office building. Places are becoming architectually indistinguishable and preserving seemingly nonsensical sites like this theater is really the only way to reverse this trend. So for this reason, it should be preserved.

    • The fact that we have uninspired architects in this town doesn’t mean that we should forgo progress and be forced to watch this place fall apart day by day.

    • I have a dead possum in front of my house. No one else has that. Should I leave it because clean streets are everywhere?

    • I think blocks and blocks of Victorian rowhomes look indistinguishable. So by your logic we should demolish Shaw.

      • There’s a huge difference between indistinguishable and uninspired (though there is an overlap), which is how I would describe the vast majority of condo developments.

  • For the historic preservation ONLY IF it doesn’t slow down fixing up this horrific blight (which, sadly, is typically the case in DC). This building is torture to my poor retinas — somebody needs to fix this visual hell soon.

  • Oh, God no.

    You know how that “unique” structure got there in the first place? Because someone was allowed to build it without having legions of neighbors line up to try to tell them how/what/where to build.

    We don’t live in a museum. It’s a city. It’s supposed to change. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

    I will never understand the desire to preserve Adams Morgan has a historic neighborhood of vacant, blighted store fronts…or banks.

    Yeah, it would be awesome if someone fixed the place up and opened a restaurant, but no one probably wants to have to crawl to the idiots at the KCA or the ANC and deal with their nonsensical demands.

    If the family the owns it wants to develop as condos let them…it’s their property. And if you don’t agree with it, buy the place and let sit as a historic rotting open sore.

  • The people that want to keep it should be given a deadline to raise the money, purchase it, and completely renovate it with no assistance from the city. If they fail to do so, tear it down. It’s horrible.

  • Hopefully the current owners just get it demolished quickly. I despise walking past that eyesore. A single entrance and large solid walls provide no benefit to the community and few opportunities for other uses. Theatres don’t succeed and pretty much the only use is a grocery store. Since we’ve already got three, I can’t really see that happening.

    Tear that piece of crap down before these preservationist fools succeed in preserving more blight.

  • It always amazes me the extent to which busybodies feel the need to tell people what to do with their property.

  • Something that happened during 1969-1978 deserves historic status? I guess I should be walking around with a plaque on me!

  • What a joke. Looks like a dump that is only tearing down property values all around. Seriously, it was a hispanic movie theater from 1969-1978… WHO CARES!

    Lets move forward, and stop trying to tell what to do with their own property.

    People who try to preserve a building like this should be required to supplement that outrageous rent prices in this area. Less housing=higher rents.

  • This space would make an awesome bowling alley. Anything but another condo.

    • It would never survive as a bowling alley. Neighborhood bowling alleys are dying all over the country. Yes, every hipster in DC would go once and talk all the time abut how awesome it is not to have to go to the suburbs to bowl, but they wouldn’t go frequently enough for it to flourish.

  • Give me a break. Stop making everything in this city more expensive to change or develop. It’s one of the many reasons that DC is becoming an unaffordable place to live.

  • I’d love to see it developed into a movie theater with the current facade — I think, if rehabbed, it’d look great, and I wouldn’t mind a theater within walking distance. But mostly, it needs to be used for something, and to the extent historic preservation would interfere with that, it’s a bad idea.

  • Paint it. Renovate the inside. Turn it into a little music venue a la black cat. Add a bar. Awesome-sauce. Its begging for it.

  • I say YES because I am a native washingtonian and 80% of the people that say no are not from Washington DC and do not appreciate the history of many local neighborhoods or what they represent. I was there during the premier of those movies and will be glad when it returns to its former function. In Fact I was a paperboy and delivered papers in that neighborhood.

  • To the folks trashing the value of historic preservation as an affront to private property rights, please remember your arguments the next time some fly-by-night flipper erects a horrendous pop-up next to your house, like the ones that are currently littering Columbia Heights, Petworth, and so many other parts of the city.

    • Maybe they wouldn’t need to put in pop-ups if the anti-development zealots in the city allowed enough new construction of housing stock to meet demand? Instead we have to shoe-horn in pop-ups. Or accept massive condo developments because only big companies have the capital to deal with the red-tape and assorted nonsense in order to get anything built, which means the only places that do get built are massive projects with enough of return to cover the extra money needed to get any project off the ground.

      And the fact remains: it’s not your house, and I have not seen a single shred of evidence to suggest that a person putting in a pop-up devalues neighboring property. I agree they are ugly but so what? Life goes on.

      As I said before: it’s a CITY, not a museum. It was never intended to remain a static, unchanging period piece.

      • Yes, I’m sure these flippers had originally planned to put in luxurious multi-unit buildings, but had to settle for a cheap ugly pop-up instead. Please…

        But at least you’re consistent in your views. Long live the pop-ups!

    • Every single one of those pop-ups are better than the abandon rotting lots and buildings that existed there prior to new development. The DC USA building was forced to keep the historic facade on the south side of the building which only led to increased costs. Without someone telling you the southern facing facade is historic, you could walk right by and not even notice. So things close down and rot away for a reason. I am all for redevelopment.

      • Why must we accept the false choice between no development and ugly development? If it hadn’t been for historic preservation, the mansion at 18th and Monroe would be in a landfill right now, replaced by yet another generic condo development. Instead, its exterior is being restored to its original grandeur, and I promise you, the owner is going to make a killing on the condo units once they hit the market. Yes, historic preservation can be done badly, but let’s recognize that when done right, it creates beautiful, unique, and vibrant communities.

  • Why not just turn into a John Varvatos store and be done with it?

    (Note to PoP: a few years ago a John Varvatos store replaced CBGBs, which was a famous music venue in NYC).

    • A John Varvatos store would be a smashing idea. There’s a huge shortage of high-end haberdashery in that neighborhood (whereas fine music venues are not uncommon), and the funky little boutiques never have anything my size.

      Anyone who can afford a $600K condo can afford a $2K suit.

      (Then again, maybe not).

    • That analogy would be meaningful, if the Ontario had anything near the significance in the music industry of either this noaton or this city that CBGBs had. As it is, the Ontario was just a place that had some concerts. No big deal.

      • Isn’t the “analogy” that CBGBs had a much greater historical (musical) significance, yet it was allowed to fall by the wayside, so why should this less-historically-sgnificant building be treated differently?

        Though The Clash did play here, so there’s that.

  • Judging by their attitude toward historic preservation, if the PoP commenters had their way, Union Station & the Old Post Office would be soulless office & condo buildings. Talk about creating eyesores! I’m surprised that people don’t see the irony that historic preservation has saved the aesthetic that makes DC beautiful & a desirable place to live. The same crowd that loves to tell people to “go to the suburbs” seem to want to disregard the processes that have kept DC from looking like cities like Houston or LA or, for that matter, suburban America.

    • No kidding. What do Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Mt. Pleasant, and Logan Circle all have in common, besides the fact that they are all tremendously desirable places to live? They are all designated historic districts, which has allowed them to retain their unique character and beauty, thereby making them places that people want to live in.

      • This is a great argument when applied to places with unique character and beauty. We’re talking about a rotting old movie theater that happens to have 30′ of chrome across the front of the facade and otherwise is about as preservation-worthy as the sidewalk in front of it. This ain’t exactly the wonder bread factory.

        • Fair enough. I’m not arguing the merits of preserving this particular building. (Personally, I think a preserved historic old theatre would be great for this otherwise ho-hum section of Adams Morgan, but reasonable people can disagree.) I’m just calling out the general anti-preservation sentiment espoused by some on here.

        • I don’t think anyone is arguing against improving the building. It definitely needs a lot of help. But the vitriol in the comments against historical preservation doesn’t make sense considering the fact that it’s the historic character of the city’s nicest neighborhoods makes them so popular and expensive. And by the way, who gets to decide what is worth saving? Just because you like the Wonder Bread factory doesn’t mean that it’s more worthy than sites that others would like to restore or save.

          • I don’t think anyone is arguing that historic preservation is bad per se. We all value legitimate historically significant spots, like Dupont and Logan Circles, that have created lasting character in their surrounding neighborhoods and this city for hundreds of years. What I do not value is a movie theater that had a nice little run in the 1970′s and now looks like an old warehouse. There are minimum criteria that make something worth preserving, and this theater does not meet them.

          • “Ahhh…’Historic Preservation’ the preferred weapon of Nimby folk who like to restrict progress and tell other people how they have to spend their own money.”

            The knee-jerk reactions like the one above & hysterical cries of NIMBYism (whatever that means) are definitely anti-historical preservation. I agree with you that buildings need to meet certain criteria for protected status, but who makes that decision? The city has set up a process for development and the building owner will have to abide the decisions that are made about the merits of the historical significance claim If the commentariat don’t like the process, they should lobby to get it changed.

            Captcha – Z8U2

    • +1.

      Excellent post.

  • Oh come on, this movie theater ain’t exactly Union Station. I think that the frusterated, anti-preservation tone here has a lot to do with how long it takes DC to change than with the concept of historic preservation. Even people who have the best goals at heart have to admit that sometimes these fights drag on to the detriment of the developer and neighborhood alike. Let’s play nice.

  • cinema drafthouse with B movies and midnight showings of Donnie Darko?
    Unfotunately, the best way to make money in that neighborhood is a parking garage

  • Even in the ‘historic’ photos, that is a powerfully ugly building. Get rid of it.

    • It’s an ugly building where I once saw The Talking Heads, Cramps, B-52s, Magazine and The Clash. There are memories. I agree it is an eyesore now. But it’s in an entertainment district, and it would be nice to make something of it other than more blandness for suburban refugees who want to live in a mall.

  • TEAR IT DOWN! All of Adams Morgan is an eyesore if you ask me. It has a smelly run down vibe creating a paradox with the trendy bars and restaurants. I agree with an earlier comment that a parking garage would be the best fit for this location. Everyone complains about the lack of a metro station and lack of parking in Adams Morgan and I am sure that residents would appreciate LESS CARS parking on their streets during the weekends with their NOISE. 1. Theaters are closing down or at risk of closing down in the city, there is no need for another one to stress over 2. Money is already being spent on renovating the Howard Theater and we are still trying to figure out the fate of the Lincoln, BOTH have more respectable history than just showing movies in the seventies as well as the Tivoli in Columbia Heights which we spent money renovating as well. This is OVERKILL now. 3. If preserved, this theater is not capable of a lot of uses with its odd dimensions and ugly facade. Not very many developers will want to deal with it “As-is” 4. If preserved, it will just sit there, empty for people to gawk at and will not contribute a dime to DC nor will benefit the community. 5. There are thousands of preserved buildings in DC, so bulldozing this monstrosity will not effect the historic nature of Washington as some preservationists will have you to believe. It is time Adams Morgan had a face-lift. Do you really think a music venue in an already ROWDY Adams Morgan is what the community needs? The Fillmore just opened in downtown Silver Spring. That market is already saturated. Let it go.

    • “It has a smelly run down vibe creating a paradox with the trendy bars and restaurants”

      Please explain this.

      There is no need for a parking garage. There are 3 metro’s within a 15-20 minute walk, 4 buslines and this area is cab central on Thu-Sat nights. Also, there are 2 parking garages in adams morgan already. Adams Morgan does not need more drunken MD/VA drivers in the neighborhood.

  • The best use of what’s left of the Ontario is that its historic structure should become the inspiration for the new building and become partly incorporated into it, in the way that the old Art Deco Greyhound station was incorporated into the new office building at 1100 New York Ave. Challenge the designer of the new building to pay homage to it, remember it, but also create something new that serves the commnity of today. The theater as a active use is dead and aside from the distinctive shape of the building in the streetscape there is no particular value in preserving the structure as-is, particularly the interior. One possible interior exception is the lobby, which could be the lobby of the new bulding. Its current condition provides so slim a connection to its former uses that preserving an allusion to it, as part of something new, would be appropriate. (And since other people have thrown their credentials around, I’ll play too: DC native, with an BA in Historic Preservation and 20+ years experience in the field.)

  • You know, Adams Morgan is woefully lacking in strip clubs. I think this could be renovated into one of Baltimore-level grandeur.

  • I am in my 20s. ???? Thanks for that.

  • The Clash played there? Application granted!

  • Mixed reviews here, clearly. Perhaps I misread the proposal, but it sounded to me like the developer would have a lot of freedom in regards to building out the property. The main restraints were to maintain the basic facade, with room for aesthetic modifications. The interior of the space could be completely demolished and still abide by the rules set by the Historic Preservation of Office.

    So…What’s that big deal? I’m sure that knocking down the whole building would be simpler and less expensive than preserving the facade, but the renderings of Potomac Development’s plans for that space suggest that they are keeping it’s unique architectural elements in mind anyhow.

    I personally would love to see it renovated in away that highlighted it’s origins. DC has cornered the market on overly ornate mammoth buildings with eagles and stars on them, but we seem to be knocking down and destroying structures that recall the history of the mid century. I say we save at least one.

  • You’re all idiots. This building, while currently ugly as sin, is perfect for an awesome little draft pub and slightly-upscale-wings restaurant. I’ve been saying it for years.

    That stretch of Colombia is going to get developed over the next few years, especially if/once they open the new Marriott down the street. This same stretch sits nearly at the center of so many great neighborhoods (AdMo, Co. Heights, MtP). It would be a perfect draft house and I envision a wings restaurant with little tables lining the sidewalk on the Columbia side.

    Whomever keeps saying, why not just let them build more condos…blah, blah…c’mon, move to Chinatown or 14th or someplace else where brand new condos are all the rage!

    If I knew what the hell I was talking about, I’d buy it, get 1000 local citizens to each invest $1000 and turn it into a draft pub. I’d even honor the Latino heritage and have special events/movies for the current Latino population. Everyone wins. Hipsters could hold hands with Hondurans. It’d be great!

    Point: Just not another stupid f’n condo building, way over priced, sure to attract the very idiots who will complain about the noise (like the folks behind 18th St).

    • Totally – by reducing the supply of condos, you are sure to bring down condo prices. Basic supply and demand right?

      • it’s not supply vs demand. not really. amenities. and the amenities that density brings plays a stronger role.

        • Price is ALWAYS based on supply and demand…

          Amenities are a piece of this puzzle. With limited supply the condos that are built will be designed to attract the top end of the demand.

          • no it isn’t.

            look at it this way,

            the more condos they build the more expensive dc gets. here’s why. more condo’s = increased density= increased demand for services= more services= more desirable area= more expensive to buy in.

            so stop with your econ 101 truisms and look to real mechanisms with a greater eye for the nuances.

  • Every time I walk by, I yearn to telepathically command the powers-that-be at Fresh Market to take over this space and the vacant CVS next door and open their first DC store.

    But then I realize, we’re not on the same wavelength.

    So I shall just comment on it here instead.

  • Didn’t Jackie O preside over the opening ceremonies here? Tracks is gone, I think Jackie 60 DC could be fun.

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