Streets of Washington Presents The Short Happy Life of the Washington Auditorium

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

One of Washington’s perennial struggles has been to find suitable indoor venues for large public performances, conventions, and other events. The first convention hall was the one built at 5th and K Streets NW in 1875, which we profiled in 2010. It had many limitations, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, city leaders craved something more worthy of the nation’s capital. As we saw last June, Susan Whitney Dimock (1845-1939) tried unsuccessfully to have a grand George Washington Memorial Hall built on the mall. But even as the cornerstone for that project was being laid in November 1921, the city’s business leaders decided—wisely—not to wait for it. Instead they raised funds entirely on their own to demonstrate the business community’s independent ability to build a large, elegant new auditorium to meet the pressing need. But the beautiful and expensive theater they built would entertain Washingtonians for just ten years before being taken over by the federal government for office space.

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The Washington Auditorium in 1926 (author’s collection).

The effort to build the Washington Auditorium, as it was called, was headed by “Colonel” Robert Newton Harper (1861-1940), a native of Leesburg, Virginia, who was president of the American National Bank. Harper broke fundraising up by commercial sector, with 100 different committees of business leaders in charge of raising $5,000 each. True to their business roots, the organizers decided to offer subscriptions to the project as investments, equally split between stock and bonds, rather than charitable contributions. Philip King, president of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, pledged to head one of the fundraising committees, and in a letter to Harper he summed up the rationale for the new auditorium: “Not merely from the standpoint of the dollars that come to the community from a big assemblage but more particularly from the better understanding and educational factors, do big conventions appeal to me as an admirable acquisition to the community. Great gatherings of tradesmen, of the professions and all classes of people generally tend to the refining and betterment of all who come within the range of such gatherings.”

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Robert N. Harper in an undated photo (Source: Library of Congress).

In January 1922 a site in Foggy Bottom—filling the entire square on the southwest corner of 19th and E Streets NW—was purchased for $120,000. Once cleared of the assortment of small commercial buildings that occupied it, the site offered over 30,000 square feet for the auditorium. Located just a few blocks west of the White House, it was easily accessible by streetcar. Though Harper confidently predicted that his committees would be able to raise the $500,000 needed for the building within a few weeks of starting their campaign, the project would actually take much longer.

Ten architects were asked to bid on the new structure, with the firm of Frank Pierce Milburn (1868-1926) and Michael Heister (1871-1948) quickly being selected. Milburn & Heister was a prolific Washington practice that was skilled in designing large office and institutional buildings. Under the watchful eye of Harper’s building committee, which included the architect of the Capitol and the supervising architect of the Treasury, the firm came up with a rather boxy concrete structure, dressed in neoclassical trim, that fit well with the buttoned-down look of the city’s other public edifices. It seems likely that limestone was originally planned for the exterior and then replaced with concrete to save money.

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An early postcard (author’s collection).

In August 1922 ground was broken for the new building. Fresh in everyone’s minds was the deadly collapse of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Adams Morgan the previous January, so the new auditorium was designed to be exceptionally sturdy. A massive steel frame was built under a separate contract before the rest of the construction even began. The Evening Star later reassured its readers that “The roof is supported by huge steel trusses of the type used in railroad bridges, with strength and endurance, securely riveted to steel columns surrounding the building.”

The optimistic Harper promised several national organizations that the auditorium would be ready for their annual conventions in the spring of 1923, but this was wildly unrealistic. In fact, the building didn’t open for another two years. By then overall costs of the project had risen to $965,000, of which only $750,000 had been raised. Lavish ads in local newspapers begged investors to subscribe, promising that their names would be inscribed in a large bronze tablet adorning the new auditorium’s lobby. The Washington Post contributed to the cause by running an editorial in May 1924 urging investors to help see the project to completion. How many additional subscribers were signed up is unclear, but financing was eventually secured to cover the remaining costs, and work was completed in January 1925.

When it was finished, it was hailed as the fulfillment of a 50-year dream of building a world-class auditorium in Washington. Though not as big as Madison Square Garden in New York, the Washington Auditorium was capable of staging theatrical productions and was billed as the “biggest theater of its kind in the world,” comfortably seating 6,000. “Only two columns rise from floor to ceiling in the whole auditorium, giving a wide prospect of vision to spectators.” The theater was equipped with the “latest motion picture projection devices, so that mammoth first-run motion pictures may be presented.” Beneath it on the first floor was the exhibit hall, offering 28,000 square feet of floor space, as well as kitchens, meeting rooms, and smaller committee rooms. Decoration of the auditorium was kept to a minimum, undoubtedly because funds were short. “Although moulded plaster has been set in, and the walls and ceiling adorned with natural architectural attractions, there will be no paintings, gilding or decorating on a widespread scale,” The Evening Star reported.

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Inside the new auditorium (Source: Library of Congress).

A particular draw was the immense $120,000 pipe organ, intended to be the “finest, most artistic and scientifically developed instrument tonally that has ever been produced.” William S. Corby (1867-1935), the local bakery magnate and an expert on pipe organs, commissioned top organist Archer Gibson (1875-1952) to design the organ and master builder Mathias Peter Møller (1854-1937) of Hagerstown, Maryland, to build it. The elaborate instrument had 6,000 pipes, ranging from a tiny one just 3/4ths of an inch long to a towering 32-foot tall tube wide enough for a man to crawl inside.

Opening night on January 26, 1925, featured the debut of the new Washington Opera Company’s production of Charles Gounod’s Faust, starring famed Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) as the Devil. The spectacle drew 6,000 guests, included President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, and was said to be the largest audience ever assembled in Washington for a musical event. “Marvelous furs, gay velvets and chiffons and jeweled headdresses aided the gala effect,” The Evening Star commented. Meanwhile, traffic outside was snarled for blocks, and elegantly attired patrons had to step across “half-finished, puddled sidewalks” to make their way to the E Street entrance. “All was beautiful inside—but, oh, how awful outside!” one spectator lamented.

The auditorium stayed busy with many other events in succeeding months and years, ranging from prize fights and bible lectures to concerts, conventions, and exhibitions. According to the Star, “Paul Robeson sang here and Clarence Darrow debated evolution with a Kentucky senator. Amelia Earhart lectured and Ray Bolger danced and sang with Rudy Vallee in George White’s Scandals.” In 1926 the Washington real estate board had three full-size houses built within the auditorium, one brick, one frame, and one stucco with Spanish tile to demonstrate modern construction methods. For Easter 1927, President Coolidge’s church arranged for its service to be held in the Auditorium, with admittance to ticket holders only. A crowd of some 20,000 mostly out-of-towners anxious to get a glimpse of the president swarmed the sidewalks around the auditorium so thickly that ticket holders could barely make their way through.

Unlike nearby D.A.R. Constitution Hall, which opened in 1929, African Americans were permitted to perform at the Washington Auditorium and were also admitted as patrons, although treatment was not always equitable. According to a 1927 article printed in several African American newspapers, Col. Harper for awhile refused to allow African American events to be held at the auditorium in retaliation for an incident in May 1925 in which several hundred African American performers walked out of a music festival being hosted by the International Council of Women as a protest against segregation in the audience. But the standoff apparently didn’t last long. A 1926 article in The New York Amsterdam News, referring back to the pervious year’s disturbance, reported that “The tempest in the teapot of Art simmered down to serene tranquility in Washington last week when patrons, white and colored, settled down, elbow to elbow, in the Washington Auditorium, and, minus any evidence of segregation, enrapturedly listened to the wonder tones of song which burst forth from the throat of Roland Hayes, the golden-voiced tenor of black hue.” All had not been resolved, however; segregation was still enforced during events featuring white performers. Nevertheless the auditorium was used for a number of African American events, including benefit concerts sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1929 and 1930.

By 1930, with the onset of the Great Depression, the five-year-old auditorium was already doing poorly from a financial perspective. The auditorium corporation tried to sell the building to the government for use as a National Guard Armory, but the offer was flatly rejected. At a capacity of 6,000, it was too small, everyone seemed to agree. A much larger, 15,000-seat venue was needed. Discussions continued through the 1930s about plans for a larger, public facility, eventually culminating in construction of the National Guard Armory on East Capitol Street in 1939.

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The Washington Auditorium in 1933 (author’s collection).

Meanwhile, one of the Washington Auditorium’s last shining moments was when it hosted Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural ball in 1933. The Washington Post’s fashion editor, Evelyn Peyton Gordon, wrote that “Bands played, brilliant military uniforms mingled with the more somber garb of guests, and the flags of many States made a scene unsurpassed in interest.” A highlight was the singing of the national anthem by Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) star soprano of the Metropolitan Opera Company, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Thankfully for the Washington Auditorium Corporation, Roosevelt’s New Deal brought in a vast new federal bureaucracy that in short order was in desperate need of office space. The January 1935 Washington Auto Show was one of the last public events to take place in the auditorium before the Federal Emergency Relief Administration leased the entire building in June. This must have been a great relief to the officers of the corporation, which previously had not been paying its bills on time.

“Before the gaudy stage curtain of dilapidated Washington Auditorium, to which they have just moved, upstairs in the stars’ dressing rooms and in tiny metal chambers which workmen are noisily completing, administrators of the Work Relief drama, art, music, and writers’ projects are pushing forward their plans,” The New York Times reported in August. Thus began the auditorium’s second-life, a career that would last twice as long as its original arts purpose.

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The Washington Auditorium in 1941 (author’s collection).

Various federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, continued to use the space, which the government leased for $52,000 per year, for offices and storage through the 1950s. According to The Evening Star, workers began calling the cavernous former auditorium “the rat hole.” “Where seats once were, you saw desks and file cabinets. High in the ceiling birds would swoop overhead and now and then a mouse would terrify a secretary. Every week someone found a new bird’s nest on a window sill.”

The end game for the structure began to be played out in 1957, when the General Services Administration condemned the structure to make room for a planned new Civil Service Commission building just to the south. A District Court jury later ruled that the government should pay the Washington Auditorium Corporation $1,030,100 for the building. After stock and bond holders finished haggling over the proceeds, the corporation was finally able to dissolve itself.

And what about that magnificent pipe organ built by Mathias Møller? According to a 1963 Evening Star article, “a man from Richmond paid $1,000 for it, dismantled it, and will attempt to reassemble it.” Daunting as that task must have been, it paled in comparison with the job of dismantling the building itself. Beginning in the fall of 1963, workers took several months to shatter the concrete facade and bring down the massive steel trusses that were designed to never collapse in the face of natural disasters.

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The site of the Washington Auditorium as it appears today (photo by the author).

The site is now open parkland, an extension of Rawlins Park, which fills the adjacent block to the east. After the building was torn down, roads in this area were reconfigured to create the E Street Expressway, and the Civil Service Commission (now the Office of Personnel Management) was built in the square to the south. Few of the tourists and government workers that wander through this quiet urban park have any idea that the “White Elephant of 19th Street” once resolutely stood on this site.

2 Comment

  • So interesting. Strange that it ended up basically as an empty lot, especially after all of that deconstruction work.

  • Really interesting, even if it was a little long. I hope PoPville hosts more articles like this one.

    I really like Rawlins Park (and the neighboring Octogon), but it’s kind of in a weird out-of-the-way part of Foggy Bottom, so I rarely make it over there. I had always wondered why it extended over two city blocks. Now I know, I guess.

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