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.

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