The Howard Connection
In April, Howard University and the LeDroit Park community were reunited with an old friend, the Howard Theatre. The historic theater dons a replica of its original 1910 façade, topped by the “Jazz Man” and flanked by Duke Ellington immortalized in statues. The theater brings energy to LeDroit Park that feels familiar. Walking past it through the new pedestrian-friendly plaza, it actually feels like it never left.
The Howard Theatre is the oldest major theater built for African Americans in the country. Today, it boasts more than double its original square footage and the ability to transform from a lounge to a concert auditorium in a matter of minutes. The full service bars, kitchen, green rooms, and other amenities also make this place a jewel for the city.
Its return was facilitated by the hard work and dedication of those who remember and experienced the power of the Theatre. The venue launched some of the world’s biggest stars and legends. From Duke Ellington to Marvin Gaye, anyone who was anyone had a moment in the spotlight of its stage.
Howard University, whose Howard Players performed often at the Theatre in the early 1900’s, played a pivotal role in the renovation of the Theatre. As part of its LeDroit Park Initiative, the University provided $200,000 in grant funding from a HUD/HBCU community development block grant in 2008 for the revitalization efforts.
For this and other University contributions to this effort, a tribute to Howard University has been placed prominently on the donor wall in the theatre lobby.
But the Theatre is not done making its grand entrance. An additional facility will be constructed directly adjacent to the south end of the Theatre and will be the home of the Howard Theatre Culture and Education Center. The center will house the Howard Theatre Museum, classrooms, a listening library, offices, a recording studio, conference rooms, and a donor lounge.
All good things come in good timing. The LeDroit Park Initiative, a revitalization project that impacted four neighborhoods and 151 blocks, helped pave the way for the Theatre’s return. The Initiative, which is spearheaded by Howard University, gained traction in the early 1990’s after years of deliberation. The University’s work addressed the decline of many of the older buildings in the area.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, the University purchased and held properties near the campus in anticipation of expanding its hospital until the nationwide movement toward more managed health care reduced the need for hospital expansion. Partnering with Fannie Mae, these properties were renovated, new housing was constructed on vacant lots, and these properties were returned to the residential inventory of the neighborhood. The University created an employer-assisted housing program that helped place University and municipal employees into the newly converted homes at affordable prices. This first phase of the Initiative was to be combined with a new mixed-use Howard Town Center and a vibrant cultural district which would revitalize LeDroit Park as a metro friendly, sustainable district brimming with retail business, residences, and entertainment. In other words, the vision was a completely restored community that mirrored nearly every new development in Washington D.C.
The Theatre would play a key role once renovated, but that would require a much needed change at the Shaw Metro site nearby.
Mr. Ellis Goes to Washington
Roy “Chip” Ellis
Alum Roy “Chip” Ellis (B.A. ’89) is a graduate of the School of Liberal Arts with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Law. In nearly two decades, Ellis built a career in politics and business, including serving in the Clinton administration as a political appointee at the Department of State, and as a public relations officer at the White House.
After his work in the White House, he shifted gears and began working with a local development company.
“I always wanted to be my own boss,” he said.
He later established the Ellis Development Group.
In 2011, Ellis Development partnered with Four Points, and the Jarvis Company to start building Progression Place, a mixed-use, transit-oriented development with 100,000 square feet of Class A office space, a 205-unit luxury apartment building, and more than 19,000 square feet of ground-level retail as well as a two-level, underground parking garage.
With that underway, the Theatre was ready for renovation.
It Came Before the Apollo
“There was this movement amongst all the African Americans in the Shaw LeDroit area that they needed to have their own theater,” said Ellis. “It could be regarded that before there was a Harlem Renaissance, there was a Shaw LeDroit Renaissance.”
This was where scholars, artists like Duke Ellington, writers like Langston Hughes and others that were from Washington, D.C. would congregate. Later, many moved to New York to create the Harlem Renaissance movement.
Ellis also explained that the idea of “amateur night” was created at the Howard Theatre. In the early 1930’s, before the Apollo was open to African Americans, the Theatre was managed by Shep Allen who started hosting amateur nights. Legends like Ella Fitzgerald , won amateur night at the Howard and later went to the Apollo, won, and became a superstar.
While making his usual runs through the Theatre days before the opening, you could sense Ellis’ anticipation. This was history.
As Ellis puts it, “Howard really teaches you that there is nothing that is not possible.”