Atlas Bears Weight of H St.
Theater’s Revival Seen as Catalyst For More Change
Strolling along the 1300 block of H Street Northeast, one might curiously peer through the metal fence surrounding the former sites of various storefronts and the Atlas Theater. The theater’s marquee is beat up and ripped to shreds in some areas. Debris and dirt clutter the ground. The sound of drills, hammers and sanders drown out the shouts of communication by numerous construction workers.
Those not familiar with the neighborhood, on the outskirts of Capitol Hill, most likely will drive or walk by the project without a second thought. After all, the estimated $16.8 million renovation of the theater is missing one important identifier: the original Atlas sign, dating back to 1938. But sign or no sign, residents of the area realize this project — the Atlas Performing Arts Center, part of which will open within the next month — is a step forward in the revitalization of both the arts and the community along the H Street corridor.
Past to Present
In 1976 the Atlas Theater, which seated approximately 1,000 patrons, closed its doors after hosting movies and performances for almost four decades. Following the riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the theater struggled to stay in business, but failed.
Almost 10 years later, the H Street Community Development Corp. acquired the property and waited for the right tenant to come along. Finally in 2002, the Atlas Performing Arts Center, an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3), took ownership of the space.
“We have a very long list of really remarkably generous people in the area,” said Jane Lang, president of the Atlas board of directors. Lang said she and her husband gave the highest gift, $2.5 million, toward the Atlas renovations.
So far, the project has received about $7.6 million from various donors and corporations (such as Fannie Mae, Canon USA and BB&T Bank), and the board hopes to receive an additional $4.5 million from tax credits. While that will cover almost 70 percent of the estimated total cost, it is not enough to complete the renovations.
“We certainly don’t want to finish the building before it’s paid for,” said Scott Kenison, director of patron and partner services at the Atlas. “Fundraising was difficult because we didn’t have a track record.”
Kenison explained that the price of the project, originally estimated at $14 million, went up when the center decided to complete the renovations in phases. Also, steel and concrete prices have been on the rise, and the discovery of historic features delayed construction.
“There are always surprises,” Kenison said. “We originally were supposed to be in the building now, but the opening got pushed back because of the facade. We uncovered architectural details we didn’t know were there.”
Those at the Atlas worked with the historic preservation division of the D.C. Office of Planning to decide how to restore and maintain the historic elements. Limestone along the front of the building will be replaced, the marquee will be repaired once the area is not needed as a construction entrance, and the original Atlas sign is being refurbished.
“It’s a lot easier to start from scratch with a vacant piece of land,” Lang said of the discovery of historic details. “There are a lot of ‘secrets’ within a building that is more than 65 years old.”
Phase by Phase
Encompassing a total of 58,000 square feet, it’s no wonder those on the Atlas board of directors chose to complete the renovations in phases.
Finished in January 2004, Phase I included the design, the initial demolition of certain areas and the removal of hazardous materials. Kenison said the area in the back of the building where the theater used to be was full of asbestos, as many building materials and insulation contained asbestos until the 1970s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site.
Phase II includes the front part of the arts center, which features three dance studios, two lab theaters and the box office. Everything under this phase’s umbrella is what will open within the next month.
“We took the glass out of the storefronts and everything crumbled — the glass was holding it up,” Kenison said. “We had to figure out how to restore everything.”
Up until a few weeks ago, plywood panels lined the storefronts. Now, the new glass is in place, showcasing the three dance studios along the front of the arts center. Kenison said about 5 feet of the windows will be frosted and also covered by big letters spelling out “Atlas Performing Arts Center.”
The third phase, which is expected to be completed in December, includes the foyer area, office space in the basement, dressing rooms and the flexible seat theater, which will utilize stadium seating on moveable risers and accommodate anywhere from 150 to 250 people. Right now, the entrance to the flexible seat theater is an alley that will be covered and become the promenade, leading guests from the lobby area to the theater.
But perhaps the largest challenge for construction workers will come in Phase IV. This phase, not expected to be completed until 2006, will tackle the area that formerly housed the movie theater. The 276-seat venue will feature a 12-foot-high ceiling, which will require raising the current ceiling. Also, workers will have to dig down 12 feet because the stage will be fully trapped, meaning scenery and people can be raised and lowered through sections of the stage or the stage can be lowered to accommodate an orchestra pit.
Kenison, who said there is no other theater of this size in the Washington area with the ability for an orchestra pit, realizes the final phase will take time and “it could be quite a feat.”
Both a local theater company and a dance center will be permanent residents at the Atlas. While it will be the primary home to the African Continuum Theatre Co., Washington’s only professional African American theater group, the Atlas also will be the fourth location for Joy of Motion Dance Center.
Currently, Joy of Motion plans to open in February, which Executive Director Douglas Yeuell noted “is fast approaching.” The center eventually will offer pilates and yoga, in addition to a wide variety of dance classes, such as ballet, tap, ethnic dances, ballroom dancing, salsa, tango and swing.
Throughout the next couple of months, the dance center will add more classes and programs, with hopes for a full spring session schedule. Classes will be offered for both children and adults.
“One of the unique things is that we do have a very active adult program,” Yeuell said. “The Atlas is a real opportunity to reach into a community that is in need of what the arts can bring.”
Jennifer Nelson, ACTCo producing artistic director, said the H Street Northeast area “has been underdeveloped and underserved by the city” since the riots in 1968.
“I think there’s a lot of untapped audience in that area who have never been to the theater at all,” Nelson said. “We’re hoping to introduce them to the joys of theater.”
ACTCo’s first performance at the Atlas will be a one-person play titled “Pretty Fire,” and it will be housed in the larger of the two lab theaters for its May 5-22 run.
The theater company, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2006, has been itinerant since its creation, borrowing or renting space around town for performances. The H Street Playhouse and an area at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts are two theaters ACTCo has used most often in the past two years, but now everything from the performances to the office space will be under one roof at the Atlas.
“Since we know where we’ll be from one season to the next, it will have some major impact on our planning for our on-stage productions and the community outreach that we can do,” Nelson said.
Part of that outreach includes granting other organizations the opportunity to use the new facilities at the Atlas. When the resident companies are not using the dance or theater space, it will be available for the Atlas to rent out. Kenison said there are many groups in Washington who are in dire need of theater space.
“We have a lot of bookings already and we haven’t really done any marketing yet,” Kenison said. According to Lang, formal advertising for space at the Atlas will begin in March.
The groups setting up shop at the Atlas are hoping that attracting an audience to their performances will not be an issue. Nelson said ACTCo had no problem selling tickets for performances at the H Street Playhouse, but she said patrons who would come see them at the Kennedy Center in Northwest might find it “intimidating” to come to H Street Northeast since the area “has a reputation for being kind of inhospitable.” But one of the main goals of the Atlas’ opening is to encourage further development of the neighborhood and to draw audiences from both inside and outside the community.
“It’s amazing to see the neighborhood — as we progress, everything else is picking up,” Kenison said.
Right now, as the future lobby area of the Atlas is being used as a parking garage for construction vehicles, workers say they are on schedule. That might be hard to believe when looking at how much there is left to do, but everything is coming together piece by piece.
“This is its first real operational year, so we’re preparing strategically and financially to make this transition from theory to an actual practical existence,” said Patrick Stewart, the Atlas’ executive director.
A lot of thought has gone into the planning of the Atlas, as a team of theater, audio, acoustic and audio-visual designers have supplied input for the final product.
For those actors and dancers performing at the Atlas, a number of dressing rooms will help them prepare for performances with ease. The dance studios will be equipped with hardwood floors with rubber pieces beneath them, resulting in a “bounce” effect that is easier on dancers’ knees. And there also will be a production shop and a costume shop inside the arts center, which will be able to supply sets, props and costumes for shows.
“Small groups don’t really have any place to go to have costumes made for them,” Lang said. “We think this will be a major resource for the theater and dance scene.”
For theater-goers, a café will be open during performances, providing audience members with light snacks and drinks. Organizers also hope to serve beer and wine, but have not yet been able to apply for a liquor license because they first need an occupancy certificate. Kenison said there will be plenty of restrooms to accommodate the crowd, as no one likes standing in line. And there will be stadium seating in the fixed-seat theater, allowing patrons a good view no matter where they’re seated.
Kenison said in the end, he hopes nothing major is being overlooked. But until the renovations are complete, the most important thing left to do is raise the rest of the money needed.
“The Atlas as a performing arts center, I think it’s functioning as a catalyst for change on the H Street corridor,” Yeuell said.