The Ontario Theatre at 17th Street and Columbia Road NW has been neglected, abused even, for many years, and it hasn’t functioned as a movie theater in more than two decades. Although it takes some imagination to see what its possibilities are, one thing is certain: the theater has a long cultural legacy that will be lost if the building is demolished.
As I recently detailed in a post on Streets of Washington, the Ontario has lived many different lives in a neighborhood that also changed dramatically over the second half of the 20th century.
It was one of only two movie theaters built in DC during the 1950s, and, according to Robert Headley’s Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC, it was the first neighborhood theater to show first-run movies. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music were first seen by Washingtonians at the Ontario, and premieres like these were gala events.
By the 1960s, the neighborhood was changing. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and the ensuing riots, the theater’s old clientele were virtually gone. The following year, the theater switched to a Spanish-language format, the first theater in DC to cater to the burgeoning Latino community.
By the early 1970s, Sunday afternoons at the Ontario became the social center of the Latino community. Extended families would show up every week; for recent immigrants, spending Sunday at the Ontario represented a chance to attend an enjoyable, affordable social event on the one day of the week they had free.
This stability was threatened in 1977 when new owners took over and tried to convert the theater back to its former first-run format, on the theory that Adams Morgan had been taken over by yuppies. “There is no Spanish Community here any more,” one of the new owners was quoted as saying. In response, Latinos picketed the theater, issuing a statement asking, “Who says we don’t exist?” The Spanish-language films were soon restored to the all-important Sunday afternoon time slot.
Throughout the rest of the week, the Ontario took on a new life as the venue for some of the leading rock and punk bands of the era, including The Clash, Blondie, U2, and the Police. The promoter who booked these and other artists would go on to organize the celebrated 930 Club downtown in the mid 1980s. At that time, the Ontario was sold yet again, and the new owners tried to re-establish a first-run movie format.
The attempt didn’t work this time either, and the theater closed in 1987. The building was then divided up for various retail businesses, including a drug store, discount store, and other shops. The theater has been vacant for the last several years.
The Historic Preservation Review Board is scheduled to consider a landmark nomination for the Ontario at its November meeting. The current owners are reportedly considering redeveloping the property as condominiums.
It would certainly be a shame if nothing can be saved of the Ontario. Besides its rich cultural history, the theater is also unique architecturally, representing a mid-century modern aesthetic as expressed by one the leading movie theater architects of the 20th century, John J. Zink, who also designed the Uptown Theatre.
The Ontario, of course, isn’t nearly as beloved as the Uptown, and it has several potential strikes against it. Many people just don’t care for the mid-century style, which has far fewer followers than does the art deco design of the Uptown. Additionally it’s been decades since it was actually in use as a theater. An entire generation hasn’t had the chance to see a movie there. Furthermore, it’s run-down and simply looks ratty.
There have been other occasions when historic buildings were destroyed because they were decaying and dilapidated. Perhaps the most notable was Rhodes Tavern, one of the most historic buildings in the city at the time, which was torn down in 1984 despite a citywide referendum endorsing the need to preserve it.
Built around 1800, the little tavern at 15th and F Streets NW, had been one of the first meeting places of the young city’s new government. Designated an historic landmark, it was the subject of an intense effort at preservation. But it was in bad shape. Part of it had been torn down in the 1930s, and the remainder looked out-of-place and even “ugly,” in many critics’ view. So in the end it came down and was replaced by a large, respectable-looking office building.
Will the Ontario share this same fate? Should it? Isn’t there some way to develop this underused property without completely obliterating the old theater?