Early Saturday morning, a clothing store and former Allen Theater in Takoma Park was destroyed in a three-alarm fire. Police from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were called into fight the blaze at what was Gussini Fashion and Shoes, located at New Hampshire and Ethan Allen avenues. The story quickly made the rounds on firefighter blogs drawn to the spectacular flames.
The fire could be a setback to the City of Takoma Park’s The New Ave campaign, which seeks to draw customers to local businesses and eventually revitalize the New Hampshire Avenue corridor. The building and the adjacent strip mall were one of the major properties along New Hampshire targeted for redevelopment. A pair of The New Ave banners can be seen on the corner of the building, partly singed but still intact.
The building originally opened in March 1951 as the 946-seat Allen Theater, whose neon marquee was so bright that it was never fully turned on due to fears of distracting motorists. Shuttered in 1990, the Allen joined a handful of now-closed single-screen cinemas in the Takoma Park area, including the Langley Theatre at New Hampshire and University, the Flower Theatre at Flower and Piney Branch, and the Takoma Theatre on 4th Street NW in the Takoma neighborhood of DC.
In the 1950’s, the Allen Theater didn’t discriminate against black patrons, unlike other local theaters. Burtonsville resident Jeffrey Fearing would walk to the Allen Theater as a kid while living nearby on Sheridan Street in the District. “It was one of the Maryland theaters that my parents knew was integrated. Not all of them made people of color welcome,” he writes in an e-mail. “Only movie I remember seeing there as a kid though was Peter Pan, though I went there at least once as a grown-up when it was more of a grindhouse theater.”
While many of the Allen Theatre’s original features had been removed after its conversion to a clothing store in 1990, the marquee and double-height lobby windows remained. They were emblems of the area’s dwindling supply of Mid-Century Modern or Googie buildings, which after fifty or so years are old enough to be irrelevant but too young for many people to appreciate for its history. One well-known example would be the Perpetual Building in Downtown Silver Spring, which has long been threatened with demolition despite being neither abandoned or in poor condition.
On Monday, the Montgomery County Fire Department told the Gazette that the Allen Theater will be razed. “Three of the walls were still standing ... they were eventually knocked down,” said Capt. Oscar Garcia. “Essentially, the building is going to be demolished.”
Check out this photo of the theatre in 1985, these photos of the fire taken by firefighter (firefighter enthusiast?) Bill McNeel, and below, a slideshow I took of the destroyed Allen Theater.
Crossposted at Just Up The Pike.