Take the vacant Ontario Theatre, originally opened in 1951. Sure, the market has changed – these days, people see movies in 3D-ready, shopping mall-centered megamultiplexes, when they see them at all. It’s a far cry from the sixties, when The Sound of Music made its DC premiere here – and then played for the next two years straight on the Ontario Theatre’s one screen. That’s crazy – one movie on one screen sustaining a business for two years. No way, anymore.
But is Adams Morgan really better off with another six story luxury condo building in place of the defunct Ontario Theatre? Will it make the neighborhood a more distinct or special place to live in or visit? Is it a responsible addition to this historically mixed-income neighborhood’s array of housing options? Or is it just another symbol of the creeping gentrification that has extended ever westward like the sullen, slow hand of certain cultural death since the Green Line reached Columbia Heights in 1999?
The developers won support for their plans as they so often do, with a promise that the new structure set to inhabit this space will include a superficial nod to its history. The new condos at 1700 Columbia Road will retain features deemed architecturally significant by someone who supposedly knows. The iconic sloping marquee was removed early in demolition and will be returned in the final stages of construction, recontextualized beyond all sense.
But let’s get real. Let’s be frank. The developers who conceived this plan don’t care about the history of the Ontario Theatre. They don’t care about the theatre’s close ties to Adams Morgan’s heritage as a Hispanic enclave – it became DC’s premiere Spanish language cinema during the 70s. They don’t know or care that during the early 80s, DC’s own Minor Threat played a show here on one of the nights when it wasn’t screening a veritable A-list cavalcade of B-movies.
Instead, their empty gesture – their nod to history – will mystify future tenants. No one will see a marquee. They will look upon the bended girder over the entrance of their glass and steel building with the same sense of muddled perplexity that modern man musters when confronted with Stonehenge. From whence did it come and what does it mean, this oddly arranged protrusion reaching tentatively to the sky like some arm, akimbo and ready to receive a prophesied parcel from heaven?
Party on in your contemporary luxury condominium, with affordable prices starting in the high $200s. Notice the recycled awning from the original Ontario Theatre structure…
Abandoned Washington DC by Thomas Kenning