Can the Ontario Theatre be saved? [Washington, DC]

by John DeFerrari   
October 24, 2011 1:47 pm

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.

… 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. …

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