The Takoma Theatre (1923) is one of the earliest theaters designed by noted movie theater architect John Jacob Zink and was his first in Washington. The theater’s Neo-Classical Greek Revival style predates the full Art Deco and the more streamlined Art Moderne styles that Zink used in his later theaters. He was active in designing theaters through the 1950’s, including the Uptown in DC, the Flower in Silver Spring, and the Senator in Baltimore.
Theatre Retains Its Historical Character
Of the 14 theaters in DC designed by Zink, only three remain. Of those, the Takoma was the only one still structurally intact in the twenty-first century. The exterior architectural features of the original building, including the facade and marquee, and the iconic Takoma sign on the roof, remain essentially untouched since construction. The facades of the retail/office spaces bounding the Theatre entryway on the first floor, and the larger space spanning the front of the building on the second floor, and the projection room are still in their original structure.
The Takoma is an interesting hybrid of movie theater architecture. It was built very soon after theaters started expanding into the suburbs, where they were typically much smaller than the palatial downtown venues. Yet like its urban counterparts, the Takoma included space for retailers and offices, which later suburban theaters dropped. It is typical of theater architecture of the time in its two story height, brick construction, projecting marquee, and recessed central entry. (HPRB Staff Report, 2007).
This hybrid design makes it architecturally distinct from the more downtown “movie palaces” of an earlier period such as The Lincoln in DC, and later theaters built in the Art Deco and post-World War II glory era (1930s-1950s) of feature films, such as The Uptown in DC and The Senator in Baltimore.
The Takoma interior includes original features that were common to early film theaters. The ceiling and its intricate latticework remain intact.
Live vaudeville acts often preceded film showings and sound systems were not yet established. The domed ceiling so enhanced the natural acoustics (in a manner similar to the dome in the U.S. Capitol) that all patrons could hear the actors and the piano player accompanying the silent films. “Talkies” came to the Takoma in 1929 — one of the first venues outside of downtown DC to get sound when the owners installed an RCA Photophone sound system. Over the years, reviewers have described the Theatre as being one of the best sounding venues in DC.
Originally built with a seating capacity of 724, the auditorium was modified in the mid-1980s to expand the shallow stage to accommodate dance and drama performances. Seating capacity is now 516. The Theatre’s lobby retains its original structure.
The preservation of the historic structural characteristics over the last 25 years can be credited to the current owner, Mr. Milton McGinty. However, Mr. McGinty’s submission to the DC Historic Preservation Board (HPRB) to raze the building led the non-profit DC Preservation League (DCPL) to place the Theatre on its Most Endangered List for 2007 along with the Sheridan and Strand theaters. Modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s program, the annual DCPL list identifies DC’s, historically, culturally and architecturally significant places that may be threatened with ill-advised alteration or demolition through neglect or abandonment.
The condition of the Theatre is also deteriorating. The owner’s submission to the Water damaged ceilingHPRB includes an architectural assessment that identifies a soft and leaking roof, water-damaged walls and ceilngs, damaged heating and cooling systems, spalting and cracked exterior walls and other problems. The owner has stated his desire to sell the Theatre.
Responding to the DCPL list, Mayor Adrian Fenty said the city “must find creative ways to preserve and utilize our historic architecture so that it enhances the quality of life for all District residents.”