Old Georgetown Theater Property For Sale

Photo by Flickr user Alison Hillard used under Creative Commons.

Photo by Flickr user Alison Hillard used under Creative Commons.

The historic Georgetown Theater property on Wisconsin Ave. has been put up for sale. Currently it houses the National Jewel Center, but before that it was a working theater that was infamous in the 1970s for showing the x-rated film “Caligula” over and over again until the film broke. Prior to the 1950’s, the theater was called the Dumbarton Theater and looked like this:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The building has been owned by the Heon family since 1949. They also own Nathans’ old building and the old Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory building (which used to be the location of the historic Cellar Door nightclub). As the huge banner where Nathans used to be can attest, the Heons are also trying to sell the Nathans property. The Philadelphia  Cheesesteak Factory property has been empty for a month or two after the restaurant balked at a rent increase.

The property is being offered at $4.5 million. It has 6,086 square feet of space and the property will be “delivered vacant”. That would seem to suggest that the jeweler is getting kicked out, but perhaps it just means it will be delivered vacant at the buyer’s request.

GM would love it if it were to be returned to its original purpose. Just about all the tiny-screened theaters in town have shut down. The only place to catch a remotely non-Hollywood film is E Street theater, which is great, but it can be a trek to get down there sometimes. Any film buffs out there have $4.5 million?

In writing this piece, GM came across a poem written by Lawrence McDonald of the DC punk band Bells Of.. called “The Fall of the Loman Empire“, which is about ushers at the Georgetown Theater. Here’s a great excerpt:

Five shows a day of the x-rated Roman epic
Was the current fare
Even so
This was not enough to save the antiquated movie house
According to Bob
The theater
Had come a long way from its former glory
One winter day
Between shows
He told me the dreadful news
“Gus says they finally found a buyer.”
“They’re gonna gut this place like a fish”
“And turn it into a jewelry outlet”
“Imagine that”
“The end of an empire”
Bob was getting pretty worked up
I detected a tear in his eye



Filed under Real Estate

12 responses to “Old Georgetown Theater Property For Sale

  1. One of my oft-repeated-to-neighbors Power Ball win fantasies has been to buy this building and restore it, probably with a coffee house/cafe at the entrance and showing arthouse, old school Hollywood, and foreign films in the theatre itself, perhaps with accomodation for community events. Back in the college town where I grew up, there was only one old movie theatre that became rundown when it could not compete with the megaplexes in the larger cities nearby, but the theatre was reinvented to show more select films and to hold a coffee house/cafe, and is now a thriving community gathering place.

    BTW this is one of the only art nouveau movie theatres in D.C. but got its present makeover midcentury, obviously.

    It would be great if the right developer came in and spearheaded a movement to get rid of those crumbling, awful clothing shops where no one ever actually buys any clothing, that mar Wisconsin Avenue between O and P and make you feel like you’ve somehow wandered into a seedy part of town.

  2. Joseph

    Regardless of its the building’s next use, it would be wonderful if the neon sign were restored. The neon sign at Glen Echo Park was fixed up a couple years ago and is a wonderful landmark, and the same would be true if the “Georgetown” sign once again could light up the evening.

  3. GM

    I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the HPRB or some board like that had required the sign to be restored, but I can’t specifically remember where I saw that. It obviously is still in pretty bad shape.

    I agree with William though that the mid-century formstone renovations are not really worth keeping. Maybe someone could restore the old facade and keep the neon sign?

    I fear that all that will happen is that some bank will take it over. CVS has already taken over two other old theaters in Georgetown, so hopefully they don’t need to take this one too.

  4. Back in the mid-90’s, I remember reading in The Current that one of the local architects had offered to have his firm restore the sign and get it working again as a gesture of community good-will, but I don’t know why that never happened.

    We all know that the mid-section of Wisconsin from roughly Dumbarton Street to Volta Place is a strange mix of respectable retail and urban blight. It’s bizarre that you can have the actual Hugo Boss boutique and stores selling Hugo Boss knock-offs in the same stretch. Reviving the old theatre would be a great catalyst to finally getting some of the retail rents up nearby, kick out the seedy places, and get the owners of these semi-derelict properties to either sell their buildings to investors who will perform long-delayed maintenance and restoration, or do it themselves in the hope of getting better tenants.

    In this economy, unfortunately, I’m worried that you are right, Topher, and that this once-in-a-lifetime community opportunity will be lost to a Wahlgreens.

  5. Larry Boteler

    I grew up in Georgetown a few blocks from the Dumbarton theater in the late 20’s. On Saturday we would head for the Dumbarton to see a ‘western’ movie – Tom Mix, Fred Thompson, et al. Admission fee – 15 cents. Often the evening shows were crowded with audience standees in the rear of the seated area.

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  7. if we can keep it out of the hands of CVS

    that would be a victory

  8. Déjà vu? Yes -I am the earlier architect and this is my second attempt to have the Georgetown Theater neon sign restored. In 2004, I made this proposal as well as redesigning the garden and fence of Hyde School. The neon did not fly but the chain link fence and trash dumpsters are gone- Hyde school’s brick wall and garden now looks very much as I proposed then. So this is my second shot at the neon- this time it will be “sustainable”. The new possibility is not only restoring the sign but also running it on solar power. This is why I was aiming at the Winter solstice. If I succeed this time, the “Georgetown” sign will still be running in 2050- for our grandchildren. What I call a past with a future.
    This is a pro bona project and my intent is to spark the transformation in our community. It is serendipitous that BID had the money just at the time I approached them with this idea. The opportunity for the community is the transformation of a negative image of community into a symbol of pride and prosperity which will increase both business and fun. In difficult times- having a new vision can change the way we see our future and ourselves.
    The proposal before BID street scape committee is for $45,000. $26,000 is for the sign the rest is for the solar panels. I am personally very interested in the whole process of taking down the sign, restoring it completely including new neon- blown by the same people who originally worked on the sign. It is a unique opportunity to have craftsmen who use to climb out the projection room window to repair the sign 40 years ago to be doing the actual restoration. It is opportunity for preserving a record of the dying art of neon and the special history of Georgetown. I hope to document the process- taking down and putting back the sign, how the glass is hand blown, the process of restoration of the sign, the installation of the solar panels and how it affects the neighborhood. I have the film makers- now I am looking for seed money for them also.
    Déjà vu. Yes – change sometimes takes more than one try- Robert Bell A.I.A..

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  10. Leamon

    What is the seating capacity in the Theater. And, if a person leased it, what would be the monthly charges.

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