For years, there was a sign above a run-down jewelry store on Wisconsin, just North of the heavily developed main drag of Georgetown. The sign was at least ten feet tall, with giant neon letters in a vertical alignment, reading “Georgetown.” The letters haven’t been lit since the early 90’s. Like so many historical structures in D.C., it would cost more to repair it than the current ownership could afford.
About a month ago, the sign got fixed.
The sign belonged to the Georgetown Theater, the renovated shell of the Dumbarton Theater that went up in 1913. First, it was a playhouse that sat 470 people. Then, the moving pictures came into popularity, and the theater started showing silent pictures with live piano accompaniment. By the 1920’s, “talkies” took the theaters by storm, and the Dumbarton installed speakers.
Like most businesses in the District, the Dumbarton fell apart during the 1930’s. The ornate architecture required a significant amount of upkeep, that the owners couldn’t afford. After falling into disrepair, the building and business were sold to the Heon family the late 1940’s, re-opening as the Georgetown Theater in 1950. The first film shown was 1949’s Adam’s Rib, with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
The theater never got back to the grandeur and glory of the 1910’s, closing down by 1986. For longtime District residents, the Georgetown’s most notable feat was showing Caligula at least once a week for the last six years it was open. Reportedly, this is the theater at which Henry Garfield (better known as Rollins) worked after dropping out of AU, and before moving to LA. The Heon family later leased the building to the National Jewel Center, until the site was closed off in 2013. The neighborhood began talking about renovations.
Would there be a new theater? Would the century-old Art Nouveau-style return to Wisconsin and O? Thanks to architect and new owner of the former theater, Robert Bell, there’s about a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing anything like the Dumbarton Theater returning to Wisconsin Ave. As the District has seen with many historical sites over the past decade of re-vitalization (read: abject, and un-checked development), the new owners have proposed another mixed-use building: retail on the first floor, offices on the second, and luxury residences on the third (because Georgetown doesn’t have nearly enough luxury living).
At least they kept the name, though. The new sign, constructed by the same company that built the original, will be re-lit on September 23.