Hidden In Plain Sight: The Uline Arena
Jonny Grave | Oct 17, 2016 | 9:00AM |

What do Sonja Henie, Earl Lloyd, Elijah Muhammed, Paul Robeson, Bob Dylan, and Dwight Eisenhower have in common?

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The answer is on the M and Delaware, Northeast, just East of the New York Ave. Metro station. You’ve passed by it probably hundreds of times, the massive arched roof, the weeds climbing steadily over the bricks, graffiti on the tops of the roof’s ribs. It was built by an ice distributor, and operated as a multi-purpose venue for nearly fifty years, until Waste Management used it for a trash transfer station in 1986, then converted it to a parking lot in the early 90’s.


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The Uline Arena went up in 1941, at a time when ice was still a commodity that had to be delivered. Conventional freezers wouldn’t be available to the average American home for another ten years. Miguel Uline, a Dutch immigrant and self-made millionaire, had an ice distribution business in the Swampoodle neighborhood of Northeast DC. Uline took out a $600,000 loan against his business to get the arena and his team, the Washington Lions, off the ground.

The early days of the arena weren’t just for ice-related events– During the War, the arena was provided US soldiers low-cost lodging when passing through DC, at 50 cents a night. Earl Lloyd, the first black member of the NBA, played for the Washington Capitols in 1950. Eisenhower had one of his inaugural balls at the arena in 1953. And despite having the wrong skin tone to buy a ticket to his own event, Joe Louis took on Buddy Baer, defending his title in 1941 at the Uline.


The venue was not full desegregated until 1948, after numerous protests and boycotts. Despite this, Uline allowed Paul Robeson to perform in 1941 at the arena, after DAR Constitution Hall cancelled his performance, just like they did with Marian Anderson in 1939.

After Uline’s death in 1959, the arena was sold to Harry G. Lynn, and was re-christened The Washington Coliseum. Concerts and public events continued on a regular basis. Ravi Shankar, The Rolling Stones, The Temptations, and Bob Dylan all made stops at the Coliseum on their respective tours. Elijah Muhammed gave a speech to a crowd of 10,000. The Royal Ballet gave a performance in 1965.


And, yes, this is the place where The Beatles played their first concert after their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s curious how 75 years of history are in the shadow of one February night.

Douglas Development has big plans for the former venue. REI has signed a lease. Davis and Celtic have already started knocking down some of the walls, keeping the distinctive roof. Next door, in the former arena offices and ice house, condos are slated for construction in late 2015.

The history is still under the floor, though. The coolant pipes that kept the ice frozen are just beneath the concrete.


We originally ran this piece May 8, 2015.