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This city can’t possibly have any structure that has fallen farther than the former Uline Arena, which still takes up a blighted block at 3rd and M Streets NE.
It’s open for self-guided tours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The tours aren’t official—the space is now used as an indoor parking lot. But the attendants don’t bother stopping passers-by from walking inside the former sports arena, concert hall, and, from 1994 to 2003, trash dump. For anybody familiar with the building’s history, it’s a worthy walk, even with the industrial stench and all that standing water. Some paint upstairs tells gentlemen where their bathroom entrance used to be. A lot of the seats from Uline’s glory days also remain in the corners of the upper deck. They’re battered with age and water from the very leaky roof and the years when the place stocked garbage.
But each chair would doubtless still fetch a price on eBay, if only because the Beatles played their first U.S. show here on Feb. 11, 1964, when the place was known as the Washington Coliseum. As bad as the condition of the building is, it seems wrong that folks now park their SUVs on the very spot, unmarked at that, where John, Paul, George, and Ringo shook their heads to the beat on their way to changing the world. Kids with spray paint have been tagging the outside walls of the building for a long time, but some brilliant wiseacre stenciled two small beetles on the pavement by the M Street entrance.
Richard Layman sees beyond the vandalism when he looks at Uline. Next week, the Capitol Hill resident is scheduled to appear before the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to present his case for granting a historic designation to the building. It’s a case he’s been preparing since 2003, when he learned that a permit to raze Uline was filed with the city.
Uline is now owned by Doug Jemal, the megadeveloper recently acquitted of bribing city officials. Jemal says that because of economic factors, he has no current plans to do anything with the Uline site and isn’t against an historic designation.
“I think the city would like to see residential there, and I don’t feel the residential market is there now,” he says. “So, it’ll sit.”
Layman says Jemal might be local preservationists’ favorite developer, citing the Chinatown Fuddruckers and a Harris Teeter planned for Adams Morgan as surroundings-friendly construction projects Jemal has led. But he’s not going to risk leaving everything to Jemal’s whimsy. If the board grants Layman’s wish, Jemal or any other developer would be unable to tear down Uline to make way for condos or an office high-rise or, well, another Fuddruckers.
“I’m a preservationist, and I’m into history and authenticity,” says Layman. “That doesn’t mean I’m against development. I just happen to think it’s good to save old buildings. The only thing that the board is empowered to consider is the architectural and historical significance of a building—that’s broken down to significant connections to people, as well as events.”
There are several angles to Layman’s pitch to save the massive plant, originally built by local icemaker Migiel “Mike” Uline so touring entertainment troupes such as the Ringling Brothers circus and the Ice Capades would have a home in D.C. As with most building-huggers, Layman seems partial to the architectural arguments.
“Uline is special, architecturally. It used a particular German process, where the ribs on top of the building provide the structural integrity. That meant there are no columns, giving it an unobstructed view because of that construction. I’ve been in arenas or stadiums, such as Tiger Stadium, where you have obstructed views.”
But Layman will include a hefty sports component while making his case to the review board. The arena gets credit for housing D.C.’s first professional hockey and basketball teams: respectively, the Washington Lions of the Eastern Hockey League (which, according to NHL archives, briefly had future Hall of Fame goalie and coach Emile Francis on the roster) and the Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA. The Caps were coached from 1946 to 1949 by Red Auerbach, who died last month at age 89. So while the court at George Washington University sports Auerbach’s name, the coach’s ghost probably also spends some time across town at Uline.
Layman will also point out to the board that the basketball team that called Uline home is historically footnoted for drafting Earl Lloyd, an Alexandrian who 56 years ago this week became the first black player to play in an NBA game.
Uline can also claim Rocky Marciano’s first fight outside of New England. On Sept. 30, 1948, a then-unknown Marciano KO’d Gilbert Cardone in the first round on the undercard of the Marie Shapiro/Sonny Boy West bill to put his record at 9-0. And Uline was the site of Joe Louis’ first, and possibly only, bout as a professional wrestler. Louis, heavily in debt to the Internal Revenue Service, got in the ring at Uline to face Cowboy Rocky Lee in 1956.
A Time magazine article called the rasslin’ version of the Brown Bomber “a fat and sloppy caricature of the man who had once been the greatest heavyweight fist fighter in the world” and described his debut thusly: “Broke, in hock to the Government for more than $1,200,000 in back taxes, Joe earned about $1,500 by belting the Cowboy out of the ring with a short jab to the belly. ‘It’s an honest living,’ was the best he could say of his new occupation, ‘and it’s not stealing.’”
For the record, Louis was declared the winner at the 11-minute mark, when Lee fell out of the ring while taking a simulated punch from the ex-champ and didn’t get up.
Uline’s history says a lot about race relations in D.C., too, Layman will argue. When it opened, Mike Uline generally allowed blacks to attend only boxing events. Circus and Ice Capades events remained whites-only. Layman’s bid to save Uline recently got a nice push from the estate of Edwin Bancroft “E.B.” Henderson, a Falls Church resident and black basketball pioneer who organized and led pickets against the arena in the 1940s because of its segregationist policies.
From Henderson’s estate, Layman obtained photos of the placards carried by protesters, reading “DC: Jim Crow Boxing Capital of the World,” “We Oppose American Hitlerism,” and “Stay Out of Uline Arena.”
In January 1948, the owner cited a “trend of the times” and integrated the arena. Uline’s move was more economic than altruistic. The then-powerful Amateur Athletic Union had taken a boxing tournament away from the arena because of the race rules. And the same day that the ban on blacks was lifted, Uline was awarded a nontitle bout featuring popular middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. The promoter cited the arena’s integration as the reason for putting the fight in D.C.
“Including that part of [Uline’s] history is important, since civil rights in D.C. and in this country is an important story,” says E.B. Henderson II, who, as his grandfather did, lives in Falls Church. “It’s not necessarily a flattering story about the place, but it does add another dimension to the story that people here don’t necessarily know about.” (The surviving Henderson is now using some of these same materials in his bid to get his grandfather inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.)
Not everybody familiar with Uline’s story thinks the building must saved, however. Bert Sugar, the boxing historian and D.C. native, remembers with much fondness his trips to Uline, particularly the time he went with his mother to see Gorgeous George wrestle Primo Carnera.
“The memories are still there, and that’s more important than having the building,” says Sugar. “They didn’t save Griffith Stadium. They didn’t save Boston Garden. Now they’re tearing down Yankee Stadium. But people want to save Uline Arena, for chrissakes? And that’s coming from a kid raised in Washington.”
Layman’s ready to counter the naysayers.
“I’m not saying Uline is the most interesting building in the world,” says Layman. “But it speaks to a part of Washington’s history, a time when this city wasn’t all K Street.”