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The old Ontario Theatre in Adams Morgan may soon be razed, but keen observers will likely recognize a few of its most prominent features in its reincarnated form.
Historic Washington Architecture, Inc. filed an application to give the 1950s theater historic landmark status in August 2011, citing its period-specific architecture and its longtime role as a Spanish-language theater in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood. But HWA withdrew the application in January “because there was concern that the [Historic Preservation Review Board] might not produce a majority vote to save the building from demolition and there were elements of it that were important to the applicants,” says HWA President Mary Rowse.
In exchange for withdrawing the application, the owner and developer of the building agreed to preserve two key elements of the facade: the marquee canopy extending over the corner of Columbia and Ontario roads, the two-sided movie poster display attached to the marquee, and some decorative elements from the theater’s lobby.
“We were able to go into a series of negotiations,” says Adam Rubin, who worked on the HWA application. “Our goal was, we wanted to see as much of the theater retained as possible while also seeing [the owner’s] financial goals met. So were were able to negotiate something that would preserve the historic theater’s marquee canopy and some decorative elements from the interior lobby, and those features would get built into the new structure behind it.”
Rubin says the marquee will be removed before demolition and then integrated into the new building. The movie poster box, he says, will be used for “new signage detailing the architectural and cultural heritage of the site.” It’s likely to be a bilingual display to reflect the theater’s Spanish-language heritage.
Owner George Pedas‘ plan last year was to turn the theater into a five-story condo building, but he then wavered and said he was still considering his options. (He hasn’t yet returned my call.) “As far as we know, his plan was to do condos, but it may have changed since then,” says Rubin.
As for reopening the building as a theater, that appears unlikely, much as the area could use a new movie theater. “The Pedas brothers have a long history in Washington film,” says Peter Sefton, who was also involved in the HWA application and the subsequent negotiations. “He looked at it and decided, ‘We don’t want to get into that business.’ It’s not a profitable business in downtown locations.”
Last year’s condo rendering from Potomac Development Group