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The first thing I noticed upon walking through the doors of the Takoma Theatre, besides the musty, mordant air, was a dead starling on the brown carpet.
Standing in the middle of the lobby was the tall form of Milton McGinty, the theater’s owner, wearing a chocolate brown suit and wire-framed glasses with one lens missing. I told him there was a dead bird on the floor.
“Then there’s one thing we can be certain of,” said McGinty, his deep voice reminiscent of that of his son, local broadcast personality Derek McGinty. “There’s a dead bird.”
His face cracked into a broad, white-toothed grin—a flash of the theatrical inclination that prompted him to buy the building 27 years ago. A frustrated amateur playwright who had made some money in real estate, the elder McGinty paid $325,000 for the Takoma in 1983, renovating it from just a movie screen into a live stage theater where he put on his own plays that other production companies had rejected. The posters for his productions—The Ambassador, The Organization, The Sun’s Ragged Edge—still hang on the putty-colored walls.
But McGinty hasn’t been inside the 87-year-old building much in recent years. Since 2005, he’s been trying to get permission to demolish it and build a five-story apartment complex, saving only the façade. When the Historic Preservation Review Board denied his application, he appealed to the Mayor’s Agent—Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning—who on May 21st upheld the board’s decision.
McGinty says he’ll challenge the decision in court.
“I plan to question the whole nature of the historic-preservation law,” McGinty says. “I’m saying that the Historic Preservation Office says things that they can’t even back up.”
Primarily, McGinty complains that the definition of “special merit”—the standard by which the city OKs the demolition of a historically significant building—is arbitrary and subject to political pressures. He says he has five million dollars to invest in a new project, and doesn’t understand why his proposed 43-unit, market-rate apartment building was deemed unworthy.
“I’m saying, Who determined that, and with what qualifications?” McGinty says. “It’s just a matter of opinion.”
He’s right that the special merit standard is vague, defined only as “a plan or building having significant benefits to the District of Columbia or to the community by virtue of exemplary architecture, specific features of land planning, or social or other benefits having a high priority for community services.” And it’s not unheard of to challenge a decision of the Mayor’s Agent.
Precedent, though, isn’t in McGinty’s favor. In the 1995 case Kalorama Heights Limited Partnership v. District of Columbia Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs, the District Court upheld the Mayor’s Agent’s ruling that the proposed alternative—construction of luxury condos—wasn’t special enough to justify demolishing an historic building at 2129 Wyoming Ave. NW. It’s likely that McGinty’s appeal would go the same way.
“It was just a run-of-the-mill development,” says George Washington University architectural historian Richard Longstreth, who testified as an expert witness against McGinty’s proposal before the Mayor’s Agent.
Why is McGinty, who turns 83 in July, so intent upon destroying something he spent over two decades of his life trying to revive? In large part, it’s because he’s convinced that nobody else can do it, either—and that he should therefore be able to put the building to some other use.
McGinty started thinking of himself as a writer at age 18, while serving as an occupation soldier in post–Wold War II Germany. He ended up in real estate instead, getting a broker’s license in Washington and spending years buying and managing his own properties. Upon buying the theater, he had big dreams for its possibilities as a performance space. The 1983 re-opening was marked by a weekendlong arts festival. Then-Mayor Marion Barry declared a Takoma Theater Day in the District.
“In a [football] game, something comes over you and you don’t think about the fear,” McGinty told the Washington Post in 1983. “You’ve got to try—it almost becomes an obsession. And that’s the way I feel about this theater.”
But tickets were hard to sell. His plays were poorly reviewed or they weren’t reviewed at all. In 1995, after an audience made fun of a production, McGinty stopped putting on shows altogether. Over the next few years, he rented out the Takoma occasionally and left it dark the rest of the time. In 2002, he turned over daily management to an organization called the Takoma Theatre Arts Project. But the group dissolved in 2005, troubled by internal divisions and McGinty’s unwillingness to give it a long-term lease.
“The theater failed in 1995,” McGinty says. “It had never been successful. There has never been a flow of people there because of the location… I never see people in that area.”
When McGinty first applied to raze the building, in 2007, he ran into a formidable opponent: 36-year Takoma resident Loretta Neumann.
Neumann, who heads the Takoma Theatre Conservancy, has no professional background in the performing arts. But she does have some serious expertise in historic preservation—as a House staffer in the 1970s, she helped write historic preservation legislation. In her spare time, she worked to establish the historic district in Takoma that McGinty, three decades later, has bumped up against.
With a $100,000 grant from the District, Neumann’s conservancy has funded a battery of physical condition and feasibility studies for the theater. The research deemed the building structurally sound, and determined that sufficient demand exists to sustain a community arts center there. Now the problem is coming up with the money to buy the theater, which McGinty says he won’t sell for less than $3.5 million, plus another $8 to $10 million for a renovation.
Fundraising hasn’t been terribly successful so far. Diana Kohn, president of Historic Takoma, says locals—educated, artsy, and often owners of old houses themselves—are “natural allies” of the theater’s rebirth. But because of the community’s bifurcated nature, split between Takoma D.C. and Takoma Park, Md., it would be difficult to raise a levy on the scale that the theater would need. As far as individual donations, a consultant advised the conservancy to wait out the recession and go for the big money later.
In March, the conservancy sent a New York–based consultant on a round of meetings with local economic and political heavies—Councilmembers Muriel Bowser and David Catania, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Valerie Santos, brokers, architects, and potential donors—in order to see what chunks of change might be in the offing. Neumann says the Mayor’s Agent made that effort a lot more promising.
“Having a decision, it helps us with people,” she says. “You have that cloud of uncertainty, it’s hard to convince anyone to give you money.”
Until the funding is there, though, the parties are at a stalemate.
“Everybody will just keep doing what they’re doing until one side blinks,” Neumann says. “But I’m not blinking.”
Meanwhile, the once-cordial relationship between McGinty and neighborhood theater geeks has deteriorated. McGinty, whose plays were almost wholly themed on race relations, proudly notes his efforts to bring people of all colors to the theater. But after our conversation in Takoma, he called back to say something that, he said, he’d been hesitant to express previously.
“When it first became public that I wanted to raze the building, then, I hate to say it, these white people came and decided they could take it over and do better than I had done,” McGinty said. When they say that ‘We can make it work, why can they make it work?’ People who oppose me are people who think that white people can take it over and do what I couldn’t do.
“I hated to make it a race thing,” he finished. “But now I’m making it a race thing.”
Neumann dismisses that allegation. The conservancy’s board is diverse, she counters, and the theater’s failure and potential salvation have nothing to do with race. “He was not able to do it because he had a business model that didn’t work,” she says, citing McGinty’s attempt to run the theater as a for-profit enterprise, when most modern theaters operate with the help of grants.
“In my heart of hearts, what I’d love to be able to see is us to be able to do it together,” Neumann says. “He’s just too angry, I guess.”