The Georgetown Theater
When I was in high school in Bethesda, going to Georgetown was a big deal. Taking the Metro and then the Circulator, snapping color-accented pictures on our Canon point-and-shoots-- it was the pinnacle of cool. And one of the coolest things to photograph in the pre-Instagram days was the old, rusting neon Georgetown sign on Wisconsin Ave.
Now that my husband and I have moved back to the area, we pass the sign a lot, and I’ve noticed how much nicer it looks. I looked back at old photos. The rust? Gone. The 50s-era faux-stone? Gone. This, it turned out, was the work of architect Robert Bell.
Bell has had his eye on the theatre for seven years, thinking of how to restore the neon sign. But the iconic neon sign wasn’t always part of the theatre.
The theatre opened in 1913 as the Dumbarton Moving Picture Theater, when Georgetown residents Henry Frain and William Nichols invested $2500 (about $62,000 today) to renovate the 19th-century building at Wisconsin and O Street. The Art Nouveau theater was originally a silent movie house with 460 seats.
At some point in the 1940s, the theatre was renovated in a Streamline Modern style, a later and more simplified incarnation of Art Deco (I haven’t been able to find any pictures from that era). By 1949, the theatre was known as The Dump. Peter and George Heon bought the Dumbarton that year for $130,000, spending a further $758,000 in today’s money to renovate the building.
The theatre briefly closed when it changed hands, opening in 1950 as the Georgetown Theater with the iconic neon sign-- and a formstone facade. According to residents who were around in the 1950s, M Street wasn’t the center of Georgetown-- O and Wisconsin was the heart of the neighborhood, centered around the theater.
Though a staple of the neighborhood, the theater ruffled feathers in 1979/1980, when it played the X-rated Caligula for months, stopping only when the film literally broke. The Georgetown stayed open for another six years, before it was stripped of its seats and converted into a jewelry store. The Georgetown neon sign remained in place, left to rot for decades.
The National Jewel Center, which was open when I was in school, filled the space for over 20 years. In 2009, the Heon family briefly put the theater up for sale, only to quickly pull it off the market. In 2011 it was for sale again, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Bell bought the building for $4.5 million and the jewelry store left the building.
Bell had the neon sign removed and lovingly recreated by the same company who made the original. He removed the formstone to reveal the simple 1940s facade beneath it, which was restored and refreshed. Windows were added in the back of the building to provide more light, and the space was converted into four 2-bedroom/2-bathroom apartments that start at $4500 per month. The ground level is available for retail or dining, but remains vacant since the building opened in summer 2016.
Old Georgetown Theater gets new life as commercial space, WTOP
Georgetown: Then & Again, Dumbarton Theater, DC Public Library
Former Georgetown Theater transformed into apartments, WTOP
Georgetown Theater, Cinema Treasures
See Georgetown's Historic Movie Theaters, Greater Greater Washington
Old Georgetown Theater, Soon to be Empty, Still For Sale; The Georgetown Metropolitan
Old Georgetown Theater Property For Sale, The Georgetown Metropolitan
Georgetown Theater Building to Celebrate Grand Opening June 2, The Georgetowner
Genius of Place, The Georgetowner
New Life for the Old Georgetown Theater, Blog of the Courtier
Wisconsin Avenue 1960, District Department of Transportation
Goodbye to Yesterday, The Washington Post
Former Cinema Site Goes on the Market, The Georgetown Dish
Georgetown Theater May Finally Get Some Glory, Carol Joynt