Over the last 125 years, Washington, DC has been home to a total of 116 cinemas and film theaters/playhouses. Though many of these theaters no longer exist and several of the buildings that once housed them have been demolished, many still remain and their historic impact continues to shape retail throughout DC.
Unlike today’s cinemas, DC’s historic theaters were largely independent or locally-operated chains that often had upwards of 800 seats for a single, small screen. Though many were clustered in the downtown entertainment areas, small theaters were plentiful through DC’s many residential neighborhoods, serving the communities of Deanwood, Capitol Hill, Takoma and Rhode Island Avenue, NE.
DC saw its largest boom in openings during the early 1900s with an influx of about 55 new theaters. In 1930, there were over 10 cinemas located on 9th Street, NW between Pennsylvania and Rhode Island Avenue.
Between 1940 and 1970, neighborhood-serving movie theaters began opening across the city. During this time, Wards 7 and 8 saw eight theaters open and many other corridors such as Kennedy Street, NW welcomed their first cinema. These new neighborhood theaters were larger, with 1-5 screens and fewer seats to enhance the viewing experience for the customer. Concurrently, the theaters of the early 1900s began closing their doors to business. In the later part of the 20th century, small cinemas continued to close in favor of larger, more modern theaters.
Throughout DC, 45 former cinema structures still exist and give life to a second generation of retail. CVS Pharmacy has leased space in 5 former movie theaters in DC, for example in Brookland. Georgetown’s Tommy Hilfiger and Nike Store both operate in former theaters. The arch on the façade of Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street dates back to its days as a theater. Wells Fargo at 7th & T Streets, NW is a former cinema. Subway shares spaces in a subdivided former theater near Minnesota Avenue & Benning Road, NE. The list goes on and on!
Consumer retail demands are always changing, forcing retailers to adapt to different markets and conditions. In Washington, although many of the neighborhood theaters have come and gone, the former buildings give life to a new generation of retailers integral to the communities in which they’re located.
Please poke around our map and see what you can find about your neighborhood theater (past or present). If we’re missing anything, please let us know!
Information and data for this map was compiled from a variety of sources, including: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/united-states/district-of-columbia, CoStar, wdcep.com and DC OCTO. Map created in September 2013.