Uptown Theater named a DC historical landmark

Davis Casterline camped out in line for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” at D.C. Uptown Theater. (WTOP/Dennis Foley)

New recognition is coming to a historic D.C. movie theater that closed more than two years ago.

The beloved Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park has been designated a historic landmark by D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). The action was taken last month.

What does this mean for the theater’s future?

“Being a historic landmark encourages restoration of the building…the façade elements of that,” Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, told WTOP.

The nominating documents describe the theater as “an excellent example of ‘Waterfall Moderne’, a variant of the late Art Deco or Art Moderne style found in many movie theaters of the 1903s,” adding that the façade has “protruding bays of varying heights that suggest the ledges and drops of a waterfall and whose flow emphasizes its streamlined verticality.”

The inside of the theater is not included in the historic designation, because it’s undergone numerous renovations over the years.

Miller said the theater had already been named a contributing structure within the Cleveland Park Historic District, which protected it from demolition without a really good cause.

The Uptown’s opening in 1936 was part of a trend in which shopping and entertainment moved away from downtown areas, and into suburban ones. The theater would go on to host the world premieres of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968…and “Jurassic Park” in 1993. It was also one of the first theaters in the country to screen the original “Star Wars” in 1977.

The city is working to get the theater added to the National Register of Historic Places, but the HPRB asked that the nomination be revised a bit before applying.

“This building was built during segregation, so one of the things that more research is going into now — after it’s been designated — is more information about desegregation here at the movie theater,” Miller said.

The Uptown’s previous operator, AMC Theatres, closed the space in March of 2020, right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, Landmark Theatres was considering becoming the new operator, but the theater remains dark with no plans to reopen.

“I know that they’ve been looking for a tenant for…the entire pandemic at this point, and I’m hopeful that another theater will go in there and that it will be open to the public sooner rather than later,” said Miller. “We never like to see a vacant historic building.”

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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