The Tivoli Theatre was once one of the most opulent movie palaces in the region. Completed in 1924 at a cost of more than $1 million, it was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, a leading theater architect whose designs included the original Madison Square Garden. The Tivoli was owned by Harry Crandall, who built several area theaters, including the Lincoln and U Street.
The Tivoli opened as a block-long, four-story Mediterranean Revival-style building with seating for more than 2,000, including the balcony. It was the largest theater in Washington.
In the 1920s, the Columbia Heights neighborhood was considered to be one of the most fashionable and desirable areas of Washington with dozens of fine shops, as well as a highly developed theater district. The opening of the Tivoli marked the peak of commercial success in Columbia Heights.
At its opening, the Tivoli was dubbed "the Temple of the Arts." The Washington Post hailed it as a “magnificent addition to the real showplace of the District” and said the Tivoli was “an institution of which the entire city of Washington ought to be proud and ought to support.”
Warner bought the theater around 1928 and operated it until 1965, when it was acquired by District Theaters. During the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the neighborhood was burned and ransacked, but the Tivoli was left intact. As the neighborhood continued to deteriorate, business dwindled. In 1976, the theater was closed and boarded up.
Since then there has been much debate about what to do with the Tivoli. In 1985, the theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999, the District selected a proposal from DC developer Horning Brothers to renovate the landmark. Horning’s plan divided the Tivoli’s cavernous interior into four floors to create a mix of offices, retail, and theater. From more than a dozen applicants for the theater space, they selected GALA.
“GALA had been interested in the Tivoli since the late 1990s, when we were only two blocks away on Park Road at the Sacred Heart School,” says GALA managing director Rebecca Medrano. “We were involved with several developers bidding for the Tivoli, but none came to fruition until the Horning Brothers. We were recommended to them by the DC Downtown Development Corporation.”
The challenging task of creating GALA’s space went to SmithGroup, a DC-based architectural firm specializing in cultural projects with expertise in adaptive use. According to David Greenbaum, vice president of SmithGroup, they worked through a series of plans showing different locations and configurations for the theater. Initial plans put GALA in a small street-level space, but SmithGroup proposed going up under the dome on the second floor. SmithGroup, GALA, Horning Brothers, and their building architects worked together to achieve a solution retaining the balcony and much of the original theater ceiling.
In designing the space, “We wanted to create an architecture that expresses GALA’s mission, that communicates the essence of what GALA is about,” says Greenbaum. “In a way, the architecture participates in every show.”
After working closely on the project for four years, GALA and SmithGroup created a state-of-the-art performance space that combines the best of the old with the new. And in January 2005 – 81 years after it opened and 29 years after it closed – the Tivoli opened its doors once again to a beautiful and vibrant theater.