The Uptown Theater is prominently located along Connecticut Avenue NW in the Cleveland Park Historic District. Designed by John J. Zink – a notable and prolific movie theater architect from Baltimore – the theater’s Art Deco/Moderne design is composed of geometric motifs, buff brick and limestone cladding, and an ornamental metal marquee. With its tripartite composition, the Uptown is similar in style to Zink’s other nearby design, the former MacArthur Theater.
This particular Art Moderne style could be described as “Waterfall Moderne.” Additionally, the theater is part of a Moderne façade that extends along the west side of Connecticut Avenue, between Newark and Ordway streets. The Uptown’s façade has received very few physical alterations, while the interior has been remodeled over the decades and has lost much of its historic integrity.
The Uptown was one of many movie theaters that opened in Washington during the 20th century – with the first, the Star Theatre at 401 D Street NW, dating to 1906. Soon, theaters were being constructed in Downtown Washington – along 9th and F streets NW – and later, throughout the city’s neighborhoods. At the time, Harry Crandall was particularly noteworthy in shaping Washington’s movie theater industry. His Metropolitan (1918) was widely-popular. In 1922, his Knickerbocker Theater was the site of an infamous event. That year, snowpack led to the roof collapsing and the death of 98 attendees.
In his rush to construct theaters, Crandall bought the site that would become the Uptown. However, due to the Great Depression, Crandall’s plan for the site never materialized, and he would soon be eclipsed by Warner Brothers, which purchased the land in 1933. Warner Brothers opened the Penn Theater in Capitol Hill in 1935, followed by the Uptown in 1936. Both were designed in a Moderne style.
With 1300-seats and air conditioning, the first film to screen at the Uptown was Cain and Mabel on October 29, 1936. Following its opening, the Uptown quickly became a popular entertainment destination. Not only was the theater an important place for the Cleveland Park community, but it soon became a destination for residents throughout the District and the metropolitan area. The Uptown’s opening coincided with Connecticut Avenue’s transition from a streetcar thoroughfare to a major arterial serving automobiles and buses – thanks, in part, to the modern, Art Deco style Klingle Valley Bridge, which first started carrying vehicular traffic in 1931. The theater opened six-years after the nearby Park and Shop. The Park and Shop has since been recognized as a significant milestone in shopping center development.
In 1957, the Uptown started screening first-run pictures. Just one-year prior, the theater was upgraded with Todd-AO technology, and by 1962, Cinerama was added. Starting in the late 1960s, the theater was known for screening blockbuster films, including the world premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Star Wars in 1977 (one of a limited number of theaters across the country to show the film), and the world premiere of Jurassic Park in 1993, amongst other films. Following ownership by Cineplex Odeon, Loew’s Theatres, and AMC, the theater closed its doors in early 2020.
The red neon sign at the Uptown is particularly well-known. Thanks to community activism in 2017, the sign was saved from being removed and replaced. Instead of full removal of the iconic lettering, the sign was modernized with LED technology.
DC Inventory: May 26, 2022
National Register: December 15, 2022
Within Cleveland Park Historic District