Lincoln Theatre

The Lincoln Theatre served as the center of the U Street black business community and the heart of black culture and entertainment.

The Lincoln Theatre is a rare surviving early movie theater, which survives as a major element of the historic U Street commercial corridor within the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The Lincoln was completed in 1921 in the sumptuous style of the grand movie palaces of the day. The neoclassical theater retains a high degree of its architectural integrity and is among the most notable remaining buildings, which define the culturally important U Street commercial corridor. The Lincoln is especially significant as one of only a few first-run early movie theaters remaining in Washington, for its architecture, and as a major historical element of the predominantly black U Street commercial corridor.

The Lincoln Theatre is a splendid example of a major “first run” neighborhood movie house of the 1920’s. It echoes the spirit and life that pervaded the U Street corridor in the first half of the twentieth century, when it was known as the gateway to the best of Washington’s black community. It served as the center of the black business community and the heart of black culture and entertainment. Some notable entertainers who came to The Lincoln Theatre were Pearl Bailey, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington.

In 1927, management of the theatre was taken over by A. E. Lichtman. Under Lichtman the Lincoln became an important cultural space for the African American community in DC. Due to segregation in the city, African American audiences were required to wait after show times reserved for white customers before they were allowed to enter the theatre. Unlike other theatres who followed this conduct, the Lincoln Theatre did not, and it provided the black community with equal access to entertainment. In addition to hosting well-known performers, the Lincoln and its attached dance hall (The Colonnade) also operated as spaces for public engagement and outreach including fund-raisers run by charities, local organizations, and universities. Out of the 434 employees to work at the Lincoln during Lichtman’s management, only 11 (including him) were white. Today, the Lincoln Theatre is still a popular venue in the city for entertainment.

The exterior of the theatre is relatively simple. The 50-foot high principal facade is a fully-developed symmetrical imposition featuring neoclassical design which is typical of the period. A well-defined base, which resembles finished stone, has a central, recessed entrance with a large square marquee. The upper facade is of tan colored brick and has a large-scaled central window which is set within a slightly projecting bay. The three-part window is surmounted by a decorated recessed panel in its arched head, which employs a fan motif and other neoclassical motifs in pressed metal. A primary cornice beneath the brick parapet is enriched by its center pediment and running frieze which bears the inscription “LINCOLN THEATRE.”

The interior of the Lincoln is highly ornamented and is notable for its well-preserved state. The lobby, circulation spaces, and main auditorium feature neoclassical derived plaster details which are typical of the period and continue the motifs of the main facade. The ticket booth in the lobby is embellished with classically styled busts and medallions. Much of the decorative plaster was painted a deep bronze and highlighted in copper.

Built: 1921
DC designation: September 16, 1992
National Register listing: October 27, 1993

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1215 U Street, NW