The southeast corner of 15th and G Streets, NW, directly across the street from the Treasury Department and just a block from the White House, has been a power address since banker George W. Riggs invested in it in the mid 1800s. Riggs built the Riggs House hotel that stood there from 1860 until 1911, when Riggs' heirs decided they could make more money by building a much larger office building on the site. The new building would house one of the city's grandest theaters, but the real drama would come when preservationists tried to save it from annihilation in 1979.
The new Riggs Building, completed in 1912, was designed by Jules Henri de Sibour, one of Washington's most prominent architects and designer of the Hamilton Hotel. De Sibour clearly took inspiration from the Beaux-Arts-style National Metropolitan Bank Building, completed in 1907 and immediately adjoining the Riggs site on 15th Street. He kept the same scale and building materials—including brick faced with white Tennessee marble (on the bottom floors) and a copper mansard roof with dormers—to form a stately and unified row of buildings that "answered" Robert Mills' imposing neoclassical Treasury Building across the street. Rich classical embellishments are everywhere in the two buildings, yet they are confident and dignified, never overdone. The bank building has two great Corinthian columns that convey strength and solidity and yet are set within a marble picture frame, as it were, that keeps them from being overbearing. Both buildings share a heavy modillioned cornice above the sixth floor, topped with lions' heads. For the Riggs Building, de Sibour echoed the bank's Corinthian columns with more subtle pilasters and added classical swags and other elegant surface ornamentation.
Inside the Riggs Building, rich Gilded Age decorations abounded. The centerpiece of the building was its great theatrical auditorium, which extended up six stories toward the rear of the building and could accommodate 1,838 patrons in beautiful mahogany seats upholstered in red Spanish leather. The walls were covered with red silk tapestry, and the stage curtain was, of course, ruby-red with fringes of gold. The magnificent lobby out front was finished in Siena marble with an allegorical frieze of rockwood terracotta. A distinctive feature was a promenade below the auditorium, finished in old English oak with two libraries (the men's in leather and the ladies' in plush) and two retiring rooms. The basement level also held an elaborate Turkish bath, a large barber shop, some 25 dressing rooms, and even rooms for stage animals.
The theater was leased to Plimpton B. Chase for his "Chase's Polite Vaudeville" Theatre, which previously had been operating at 1424 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in the former Grand Opera House (built in 1884). Chase had been very successful with this "polite" vaudeville, which he described as "a clean and wholesome pleasure for the refined men, women, and children. It is wholly American, and attracts to its theater only the best elements in the community." It had become popular in no small part because families could attend without worrying about risqué content.
Chase was only in the new building for a year before he retired and sold his theater to B.F. Keith, the reigning king of vaudeville in the eastern U.S., operating some 30 different theaters and having an estimated net worth of $50 million. Keith had begun in Boston on the same principles as Chase, offering only clean entertainment that would appeal to middle-class sensibilities and eschewing the bawdiness of burlesque houses. With the help of his ruthless manager E.F. Albee, he became wildly successful. His theaters all reportedly posted backstage the following warning for performers:
Don't say ‘slob’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not have the ability to entertain Mr. Keith's audience without risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act consult the local manager before you go on stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.
The new B. F. Keith's High-Class Vaudeville Theatre in the Riggs Building became one of the most prestigious in the Keith's chain. President Taft was at the opening night show in 1912, and Woodrow Wilson rarely missed a Saturday evening show there when he was president. A plaque commemorating Wilson's frequent visits was put up in the theater in 1931. Entertainers included nationally famous performers such as Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallée, Laurel and Hardy, ZaSu Pitts, and others.
Vaudeville, of course, was eventually eclipsed and then eradicated by the success of the motion picture business. In 1928, Keith's added feature films to its bill of fare and then in 1932 converted to a purely motion-picture program, the last theater in Washington to give up on regular vaudeville performances. A series of mergers turned the Keith's chain into the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Radio Pictures company, which showed its premier films at what it now called the RKO Keith's Theatre.
In 1956, RKO sold the Riggs Building, now known as the Keith-Albee Building, to Washington real estate developer Morris Cafritz for $1.55 million, leasing back the theater to continue showing first-run films. That led to the first instance in which the city lost an opportunity to save the building for posterity. Cafritz bought it hoping to convert the building back to live stage performances, and in 1959 he offered it to the city for use as a performing arts center after the Sam S. Shubert Theater on 9th Street—the only theater then hosting live performances—had a catastrophic fire and was shut down. However, there were strings attached. Although it was a "gift," the city would have to assume the $1.5 million mortgage on the property as well as pay for its upkeep. There had been lots of talk of trying to get a decent performing arts venue in the city, including embryonic plans for a National Cultural Center in Foggy Bottom (which would eventually become the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), but in the end the D.C. commissioners balked at the $1.5 million mortgage and said "no thanks" to Cafritz.
Things went downhill from there. There was talk as early as 1962 of tearing down the Keith-Albee and all the other structures on the block to make way for a large new office building, but it didn't happen—yet. The theater continued to show films up into the 1970s, although they were no longer the best titles. Just before it closed in 1978 it was showing the likes of "Twitch of the Death Nerve," "Fritz The Cat," and "Black Samurai." That's when developer Oliver T. Carr stepped in.
After the subway system had opened in 1976, hopes were high that downtown could be revitalized, and developers were beginning to plan ambitious new projects. In November 1977, Carr, a big investor in the old and then-run-down part of downtown, announced plans for a $40 million "mall" to cover all of the Keith-Albee's block except for the Garfinckel's store on the 14th Street side. As reported in the Washington Post, Carr initially announced that he intended to save Rhodes Tavern, located at the 15th and F Streets corner. The small, dilapidated tavern, built around 1800, was one of the most important buildings connected with the early days of Washington City, as important to its civic and cultural life as Suter's Tavern had been to Georgetown's. It was clearly the most historically significant structure on the block. The Keith-Albee and National Metropolitan Bank buildings, in contrast, were grand and beautiful, but Carr hinted that they might have to go if $5 million couldn't be drummed up to save them.
The ensuing fight over what and how much to save played out at a unique turning point in the city's commitment to historic preservation. All three buildings—the Keith-Albee, National Metropolitan Bank, and Rhodes Tavern—had been recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but in 1977 this just meant that a developer needed to work with the local community on ways to save them. Demolition could be delayed somewhat but not banned outright. In February 1978, the Washington Post reported on the options that Carr was said to have presented to the community. While he was willing to support historic preservation, he needed $1.5 million to save the Rhodes and $4.7 million to save the facades of the other two buildings. As quoted in the Post, Carr said, "We will proceed with total demolition if we can't raise the funds." He filed for a demolition permit to start the clock running on the maximum delay (240 days in this case) that could be imposed before allowing demolition to proceed.
Throughout 1978, efforts were undertaken to find funding to save the historic buildings, but with little success. Meanwhile, largely through the advocacy of Don't Tear It Down, the predecessor of the D.C. Preservation League, the D.C. City Council voted to adopt a new historic preservation law that would require developers to prove economic hardship before being allowed to destroy historic landmarks. But it came too late. In March 1979, Carr received the very last demolition permit issued by the D.C. government on the day before the new law went into effect.
Carr began demolition at the rear of the building in early April 1979 and was quickly met with street protests as well as legal action from Don't Tear It Down. Don't Tear It Down's efforts won some temporary delays in the destruction. At one point Carr was allowed to continue ripping out most of the interior of the Keith-Albee while efforts proceeded to try to find money to save the building's facade. The D.C. government in conjunction with Don't Tear It Down worked hard but could not come up with sufficient funds in the limited time available. First Lady Rosalyn Carter telephoned the mayor to try to help. All was to no avail. In July 1979, the Washington Post reported on a final court ruling by Judge William E. Stewart Jr. Noting that "when the government goes into the business world the government has to be able to conform to the business world's needs," the judge ruled that Carr could proceed with demolition because the necessary funds to pay for preservation had not been forthcoming.
At this point, Carr offered a final take-it-or-leave-it deal, according to the Post. He would save the facades of the Keith-Albee and National Metropolitan Bank buildings after all, but only if the White House, D.C. government, and Don't Tear It Down all agreed to support his complete development plan, which included moving or demolishing the Rhodes Tavern. The agreement was signed. With these power players out of the picture, others took up the cause of saving Rhodes Tavern, and the struggle went on for another four years. There was even a public referendum at one point, with D.C. voters endorsing a resolution to preserve the historic tavern. It wasn't good enough. The little building was finally demolished in 1984, and Carr's Metropolitan Square office complex then filled out the block. Meanwhile, the facade of Henri de Sibour's Riggs Building lives on, although it is literally a shell of its former self.
The Metropolitan Square office building as it appears today.
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