Brick and Mortar

This photo of The National Theatre is dated 1890. Notice how different traffic running through the center of Washington, D.C. looks today!

The National Theatre has occupied the same spot on which it stands since it was founded in 1835.  However, it has taken many forms since those early days.  Part of this is down to wear and tear, not to mention necessary renovations to keep up with the times.  However, The National has also survived more than its fair share of tribulations, including fires and financial hardships, several of which resulted in closure.  Thankfully, no closure has lasted, and The National has always come back in style.

Speaking of style, The National has typically incorporated elegance and patriotism into its décor.  The original building had a tier of box seats decorated with various events from maritime history, the arch over the stage featured an image of the Declaration of Independence supported by the wings of Time, and the curtain pictured a statue of George Washington on horseback.  That same building was also innovative for the day in that it replaced the “pit,” normally an open area were lower-class audience members watched, with high-priced seating for the well-to-do.  Much like today, a small saloon sat behind the second-level boxes serving coffee, fruit, and confectionary. While the patriotism is perhaps not quite as overt today, The National does retain one especially national symbol: the eagle, which adorns the theatre’s logo and perches just above the proscenium.

While most of its life has been lived as a theatre in the sense we know it today, it has also served a number of other entertainment functions. In January of 1851, the building was sold and remodeled as a circus for a French equestrian troupe.  The orchestra was made into a performance ring and seating was added to the stage so spectators could watch from any angle.  This rendition was short-lived, however, and the building was restored to its original function with a series of upgrades, namely a seating capacity of 3,000 (with a further 1,000 accommodated in the aisles), and a set of three curving galleries supported by iron pillars under a domed ceiling. After The National burned down in 1857, new owners moved in and built the King’s Amphitheater on its soil.  The Amphitheater was a comparatively crude structure that hosted a number of circus performances, and like the equestrian circus that preceded it, its life was short-lived.  The National was eventually rebuilt as the New National Theatre (sometimes called Grover’s National Theatre) in a manner not unlike its previous iteration, which included seating capacity for 2,000 and a series of elegantly frescoed boxes.

The “New” National Theatre – sometimes called “Grover’s National Theatre” – is pictured here in 1868. Note the balcony in the front and the eagle perched at the very top.

The National suffered two more fires in 1873 and 1885, but opened again later the same year on each occasion. The 1885 rendition replaced the two-story structure that proceeded it with an impressive, five-story beauty built in the Italianate style (you can catch a look in the photograph at the top of this page). In addition to the rich exterior, the interior featured a number of important upgrades, including electric lighting, a fireproof asbestos curtain between the stage and the audience, a steam heating system, and larger, more comfortable seating. 

For nearly forty years, The National survived relatively unscathed – a welcome change of pace, to be sure – until major structural renovations were called for in 1922. After an accident at the Knickerbocker Theatre claimed the lives of several patrons, all Washington theatres were required to reinforce their roofs with steel beams. In order to not disturb the theatre’s acoustics, the beams were added on the outside.  Meanwhile, interior columns were replaced with steel girders that supported the weight of the tiered seating.  The orchestra pit was enlarged to make room for more musicians, while the lighting booth, which had previous jutted out into the gallery, was set into the rear wall. 

The National was closed for 18 months between 1982 and 1984 to allow for an extensive remodeling job. By and large, the building that reemerged after that surgery is the same one you can visit today, barring a few changes, such as the interior walls, which were repainted wine red.

The National you visit today is mostly unchanged since its last updates in the early 1980s. After nearly being demolished as part of the extensive changes made to Pennsylvania Avenue, the building was instead closed for renovation in 1982 and remained under construction for 18 months.  In addition to improved heating and air systems and several cosmetic updates, the new theatre was also complimented with the addition of a five-story backstage building.  This building includes well-lit dressing rooms, a small rehearsal hall, a large wardrobe shop, and a home for The National Theatre Archives, where much of the material featured in this site can be found. While The National you see today is the theatre that has been proudly hosting some of the nation’s finest for over 35 years, there have been several upgrades over the years, beginning in 1991 when the theatre closed to allow for the replacement of the asbestos fire curtain. This was followed by the repainting of the theatre’s interior in 2012. Then, between 2017 and the present day, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and private donors have contributed over $6 million that has funded critical captial improvements, including projects such as the upgrades to the HVAC system, renovations of the second-floor restrooms, modernization of the rigging system, and the installation of the state-of-the-art sound system. So one has to wonder: what exciting transformations are coming up next?

From the Archives

These schematics of The National Theatre were drawn up prior to the extensive renovations undertaken in the 1980s. Flip through them to get an inside look at the building’s structure floor by floor, starting with the orchestra level.