Since its founding in 1835, The National Theatre has occupied the very same plot of land, even as the street around it has changed its shape and name. 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 troubles, 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, while The National has transformed with the times, its décor has almost always incorporated glamor and patriotism. The original building had a tier of box seats decorated with various events from maritime history, an arch featuring an image of the Declaration of Independence supported by the wings of Time, and a curtain picturing 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 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 arch that frames the stage.
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 transformed 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 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 boxes painted with elegant frescoes.
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 pictured at the top of the page. Note the two belvederes (tower-like structures) at the top, the extensive eaves (edges of the roof), and the tall, narrow windows: all are examples of Italianate architecture that can also be found in some Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. 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 in Washington claimed the lives of several patrons, all local 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 in the mezzanine and balcony. 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 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, which reopened in 1984, 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. Since 1984, there have been several significant upgrades, 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. 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 capital 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. You have to wonder what exciting transformations are coming up next!
From the Archives
These schematics represent plans for the extensive reconstruction and renovations The National received in the early 1980s. The first four images represent outlines for each of the four main levels of The National Theatre itself. The fifth image is of a rehearsal room floor, which requires multiple layers to properly support performers. The sixth and final image is a more detailed outline of part of The National’s lobby. Many of these outlines were preceded by pen drawings on scratch paper and official stationary from The National Theatre, some of which are held in The National Theatre Archives. Like a lot of artists, architects often start small and simple before working their way up to more complex tasks!
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
White, Megan. “What is Italianate Architecture?” National Trust for Historic Preservation. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 16 April, 2019, https://savingplaces.org/stories/what-is-italianate-architecture#.YQGtsRNKiTc.