17 Madison Place NW,
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Previously operated by: Shubert Brothers Theater Company
Firms: Wood & Lovell
Previous Names: Lafayette Opera House
The Lafayette Square Opera House was built in 1895 on the site of the 1830’s Rodgers House, of one Washington’s more famous 19th century residences, which was razed in 1894. Designed by the Chicago firm of Wood & Lovell, the opera house overlooked Lafayette Square and was built for Uriah H. Painter.
The six story building had a soaring facade, with Ionic columns framing the main entrance on Madison Place, as well as below the huge cornice. The beige brickwork was decorated with three panels over the triple arches filled with windows over the main entry. The auditorium, which could seat about 1800, was a blend of Beaux Arts, neoclassical and Italian Renaissance styles, complete with lavishly ornate gilded plasterwork, three balconies, thirty boxes and a graceful but towering proscenium arch, again, coated with gilded plaster decor.
Along with the National Theatre, the grandiose Lafayette Opera House was the main venue for opera, plays, and ballet at the turn of the 20th century in Washington. Among those to perform on its stage included Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Maude Adams, and Ethel Barrymore.
In 1906, the opera house was taken over by the Shuberts and David Belasco, and was renamed the Belasco Theatre. By the early years of the Depression, the Shuberts gave up the Belasco Theatre, and by 1935, it was converted to a movie house. During the late-1930’s, legitimate theatre made a short-lived and not very successful return, but in 1940, the Belasco Theatre (and nearby properties, including the Tayloe House and Cosmos Club) were acquired by the federal government, which used the Belasco Theatre for a warehouse and offices (all of the seats were removed from the theater at this time).
After America’s entry into WW II, the Belasco Theatre was reopened as a Stage Door Canteen for the entertainment of servicemen. It closed at the start of 1946. During the Korean War, the Belasco Theatre was reopened again, as the Lafayette Square Club, again as a venue for entertaining servicemen.
In the early-1960’s, with the reconstruction of Lafayette Square, many of the Belasco’s neighbors were razed, until finally, in 1964, the Belasco Theatre itself was torn down to make way for the new US Court of Claims Building.
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