The Challenges Of Reviving A Legendary Theatre

The Howard Theatre in Washington, DC was once teeming with top entertainers and fans, but after it closed, debris piled up, and animals took shelter in the seats. Michael Marshall and Paola Moya were later tasked with redesigning the interior. They adorned walls in walnut panels and flanked the stage with hi-definition screens. They talk with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, we want to take a look inside the Howard Theatre as it is today and talk about what it took to get there. When Michael Marshall and Paola Moya of Marshall Moya Design were commissioned to redesign the interior of the Howard Theatre, there was a hole in the roof and debris on the floor. Now, the walls are adorned in walnut panels and the stage is flanked by 200-inch high definition screens on either side. And Paola Moya and Michael Marshall are both here in the studio with us to talk about how they got there.

Paola, Michael, welcome. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PAOLA MOYA: Thank you so much for bringing us here.

MICHAEL MARSHALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Michael, now, you're a Washington, D.C. native, but if you forgive me for saying this, you're little on the young side, so I'm sure you were aware of the Howard Theatre, but did you ever actually get to see a show there?

MARSHALL: No, but lots of my relatives were able to see James Brown and some of the other acts from the 60s. So this was a great honor to be part of Howard's legacy now.

MARTIN: Were you aware of the history though, when you were seeking this commission.

MARSHALL: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: And what do you, just to tell us in your own words, you know, what you think it meant to this community and what the revitalization means.

MARSHALL: Well, you know, Howard is at the nexus of both 7th Street, Georgia Avenue and U Street, Florida Avenue corridor, so it's in a prime place to take advantage of being a catalyst for economic development in the city. But also it's part of African-American history - that I'm an African-American and that's very important - but also a part of American history because of all the different acts that were able to be showcased there and start off at the Howard Theatre.

MARTIN: Paola, be honest. When you first saw the interior - even the exterior...

MOYA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...did you say what have we gotten ourselves into?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

MOYA: No. It was pretty scary. I was joking with Michael, I said this is a great set for a scary movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOYA: But...

MARTIN: Tell a little bit, if you would. Tell little bit.

MOYA: Yes.

MARTIN: Because I know just driving past there on the - because it's actually on my way to work...

MOYA: Right.

MARTIN: So I've been driving past there for some years now and it was pretty scary on the outside, so...

MOYA: Yes. Well imagine, 30 years it had been abandoned and the weather damage was tremendous. You would go there and you would really have to take your umbrella in if it was raining outside, so it was completely dark. There were animals. There were a lot of debris throughout. So, for 30 years of building being in that condition, it was in bad shape; so much that pretty much only five columns in the interior were restored. Otherwise, everything had to be new.

MARSHALL: But the interest...

MARTIN: Michael, talk a little bit about that. What were you hoping for? What was your goal in the redesign?

MARSHALL: Yeah. Well, the interesting thing was that we had to excavate the entire building. So in order to put in a banquet-size kitchen and back-of-house rooms, restrooms, so everything within the perimeter and shell of the building had to be dug out. So there was no basement before. So now the Howard is a very flexible venue. It can be used for corporate events - and obviously the performing arts events - but then also for gospel Sunday brunch. There's a jazz brunch on Saturday. So we knew we had pretty much a blank shell or blank canvas to deal with, and that was great for us because we were selected for this project because we really have a contemporary sense of style for the work that we do. So it was an opportunity to present Howard for the 21st century.

MARTIN: One of the interesting features of the space - the new space - is that you have these hydraulic lifts that can raise up certain things and hide certain things. And one of the things that you are going to hide at some point that can be hidden at some point are the bars.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Why is that?

MARSHALL: Well, there's a couple of things. One is that we're able in 40 minutes to clear out the entire main terrace level of the theater, which then allows the space to be opened up for a dance hall, for instance. Or there could be rows and rows of chairs for other types of events. But normally, it's set up sort of cabaret-style with tables and chairs, so that you can come there and have a full meal and watch a performance at the same time. So really, it's a combination of sort of the Cotton Club and the Apollo and the Howard all in one.

MARTIN: But also people for whom if there are religious services...

MARSHALL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...people don't want to be exposed to alcohol, they don't have to.

MARSHALL: Well, when our client first brought up the idea of the necessity to hide the alcohol I thought it was a joke at first, but we figured out ways to have panels that come down and close off the back bar section at the lower-entry bar. And now on Sunday it's a great space for a gospel Sunday brunch.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with Michael Marshall and Paola Moya. They are the principles in the design firm that redesigned the interior of Washington, D.C.'s newly re-opened Howard Theatre.

Let's talk a little bit about the firm. Your partnership I think stands out. Some elements of the design field are diverse, but architecture is not known as the most kind of diverse field at least, you know, in the United States, perhaps internationally, and an African-American man and a Latina woman in partnership, a little unusual, if you don't mind my noting that. I just wondered how the firm came together.

MOYA: Well, Michael and I met while I was doing my master's thesis in Catholic University. He was one of my jurors at that time, and we collaborated in an international competition where we - out of 250 people that entered, we were five of the finalists. After that, the combination of the work and experience that Michael had and I had worked really well, and we formed a partnership in 2011. And so far we have tried to do projects that are diverse, not only including - our firm is really diverse - the staff - and we try to accommodate that, that we can do things that are different typology. We have done the Howard Theatre. We are doing also the UDC Student Center, which is a new building also for the university. And there are different types of typological projects that we are interested, so for us that was very important.

MARTIN: The product, obviously is paramount for the client, but Michael, I'm wondering whether you think the selection of your firm in a way makes a statement about Howard's future because it's a historic African-American cultural center. But I just wonder if your firm in a way kind of makes a statement about the future of the theater for the city that is in transition as, you know, Washington is no longer a super majority African-American city.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: It's a very international city.

MARSHALL: Right.

MARTIN: There is a rising kind of Latino Diaspora in this area. Just wondering if you think that...

MARSHALL: Well, it's interesting...

MARTIN: And also the diversity of your firm, if you think it informed your design decisions.

MARSHALL: Absolutely. We have people in our firm from Japan, from Ethiopia, Americans, Latin Americans and I think that we come together with this with more of a sort of global view. We travel a lot to see different projects. And so when the Ellis family selected us for this project, they knew of the reputation we had on some of the projects in the city. For instance, nearby here, City Vista, we were part of the design team for that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Michael Marshall, if he would just add a couple of words.

MARSHALL: Sure.

MARTIN: What do you want people to experience when they walk into that space?

MARSHALL: Well, first of all, it was great to be part of the renaissance of the Howard Theatre. We try to fuse the history of it through the large-scale photographs that we have of different artists - Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, B.B. King; various artists who would've played during Howard's heyday - Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye. And so that's how we wanted to bring the history back and the nostalgia without replicating the detail from the old building, because it is now for a new generation and we're just really proud to be part of that.

MARTIN: Michael Marshall and Paola Moya are the principles in Marshall Moya Design. They redesigned the interior of the newly-renovated Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. and they were nice enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Michael, Paola, thanks so much for joining us.

MOYA: Thank you so much for inviting us.

MARSHALL: Thank you. It's a privilege.

MARTIN: And we want to leave you with some music from one of Howard's great performers, the Godfather of Soul. Who else? James Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD SWEAT")

JAMES BROWN: One, two, three, four. (Singing) Ha. I don't care, ha...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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