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Saved: D.C.'s Beatles Connection

Uline Arena, Washington's claim to fame in Beatles history, has been saved from the wrecking ball. By an 8-0 vote last week, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board carved out official protection for the arena, where the Beatles played their first North American concert in 1964, when it was known as the Washington Coliseum.

The arena, at 2nd and M streets NE, has a fascinating history, from its initial design to various struggles over its policies on racial segregation, to the recent past, in which developer Doug Jemal, who owns the joint, got the preservation ball rolling by seeking a permit to raze the building. Actually, Jemal has an ambitious plan to preserve the place and convert what just a few years ago was a revolting, rat-ridden trash transfer station--an indoor dump--into five stories of snazzy apartments, with dramatic balconies where the roof curves. Or maybe a combination of residential, retail and office. In any event, he's now prohibited from tearing the building down.

And with a new Metro station and a blizzard of development just a couple of blocks away at New York and Florida avenues, Jemal has reason to be optimistic about making something happen at this site.

When I last wrote about Uline Arena a couple of years ago, readers led me to a fabulous fact about the place: It is the source for the name of Arena Stage, which of course now is based in Southwest, but which launched with shows at...Uline Arena.

But what makes the Coliseum--originally named for builder Migiel "Mike" Uline, who made a mint providing ice to D.C. businesses--historic was its past as a sports and concert venue. Uline put up the ice rink in 1941, right next to his plant in a ragged industrial zone. It became the city's premier sports venue, home to the Washington Lions of the Eastern Hockey League and later the basketball Capitals. (The Washington Caps of the American Basketball Association, starring Rick Barry, played their only season, 1969-70, at the Coliseum, too.)

Joe Louis made his pro wrestling debut at Uline. Roller derby was hot there for a minute or two. Young Malcolm X spoke in the arena. But what still brings tourists to gawk at the building is what happened on a snowy Tuesday night, 48 hours after the maiden appearance on CBS's "Ed Sullivan Show," when the Fab Four played their first American concert.

Tickets to that show, which ranged from $2 to $4, are now among the most valuable of Beatles memorabilia. The 8,092 fans sat through opening sets by the Chiffons and Tommy Roe before John, Paul, George and Ringo started with "Roll Over, Beethoven."

"This was a historic event, and this is music that's going to last," Frank Branchini, a Beatles fanatic from Baltimore County, told me. Branchini has worked for some years on a Save the Coliseum campaign in an effort to preserve Washington's Beatles shrine after some have been lost in other cities. Others -- Shea Stadium in New York and Candlestick Park in San Francisco -- are slated for destruction.

"In 100 years, people will be interested in these sites just as people now go to Europe to see sites connected to Beethoven," Branchini told me back in '04. Well, maybe. This city is far too quick to declare structures of marginal or even negligible importance to be historic, but this one is a good move: Whether or not you're a Beatles fan, Uline is a piece of the District's past that still has a usable future, as well as an intriguing past.

By Marc Fisher |  November 27, 2006; 7:40 AM ET
Previous: Before the Music Dies | Next: Rebuilding the Grid: DC's Old Convention Center

Comments

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Who cares? The Beatles played there big deal. Does it have any architectural value?
No. Did Chuck Berry play there? The Stones? Maybe The Who? But the Beatles please? The Supremes, the 4 Tops. So the only reason this buidling was saved because some over rated top 40 band played there. Has to be a better reason to save the building like the circus playing there!

Posted by: Vaherder | November 27, 2006 10:24 AM

Actually, the circus DID play there. I remember my parents taking me often to see the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey circus there, as well as the annual visit of the Ice Capades. (We also ventured from Arlington into the city to eat at Cannon's Steak House in a warehouse district nearby.)

It always brings back memories when I take the train to New York and we go past the rear of the building. I am glad it will be saved and put to good use. It would be nice if the marquee over the entrance could be recreated, and a plaque installed to describe what once was.

Posted by: Native Baby Boomer | November 27, 2006 10:50 AM

1968 This building also held the D.C. Pageant which was shown on Channel 5 when Walter Washington was mayor of D.C.

Posted by: Sandy Knight | November 27, 2006 11:44 AM

Actually, the raze permit application was submitted by Waste Management Corp. the owner-of-record, while the property was put up for sale. WM ended up withdrawing the application, and Douglas Development bought the property afterwards. Thanks for the mention!

Posted by: Richard Layman | November 27, 2006 12:13 PM

Actually, I agree with the first post, Beatles, so what.

I would look at more of it's diverse and meaningful background of American performers and distinguished guest for reason of preserving the building.

I think maybe this is more about "Raw Fisher" and those moments he sang beatle songs in his room pretending to be Ringo.

Thanks

Posted by: Frankey | November 27, 2006 1:32 PM

I saw the Ringling Brothers Circus there when I was about 5, in 1954. When I was 15 or so, I saw the Rolling Stones. Patty LaBelle and the Blue Bells were the opening act. I think the ticket was about 6 bucks. Great memories.

Posted by: DC MusicMan | November 27, 2006 2:42 PM

How do you pronounce Uline? You-leen? You-line? Ooo-leen? Ooo-line?

I remember going to Ringling Bros. there as a girl too. There was an old man who always sold paper bags of peanuts, back in the day when you could actually carry food into the circus.

Posted by: Pronunciation | November 27, 2006 4:43 PM

I always heard it pronounced You-line.

Posted by: pj | November 27, 2006 5:17 PM

Thanks for this bit of good news. As a transplant to this area, I have no reservoir of Coliseum memories to draw from, but as someone who was upright and breathing in February 1964 I well recall the excitement of the Beatles' first visit -- and their first U.S. concert, right here. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the event, some fellow-fans and I made a pilgrimage to the D.C. sites of that visit. Over the top? A little, I guess. But that visit, and the "cultural revolution" it presaged, was a watershed moment in the history of the last 50 years.

Posted by: Steve in Bethesda | November 28, 2006 4:38 AM

Actually it does have architectural/engineering significance for its use of what was at the time an innovative structural system.

Posted by: jchristianson | November 28, 2006 3:14 PM

Thanks for the outstanding news Marc. This is the site of the first Beatles concert in the US and that is enough reason for the building's preservation but
the Uline Arena/Washington Coliseum is of importance for many other reasons:

• The building is a unique example of concrete barrel-vaulted construction.
• The Woody Herman Orchestra, the Ink Spots, Charlie Parker, Ravi Shankar, The Rolling Stones, the Temptations, the Royal Ballet, the Washington Ballet, and the Ice Capades all performed the building.
• Bob Dylan performed in the building in 1967 and a photo from the concert appeared on the cover of his Greatest Hits album.
• The facility was home to three basketball teams: the Washington Capitols, Tapers, and Caps.
• Red Auerbach served as the coach for the Washington Capitols for three seasons.
• Earl Lloyd, a member of the Washington Capitols, became the first African-American to play in the NBA in 1950.
• The building was home to three hockey teams: the Eagles, Lions, and Presidents.
• Rocky Graziano fought at Uline Arena.
• Boxing legend Joe Louis made his pro wrestling debut at Uline Arena

Posted by: Frank C. Branchini | November 28, 2006 6:28 PM

I hope Mr Jemal will go ahead and develop this site. With the real estate market cool-down I'd hate to see development stall indefinitely. A grocery story (Wegmans would be swell), maybe a world-class gym (to keep with the sports and fitness theme of some past uses), plus retail and apartments would be a terrific asset to the entire community. And this area is grossly underserved in the grocery and gym departments.

Posted by: Hillman | November 29, 2006 9:33 AM

Vaherder I care! The Beatles are a part of history and are not overrated. if they were their music wouldn't be still popular today. They changed music,fashion and politics which is why it is a big deal. The Beatles will be remembered years from now and inspired the Stones and The Who.

Posted by: n/a | November 29, 2006 8:55 PM

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