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.
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