Arts Desk

Should the District Sell Lincoln Theatre?

Last year, Blues Alley owner Harry Schnipper wanted to buy the Lincoln Theatre.

One problem: The troubled city-owned historic facility wasn't for sale.

Of course, that's not what Schnipper says he heard in November, when he mailed in a bid. Schnipper says the city's Department of General Services was soliciting proposals from potential buyers at that time. "It was briefly bandied about," he says. According to him, he never heard back from the department, which manages the acquisition, maintenance, and sale of District real estate.

When I called General Services, a spokesperson said they never put out a request for proposals for the Lincoln. But, he said the District's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development might know more. So I asked the deputy mayor, Victor Hoskins, if indeed the city was trying to unload the theater.

"That is a fable," says Hoskins. His spokesperson Jose Sousa clarifies, "There was a solicitation put out for improvements to the heating and ventilation system, so, not for purchase but for work to be performed on the Lincoln Theatre. We did not put it on the market." Will it ever be for sale? "Right now, no, I don't envision that," he says, adding that the Lincoln Theatre is simply too important to the history of U Street NW.

A sale might make some sense: The Lincoln reopened in 1994 after D.C. chipped in $9 million for its renovation, but has since hobbled along, dependent on city subsidies and rarely making a major impact on the local arts scene. Last year, Mayor Vince Gray declared the theater's business model unsustainable, prompting public criticism from Lincoln's management. Jan. 1, the city's Commission on the Arts and Humanities took over the theater, and has begun the process of finding a new executive director.

I followed up with Schnipper to ask how he came to think the city was shopping the building. He said he doesn't have time to go through his records.

But in the event the District does decide to sell the perennial money-loser to someone who wants to run it as an arts facility, Schnipper might actually make a good steward: He's run Blues Alley for more than two decades without outside support, he says. The city, meanwhile, has already thrown millions of dollars at the Lincoln, which has been inactive much of the time nonetheless.

But, nope. No dice. Through his spokesman, Ward One Councilmember Jim Graham says "there is no interest in selling the Lincoln Theatre."

So much for that bright idea. See Schnipper's bid, below.


November 3, 2011

Ms. Regina Payton, Realty Specialist
C/o Department of General Services
2000 14th Street, NW,
8th Floor
Washington, DC 20009

Dear Ms. Payton:

I am writing regarding the historic Lincoln Theater and the proposed possibility of its disposition. My name is Harry Schnipper and I am the owner of Blues Alley Jazz in Georgetown. Blues Alley Jazz is America’s oldest, continuously operating jazz supper club and has been in existence for half a century.

I am the presenter, promoter and producer of pre-existing quality entertainment at our Georgetown venue and countless other cultural institutions elsewhere. We have been a successful for-profit entertainment provider because we have access to proprietary pricing information and do not rely upon corporate sponsorship as do our competitors.

I have been in the market to purchase another venue for over a decade and have assembled a team of qualified professionals for exactly this type of purpose. I would like to further propose a tour of this property to determine if it is suitable to our needs. Please let me know as soon as possible how I should proceed. I look forward to your prompt and affirmative reply.

Respectfully yours,

Harry Schnipper

Cc: Councilmember Jim Graham
Certified Mail #7010 3090 0001 2121 4126


Photo by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass used under a creative commons license.

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  • U Street Buzz

    Short answer: Yes, sell it. The city should not be in the entertainment business.

    Longer answer: Yes, the Lincoln is a very important part of U Street's heritage, but it should not be a dark-more-nights-than-not museum without visitors. It's inexcusable that years after renovation and millions of taxpayer dollars this wonderful venue has never gotten close to being viable as a business. If the city can't or won't sell it, then they should at least ask for bids on a long-term contract from experienced businesses to run the place (including booking, marketing, food and beverage service, etc.). I would imagine that the arrangement that the Howard Theatre has with the Blue Note Entertainment Group is something like this. At least Harry Schnipper/Blues Alley is DC-based, not NYC. The contract should include some mechanism to make sure the Lincoln doesn't entirely stray from its storied history as a center of African American music and theatre.

    Unlike some, I believe government should support the arts, but our city should NOT be running a theatre (even if they were good at it, which they're not).

    Seems obvious, no?

  • monkeyrotica

    What a suprise that Graham et al want to hang onto an underutilized, mismanaged money pit. Really looking forward to the Howard Theater making the Lincoln Theater management look like the overpaid cronies they are.

  • Peter Rosenstein

    I think the City should seriously consider selling the Lincoln Theater to an owner who would guarentee that it continue to be used as an Arts venue. Potentially one could build above it and finance it that way. "U" Street is hot these days and the venue is totally underutilized. The City shouldn't be in the business of running an arts venue anyway.

    I have used the Lincoln theatre for producing a show with Roberta Flack many years ago and it leaves a lot to be desired currently. I think someone with the know-how to turn it into a profitable venture would be good for the District and its citizens.

  • DC John

    Of course...the Lincoln should be sold. While at it, let us throw in Council Member Graham as its popcorn and candyman distributor and allow him to even find parking spaces for the taxicabs that drop people off.
    On a serious note...Lincoln has been totally mismanaged since it reopened. Allowing a DC-based arts and entertainment is an excellent step in the right direction whether it be Blues Alley or Arena or the Shakespeare, so be it!

  • Respected Citizens

    Everyone must "understand" that the recruitment of a new Executive Director will never serve to augment the overall cost required to cover the day-to-day staffing, programming/activity operations (that includes community Black events, along with keeping the door open.

    Regretfully, our City Council, nor the Boards of the lincoln or current oversight via Arts and Humanities Commission (including Lionell Thomas) has any history of securing funds outside of tax-payers dollars for the preservation of any theater's operation.

    If the city wants to sustain operations, at least recruit a management company via a local organization that can independently secure 50% of the annual cost with experience in programming, which will include annual Community Art programs.

  • Richard Layman

    you don't have to sell the theater necessarily, but there is nothing wrong with a long term lease going to a bidder with a much better track record.

  • Pingback: The Lincoln Theatre is Not for Sale (We Think) | Borderstan

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Is anything every happening at the Lincoln? Nearly every night over the past decade or so I've walked by it's "dark" as they in the biz.

    Back in 2005 when Dave Brubeck was playing there for the DC Jazz Festival a friend and I went during the day to get advance tickets. The lady at the box office didn't seem to know what we were talking about asking for tickets to the Dave Brubeck show. She said, "Who's that? Never heard of him!"

    We had to point to he poster on the building to convince her to sell us tickets to the show. Run by clowns, backed by a clown city gov't with clown officials from Graham to Gray.

  • Elsayed Mansour

    I am a former chef/co-owner of 1409 Playbill Cafe' on 14th street. We had formed a Playbill foundation last year.

    Playbill Foundation main vision is to create a local gathering, preforming, rehearsal and gallery space for the art communities and talented artists.

    Playbill Foundation is committed to help and provide an affordable space for small local theaters, art groups and artists.

    Unfortunately, we couldn't find the right place, but if you give us the opportunity to make our vision come true at Lincoln theater on U street NW. it will not just help the theater community but it will help the Lincoln Theater historical legacy.