The Atlas’ mission is to foster the artistic growth of professional and aspiring performing artists throughout the region; to create a new model for collaborative arts management; to establish a unique community-centered venue for training and education in the performing arts and stagecraft; and to energize and sustain the revitalization of H Street, NE and the surrounding community.
The Atlas Theater was originally built in 1938 by the Kogod-Burka movie chain. The very first film shown in that 1000 seat theater was the Mickey Rooney vehicle, Love Finds Andy Hardy. The Atlas was one of four movie theaters which once thrived on the H Street corridor.
H Street Northeast, originally known as Swampoodle, was a bustling commercial district for much of the early and mid twentieth century. The neighborhood consisted of Irish, Russian, German, Jewish and African-American residents and business owners who lived and worked in relative harmony considering that much of the city was segregated during this time period. The neighbors even petitioned the city to allow them to have an integrated school but they were denied.
Department stores, music shops, pharmacies and car dealerships all kept company with the Atlas throughout this heyday. In the late 1950s and early 1960s residents and businesses began leaving cities throughout the country for the nearby suburbs and H Street began to lose its neighbors as well. This flight was exacerbated by the riots which followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and devastated several areas of the city, including H Street. While many buildings were burned and destroyed the Atlas remained.
The neighborhood fell into decline as residents and businesses fled and the Atlas Theater closed its doors for good in 1976. The 1980s and 90s were difficult for the neighborhood as the many vacant buildings provided havens for drug users and the streets became better known for their criminal activity. The Atlas was shuttered and become covered in graffiti and the lights on the historic marquee were dark.
In 2001 The Atlas Performing Arts Center purchased the empty theater with the idea of creating a multiple venue arts center which would be the catalyst for the revitalization of H Street Northeast. The city got behind the idea in 2003 creating the H Street Overlay which divided the street into three sections, the Atlas anchoring the new Arts and Entertainment District. The Atlas’ re-opening sparked the economic revitalization that is occurring on H Street, NE.
While the Atlas continues to promote economic development, the board and staff understand that today’s performing arts centers may also act as curators of neighborhood identity. Through its programs and service to the community, the Atlas seeks to honor and maintain the history and traditions of H Street, NE while also fostering the changes taking place to renew the H Street corridor. The Atlas seeks to be a center for community conversation, where a range of artistic and individual experiences can come together to be celebrated.
The Atlas presents innovative, thought-provoking performances, and it provides arts education opportunities for DC’s Near Northeast community. Today this neighborhood is known as the Atlas District. The Atlas’ restored Art Moderne marquee once again shines over H Street which has become a nightlife destination for eclectic dining, music and the performing arts.