By Frank Leone
The George Washington University’s most significant architectural landmark is the limestone-clad cube of Lisner Auditorium (730 21st NW). It was designed by the GWU’s unofficial architect, Waldron Faulkner, in a stripped classical, modernist style in 1940. Opened in 1946, it was said to be the largest theater south of New York. When Ingrid Bergman arrived to star in its first play (Joan of Lorraine), she was shocked to find that the theater excluded African-American patrons – the resulting controversy resulted in the theater formally ending segregation in 1947. The 1,500-seat theater has hosted many speakers, concerts, and performances since that time.
GWU President Cloyd Heck Marvin (term 1927-1965) initiated an aggressive building program for the University starting in 1934. His architect during this period, Waldron Faulkner (1898-1979), shared a preference for functional architecture which would complement the modern government buildings in the area. Faulkner, born in Paris and educated at Yale, moved from New York to D.C. in 1934. He became known as a designer of institutional buildings in a modernist style. He designed Strong Hall (1937) in a Georgian style (viewed as appropriate for a dormitory), but used a modernist style for Lisner Library (now Hall) (1939), the Hall of Government (1938) and its adjoining James Monroe Hall (1951), and the old GWU Hospital (1948, now demolished).
In 1938, Abram Lisner, a GWU trustee, outstanding philanthropist, and former owner of the Palais Royale
department store in D.C. (11th & G Sts. NW), bequeathed a one million dollars to the GW to build an auditorium of marble. Faulkner designed the building as a monumental cube, with abstracted columns on its façade. The interior features marble flooring and a “swoopy, art moderne interior.”
The opening play for the auditorium in October 1946 featured 29-year old Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc, a role she would play in a Hollywood movie two years later. At the time GWU observed segregation, to the extent of completely excluding African-Americans from Lisner Auditorium. Bergman was furious, stating: “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d never have put my feet in this town.” She composed a petition signed by cast members opposing segregation. Many GW students and community members called for an end to segregation, although President Marvin resisted. In February 1947, the GWU Board of Trustees voted to desegregate Lisner Auditorium, although it did not vote admit African American students to the University until June 30, 1954.
Lisner Auditorium has served as a focal point for University as well as Washington community events. Currently, it is the venue of the Washington Concert Opera (https://concertopera.org/). It provided an early concert venue for Bob Dylan (1963, returned in 2010) and hosted Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry, Bo Diddley, Pink Floyd, BB King, Bill Joel, Jimmy Buffet, the BoDeans, Laurie Anderson, Public Enemy, David Byrne, Celine Dion, Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, Roberta Flack, Patti Smith, and Kanye West, among many others. It was also the site of the swearing-in of Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Sources: Andrew Novak, “The Desegregation of George Washington University and the District of Columbia in Transition,” Washington History, Vol. 24, No1., pp 22-44 (2012); George Washington University/Old West End Historic District National Register Nomination Form (9/24/2013), https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/765; Lisner Auditorium National Register Nomination Form (10/25/90), https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/338; Lisner Auditorium Washington Concert Setlists, https://www.setlist.fm/venue/lisner-auditorium-washington-dc-usa-6bd6c2e6.html; FBA History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project