Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, 730 21st and H Street NW, Washington, DC

This auditorium mimics the look of a giant cube.

It is named for Abram Lisner, a trustee of the University who donated $750,000 for its construction. The German-born Lisner had owned Washington's Palais Royale department store. The firm began as a dry goods store specializing in "fancy" items, such as fans, gloves, jewelry, and handkerchiefs. It was founded by Abram Lisner (1855-1938), a short, wiry German immigrant who came to this country with his family at the age of 13. Plagued by epilepsy, Lisner was tutored privately as a child in New York and then went to work in his brother George's dry goods store on Broadway. It was with George's help that Abram expanded the business to Washington, opening up the Palais Royal and then buying out his brother's share in it two years later.
Under Lisner's leadership the store proved very profitable. Lisner emphasized low prices and operated a cash-only business when most other dry goods stores offered credit. The reputation for quality merchandise at a low price built sales steadily, although Lisner was not immune to missteps.
One dramatic incident occurred in March 1880 when Lisner accused his head clerk, Annie M. Nixon, of stealing a pair of kid gloves. Lisner seems to have confronted Miss Nixon in front of customers and had her arrested. Not a good idea, as it turned out. The Washington Post, not yet by any means a world-class newspaper, reported that the police officer at the local precinct station declared the whole affair a "put-up job" and let Nixon go with a "small collateral" for her appearance in police court the next day.
The Post also said it had interviewed Lisner, who "told a voluminous story with evident delight" about how he had suspected Nixon of stealing items from the shop and had instructed another employee, Issac Teeney, to watch her. Teeney had subsequently found the purloined gloves in Nixon's coat pocket. The problem, however, was that Nixon was "a pretty brunette" and Teeney an African-American porter.
The police court quickly absolved Nixon the next day. Teeney was presumed to be lyingheck, he probably stole the gloves himself. As soon as Judge Snell pronounced his verdict there was "prolonged applause, which the bailiffs could not control, and the young lady was immediately the recipient of congratulations." Lisner, in contrast, was "already unfavorably regarded by the general public," according to the Post, and was now reviled (at least for the moment) for making such a false accusation about the pretty brunette.
The next day the Post ran a piece entitled "Lisner's Abject Terror," in which it described how Lisner had summoned the police to his store after having his life threatened by a man who had come in off the street. Lisner asked the officer who arrived to stay and protect him, but the policemen insisted he had to keep to his beat. "'But,' said Lisner, 'what if I am killed?' 'Well,' coolly retorted the officer, 'then I will find your body.'" Such was the life of a Jewish shopkeeper in 1880 Washington.
That incident was probably soon forgotten, but Lisner continued to face difficulties due to his poor health. In 1884 he took a trip to the spas at Carlsbad in what is now the Czech Republic, but he did not think it did any good. He returned to New York City deeply discouraged, and his brother George induced him to stay there awhile.
One afternoon, Abram borrowed $10 from his sister-in-law and went out to a buy some ice cream for her children. He also bought a handgun. The New York Times reported that, after regaling the children with the ice cream, he went upstairs and shot himself twice in the back of the head. Fortunately, the attempt was not successful; Lisner recovered and soon returned to Washington.

By the time of its third expansion in 1914, over 600 employees, mostly clerks, worked there. However, by 1924, Lisner was finally ready to retire from the mercantile business. That year he sold his business to the S.S. Kresge Department Stores Corporation for approximately $5 million.(2)
It was an unusual coincidence which brought his death on the same day and at the same hour as Mrs. Lisner's the year before. Mrs. Lisner died March 26, 1937, and Mr. Lisner March 26, 1938. Photo is from 1909.

Lisner Auditorium was designed by Faulkner and Kingsbury and built by Charles H. Tompkins Company. Funding for the project was also provided by the George Washington Memorial Association and the Dimock Estate. Work commenced on the Auditorium in 1941; it was completed in 1943. It served as the focus of theatrical life in Washington prior to the opening of the Kennedy Center.
It is still used for performances today, and is the home of several companies, including Washington Concert Opera.

On October 9, 1946 the theater declined entry to African-Americans, including the Dean of the Howard University Medical School. A leaflet and boycotting campaign ensued. The National Symphony Orchestra canceled performances.[3]
In 1947, the Board of Trustees changed policy to admit African-Americans to sponsored events, but did not completely desegregate until 1954.

The auditorium contains a mural by Augustus Vincent Tack.

The facility could then seat 1,550, and it contained ultra-light modern, light and sound systems as well as a huge 59-foot stage, said to be the largest south of New York City. 

Composed of marble, the spare, even extreme, design removes Lisner Auditorium from the realm of the common stripped classicism of the period. While its inspiration is classical, the architects abstracted the design to its empirical geometric element, the cube. The architects repeated the rectilinear lines in the portico where the post and lintel system and monumental scale only suggest its classical roots. The polished metal vent to the left of the entrance and the paneled door on the H Street facade provide the only breaks in the taut surface. This building stands as a bold geometric expression and the University's outstanding contribution to modern architecture. (1)
At one critical point, Mr. Lisner supplied the funds to pay the salaries of members of the faculty who otherwise would have gone unpaid. Dean William Allen Wilbur, Professor Emeritus of English at the University, recalls that he was one of those who would not have received his salary as usual had it not been for Mr. Lisner's timely response to the situation. "Years later during his last illness Mr. Lisner came to my office," Dean Wilbur said, "and I told him of my great gratitude for this service. With tears in his eyes, he said, 'Do you know that?' and I replied, 'Indeed I do, and I shall never forget it.'"(4)

The auditorium was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

Jerry performed here on
4/3/76 early and late show JGB
2/12/80 early and late show JGB

1.)^Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, The George Washington University
2.)^DeFerrari, John,  Lost Washington: The old Palais Royal department store, 2010-08-02
3.)^"Lisner Auditorium segregation controversy, 1946". The GW and Foggy Bottom Historical Encyclopedia.
4.)^Special Collections Research Center, George Washington University Libraries


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