A Jazzy Proposal : Villenoire


designThe Age of Jazz, nearly a century past now, is taking on a mystique not unlike the Feudal Age, the Age of Pirates, and the Old West.  Like those myth-infused periods of the human past, it has taken on legend and glamor beyond mere historical fact.

And, just as we have Renaissance Faires, Pirate Festivals, and Old West dude ranches, it’s about time we had some themed events and sites celebrating the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  As an exercise in creating a Jazz Age-themed urban park, I chose a particularly self-contained block in Washington just north of historic U Street, famous in the history of jazz music and early 20th Century American culture, and re-imagined it as a sort of historical shopping mall and cultural center called “Villenoire.”

Such a site would have the profit potential of any small mall, with the added draw power of special themes and events inappropriate to more generally marketed venues.  It would still attract a general clientèle—particularly to the dining and drinking—but would also serve as a regional (or even national or global) magnet for a wide range of niche enthusiasts, and a persistent draw for locals seeking an intriguing alternative to generic, cookie-cutter shopping outlets.

With the elimination of one inner building to create a larger inner square for seating during concerts, I assigned locations for site administration and anchor restaurants, and created this rough map:


The internal north-south avenues would be named in commemoration of national history, while the east-west streets would be named for historical figures related to the DC area.  The central square and concert area would be named for DC native Duke Ellington, and designed so that the events could be seen not only by visitors in the ground but also by diners seated in the roof-top patios and inward facing balconies of most Villenoire restaurants.

  • Volstead Avenue would be named for the Act that enabled the enforcement of Prohibition.  The restaurants here could be modeled on the speak-easies of the 1920s.
  • Hoover Avenue, divided by Ellington Square, would be in honor of President Hoover in the north and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in the south.  Both of these figures were key to the history of the 1930s.
  • Normandy Avenue would commemorate American participation on World War II during the 1940s.
  • Hammett Street would honor hard-boiled fiction writer Dashiell Hammett, creator of the iconic Sam Spade character (of Maltese Falcon fame) who was born in nearby Maryland and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. At the intersection of Hoover and Hammett would be a plaque describing J. Edgar’s opposition to Hammett’s burial in Arlington due to the writer’s involvement with communism.  Hammett street could focus on the literary legacy of the period.
  • Hopkins Street would honor DC native Nancy Hopkins, an aviation pioneer who once recovered from a flat spin after having already climbed onto the wing to parachute to safety.  Her weight on the wing shifted the plane’s center of gravity enough to reduce the plane’s rotation, so she climbed back into the cockpit and pulled out of the spin at a mere 200 feet! Hopkins Street could feature an aviation museum and souvenir shop.
  • Jolson Street would honor DC native and actor Al Jolson, once considered “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
  • Hayes Street would honor DC native and actress Helen Hayes, called “The First Lady of American Theater.” Recipient of the Emmy, Grammy, Tony, Oscar, National Medal of Arts, and Presidential Medal of Freedom, she gave her name to the Helen Hayes Awards which recognize professional excellence in theater in Washington, DC. Villenoire’s stage venue would be on Hayes Street.

Villenoire locations could include:

  • Restaurants and bars decorated in Art Nouveau and Art Deco.  Anchor restaurants would feature staff in period dress and cuisine appropriate to the era, including products special-ordered in vintage packaging.
  • Mini-museums focusing on Jazz (of course!), film noir, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the dawn of aviation, early film, and the “Golden Ages” of radio, science fiction, and comic books.
  • Souvenir shops focusing on each of the museum target markets mentioned above.
  • Local independent stores featuring vintage art, clothing, books, music, and other items.
  • A novelty shop where customers could dress in rented costume and be filmed in a black-and-white cinematic trailer of several period styles—war film, detective movie, romance, etc.—using pre-packaged titles, music, props, and backdrops.
  • Small schools for learning swing dance, jazz performance, classic car maintenance, etc.
  • An old-fashioned barber shop, both functional and for ambiance.  Other “atmosphere venues” could include a drugstore/soda fountain, tobacconist, a tailor to augment the clothing stores, and repair shops for watches, shoes, or antique automobiles.  In fact, Villenoire could become a regional Mecca for vintage car owners needing parts and repairs.
  • A stage for live theater and a small cinema featuring period films.  (Films could also be shown in the larger venue of Ellington Square.)
  • Street vendors featuring period specialties like popcorn, cotton candy, and hot dogs.

Villenoire events would include:

  • Concerts of jazz, blues, early country, and mambo, both in Ellington Square and individual bars/restaurants.
  • Classic and period films shown in the cinema and the Square. Documentaries and historical newsreels could be featured on special dates like Pearl Harbor Day, V-E and V-J Days, Election Day, and the anniversaries of Black Tuesday, the end of Prohibition, and the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
  • Classic and period plays, concerts, burlesque, and vaudeville shows in the live theater.
  • Antique car shows, with show cars both in Ellington Square and in reserved parking encircling Villenoire round-about.
  • Special weekends dedicated to period themes—like film noir, aviation, radio, etc.—or in honor of the birthday of an important period figure.  In fact, every week of the year should have a theme to attract visitors.
  • Swing dance shows, classes, and contests.
  • Patriotic festivals on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day, complete with traditional military marches, red-white-and-blue banners, and special commemoration for the veterans of the two World Wars.
  • Halloween costume contests with prizes (judged on style and historical accuracy) for Best Detective, Best Femme Fatale, Best WW2 Soldier/Sailor, Best Gangster, Best Aviator, Best Flapper, and Best Zoot Suit.
  • “Christmas in Villenoire” needs no elaboration, as so much of America’s Yuletide imagery and music comes from this period.

Other concepts could be explored:

  • In addition to roof-top restaurant patios, a greening of the entirety of the roof area with a lawn (except for necessary utility fixtures) could create a “Picnic America” venue for eating boxed lunches during warm months.
  • A Villenoire trolley tour through the city, featuring period photos and footage of DC synched so the sites appear in their Jazz Age version on screens inside the trolley just as they are visible out the trolley windows in real time.
  • Site security dressed in period police uniforms.

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1 Comment

  1. I think this is a fantastic idea. DC is often overlooked for its rich musical history. With jazz greats like Ellington hailing from DC and as the place where Ella Fitzgerald won her first vocal contest (which spurred her on to continue singing as a career), as well as countless others who drew inspiration from or set their roots in the city, this musically inclined, Urban theme park would be a boon for the city.

    Years ago, you could wander into North East DC, head over to Archie’s Barbershop and enjoy getting both schooled and entertained by some of DC’s most talented and renowned musicians. For free. With Archie’s passing, the move of the barbershop and the creation of the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation (now based in Maryland), we really lost one of our most beautiful musical traditions.

    We might not have representation on the hill, but DC represents a melting pot of creative heritage. Why let that go unrepresented? Moreover, what of the artists who never returned to New Orleans after Katrina? I think there’s room in this city to represent something that has been uniquely American, but impacted the world.

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