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Encore for a Legend: Reviving a Historic D.C. Club

The Atlantis, a new, $10-million live-music venue in Washington, D.C., recreates the glory of a beloved institution.
By Christie Chapman
November 1, 2023
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You can’t repeat the past, but sometimes, you can recreate it—or, in the case of the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., rebuild it. The storied music venue opened in a small, cramped and divey location in the nation’s capital in 1980 before upgrading to a larger, swankier space in 1996. Recently, the 9:30 Club returned to its more intimate roots with the Atlantis, an adjoining venue designed for newer artists and cozier shows.

Developed by I.M.P., the D.C.-based promoter that owns and operates the 9:30 Club and partnered with design firm CORE and contractor MCN Build on the project, Atlantis is steeped in the gritty ethos of the old, original 9:30, which provided the guiding aesthetic for the project’s creative team.

“We’re confident the Atlantis will embody the riotous energy that thrived at the original 9:30 Club,” says David Cheney, principal at CORE, “fostering a sense of nostalgia for fans and bands alike while reinvigorating the modern music scene in D.C.”

WE BUILT THIS CITY (AND THEN BUILT IT AGAIN)

Fittingly, the project was first publicly announced onstage at the 9:30 Club—by none other than D.C.-area music legend Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters—in the summer of 2021. Construction began on the nearly 8,000-square-foot venue in June 2022. In addition to demolishing the previous building on the site and creating a brand-new space that could accommodate an audience of 450—up from the 199 people who could squeeze into the 1980 version of the club, but still nowhere close to the 1,200 that the current iteration can accommodate—construction efforts focused on replicating the look of the original 9:30 in loving detail.

But that wasn’t as simple as copying what had been done before. For example, the Atlantic Building, which housed the original 9:30 Club (and inspired the name of the new venue), was constructed in 1887, and its distinctive exterior featured stone from that era. “Our team used a custom laser-cut façade system composed of more than 500 pieces with extruded shapes, meticulously mimicking the iconic stone façade of the original club,” says Bassem Melhem, MCN’s project executive for Atlantis. “All of these components were held together through custom hidden attachments for the protruding extruded layer, which required extensive engineering.”

Among the many clever illusions that evoke the look of the original club’s exterior, Melhem notes: “The building’s façade appears to have windows from a distance, but it has zero.” While you can still see the original club’s façade today—it was preserved when the neighborhood around the Atlantic Building was redeveloped—the interior is long gone. To convincingly recreate the bygone institution’s stage and other design elements, the Atlantis team turned to concert photos and video footage from the 9:30 Club’s early days.

“The Atlantis features light fixtures, archways, paint colors and trim moldings that were studied exhaustively from images and video footage of the original space,” says Christopher Peli, a CORE project manager who served as project lead for Atlantis. “The interior floor pattern was painstakingly replicated by piecing together images of the old club and video footage—any little snippet of the floor was a crucial clue. The video and photo footage were also important for recreating some of the ‘Easter eggs’ that tell a story throughout the club.”

Among the Easter eggs are four hiding in plain sight—an homage to the four tar-black columns located on and around the stage at the original 9:30. In some photos, concertgoers appear to climb and breakdance off them, driving home just how intimate the old venue was. “I.M.P. requested that we include the famous stage columns,” Peli says, “so we recreated the iconic cast-iron columns of the original venue through the design of ‘ghost columns’ made of light beams shining down to four bronze discs in the exact locations as the original club.”

THESE GO TO ELEVEN (BUT RESPECT THE NEIGHBORS)

As you might expect from a project that involved adding a live-music club to another live-music club, sound design was particularly important. “The most technically challenging design and construction aspects were related to acoustics,” Peli says. “A tremendous amount of work went into acoustically isolating The Atlantis from the 9:30 Club next door, as well as residential neighbors to the north and east of the building.”

“An acoustic ‘shell-within-a-shell’ structure keeps sound inside the venue, while much attention was paid to creating great sound within the venue,” Peli says. “The adjacent 9:30 Club was built well before any code-mandatory noise-transmitting requirements, so it was incumbent on the new Atlantis building to provide all of the acoustic isolation.”
CORE partnered with architectural acoustic consulting experts WSDG (Walters-Storyk Design Group), who had previously collaborated with I.M.P. on several other venues in D.C. “WSDG engineered a lively sonic atmosphere within the venue derived from a set of comprehensive structural and airborne acoustic-isolation strategies,” Peli says.

Additionally, Melhem says: “Every subcontractor on the job, from concrete, masonry, drywall and MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing], ensured the building envelope was acoustically isolated, so the loud music would not disturb the adjacent apartment building residents.”

Of course, what’s a concert without an audience? “I really enjoyed the intimate atmosphere,” says Phoebe Weingast, a veteran D.C. concertgoer and event organizer who attended a Billy Idol show at Atlantis this fall.

“This new venue has terrific sound and a great view of the stage from the balcony.” Weingast says seeing Idol live in concert was a “bucket-list item” for her—a living legend, performing within a legend given new life.

by Christie Chapman

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