ARTS: Silver Spring architect brings historic Howard Theatre back to life


In 1910, the world’s largest full-stage theatre allowing African American performers opened in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. At the height of its majesty, the Howard Theatre was home to some of the greatest entertainment this country has ever seen. Its 1,200 seats were filled with audiences of all races listening to the powerful voices of stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye and Billie Holiday as they launched their careers at what was once dubbed the “Theatre for the People.”

Then, after the riots in 1968, the theater’s condition declined with the degradation of the neighborhood. After a few failed attempts at its revival, the curtains closed on an era music that brought people together, blurring distinctions of skin color.

Howard Theatre Exterior rundown

The Howard Theatre fell into disrepair in the aftermath of the riots of 1968.

Flash forward to 2009. Enter Paola Moya, a young architect with a creative mind and passion for design. Moya and her partner Michael Marshall, of Marshall Moya Design, were commissioned to bring the historic Howard Theatre back to life with a modern interior design, while maintaining the building’s grandeur.

Moya is an extraordinary woman with an inspiring story. Much like she did with the Howard Theatre, Moya reinvented herself to realize her full potential.

Moya immigrated to Silver Spring from Colombia in 1999. After working for a few years, she enrolled herself in Montgomery College, taking classes at night while still working during the day.

“I studied law in Colombia for two years, but when I came here I decided to choose another career that was close to the arts,” said Moya. “So I decided on architecture.

After being graduated with her associate’s degree from Montgomery College, Moya transferred to Catholic University, from where she was graduated with honors and received a Master’s in architecture with a focus on real estate. Fate brought Marshall and her together there in 2008.

“He came to my Master’s program, and I was presenting a project where he was one of the critics,” said Moya. “I guess he liked what he saw, because he offered me a freelance job, and I accepted.”

Just one year later, Marshall’s firm was offered the Howard Theatre project, which would eventually see Moya become partner in Marshall Moya Design.

Moya said her passion really lies in the design aspect of things.

“We are even doing an accessory for the iPad, which is on a really small scale,” she said.

Still not acclimated to being a partner of a design firm, Moya is humbled by all the life has brought her way. Everything she does is for the client, for her employees and for the consumers.

“We’re a small firm, but we’ve grown from just Michael and I up to eight people during this project, and it feels great to give people jobs,” said Moya. “I just want to continue designing, and the more who join, the merrier.

This project was particularly close to Moya and Marshall because they were involved with every aspect of the design, beginning to end. The Howard Theatre was a labor of love, and the up-and-coming firm put thought into every last detail. They even designed the graphics for the large pictures of past performers that once stood on the historic stage.

Michael Marshall and Paola Moya with poster of Billie Holiday

Michael Marshall and Paola Moya stand in the lobby of the restored Howard Theatre.

“The lobby is my favorite space because it’s like an appetizer for a great meal,” said Moya.

Upon entering the theatre, visitors immediately feel like they are in attendance at a fantastic party, with the ultimate guests of honor.  The chandeliers are like bubbles of champagne floating all around the ceiling, while life-size pictures of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong hang on the walls, almost like they’re talking to each other.

Walking into the theater, one immediately feels a fusion of elegance and contemporary design. Only five pillars remain from the theater’s original structure, yet Moya’s talent and vision revived the spirit that once was.

Howard Theatre interior trashed

The interior of the Howard Theatre appeared beyond redemption.

Howard Theatre upper right balcony

The renovated theatre is again ready for great performances.

The revamped theatre now contains two bars, one on each floor, and an extensive restaurant menu, compiled by Master Chef Michael Symon.

“It’s great to be able to provide a venue like this for the city,” said Moya. “It’s going to be a place that is going to have different types of entertainment, seven days a week.”

With the rush of her first project as a partner finally ebbing, Moya is looking forward to taking on more projects in the future.

“Things have aligned and I’m very humbled and grateful for all the blessings that we have had,” said Moya. “There is nothing more than being thankful for what life gives you. This is a great experience and a good moment right now.”

Moya and Marshall

About the Author

Sarah Kraut
Sarah Kraut is a senior studying journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Hailing from Baltimore, Sarah is a Maryland girl who is delighted to be working at a small, local newspaper. Though half her heart lies with writing, the other half is devoted to food. She loves to eat (but hey, who doesn't?) and try new and exciting dishes. Sarah hopes to go to culinary school after she is graduated from college and sees her future in food writing. When she's not sitting at the computer or standing next to the stovetop, Sarah likes to involve herself in social justice work — handing out food to the homeless, organizing after-school tutoring programs and working with students on the UMD campus to raise awareness of various social justice issues people face both locally and abroad.

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