News & Politics

How the Atlantis Cleverly Recreates ’80s and ’90s DC

The story behind the popular new club's decor.

The facade pays homage to the Atlantic Building on F Street. Photograph by Jordan A. Grobe.

DC’s newest music venue, the Atlantis, opened May 30 with a concert by Foo Fighters—a major event for a space that holds only 450 people. But music fans were buzzing about more than just the huge band in a small room: The venue turned out to be full of fun design touches that hark back to DC in the 1980s and ’90s. The Atlantis is adjacent to the 9:30 Club at Ninth and V streets, Northwest, and the idea is to pay tribute to the original 9:30 Club location on F Street. (That 200-capacity place was called the Atlantis for a little more than a year before it became the 9:30 Club in 1980.)

Seth Hurwitz—whose company, I.M.P., also operates the 9:30 Club as well as the Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion—wanted the Atlantis to evoke the old club while offering patrons up-to-date comforts. The most noticeable design element is a new facade that echoes the front of the Atlantic Building, where the 9:30 Club was located. The almost 62-foot-high galvanized-metal structure was designed by the DC firm Core Architecture + Design, which used old photos and interviews with club staffers to capture authentic details such as the “Food Food” sign next door to the entrance.

Other distinctive features of the prior club greet visitors inside. The old ticket-taking desk has been dug out of storage, and even the previous building’s floor-tile pattern has been recreated. The performance space includes familiar touches like a pole with a videographer’s crow’s nest on top (though it doesn’t block the view, as it once did). The new stage is bigger, but it’s still nestled somewhat uncomfortably in a corner. That “doesn’t make much sense in a brand-new room,” says I.M.P. creative director Guillaume Desnoë, whom Hurwitz charged with executing his vision of a tribute to Marion Barry–era DC. But the old 9:30 had a corner stage due to its oddly shaped room, so the new Atlantis does, too.

The current club has an inviting rooftop bar, and it’s here that many of the most nostalgic flourishes can be found. The space is a movie-set-like recreation of the long-vanished block of F Street that surrounded the old venue. “The neighborhood was neither convenient nor welcoming,” recalls NPR Music’s Bob Boilen, who lived around the corner from the original 9:30 and whose band, Tiny Desk Unit, was the first act to play there. (The band name was the inspiration for NPR’s now-famous Tiny Desk Concert series.) “It was a neighborhood that dedicated music fans would come to.”

Photograph by Dan Swartz.

Desnoë called on his longtime collaborator Brian Liu to serve as “set designer” for the street atop the roof, which features a vintage Duncan D70 parking meter like the ones the District once used, posters for the extinct local chain Kemp Mill Records, and graffiti from a dozen now-middle-aged artists whom Liu invited to tag the recreated street, just as they had spray-painted the real one in their youth.

Newspaper boxes for Washington City Paper had been moldering in the yard of a former employee of the publication, who was happy to donate them, while the authentic old DC double lamppost came from a Richmond architectural-­salvage firm owned by a former Merriweather Post employee. (The light changes from white to flashing red to warn patrons when the band is about to go on downstairs.) “We wanted people to suspend their disbelief a bit while they’re up here,” says Liu, who grew up going to shows at the old place and has been doing graphic design for I.M.P. for more than 20 years.

Boilen, who attended the Atlantis’s opening ceremony, gave the new club’s homage to the original a glowing review. “Being there,” he says, “brought back beautiful memories of the community that place inspired.”

This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Washingtonian.