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Washington D.C.’s Historic Coliseum Moonlit as a Jail and Trash Station Before Becoming an REI

Recreational Equipment Inc. sounds like a manufacturer of football helmets or goalposts, or maybe even team transportation. But it’s actually the name of REI, a company that sells outdoor equipment, like camping gear. The location of Washington D.C.’s flagship REI store has not only hosted Washington sports teams‘ home games but also has a much longer, more interesting history.

How Washington Coliseum became an REI

Architecture Magazine recently covered the full-scale conversion of the Washington Coliseum into an REI. It touched on how the building’s unique architecture presented challenges and opportunities that a normal retail location wouldn’t. But REI isn’t the only facility to call the building home. It served the early incarnations of Washington basketball and hockey. It also hosted The Beatles on their first trip to America.

Along with football and concerts, the Coliseum had some less glamorous occupants as well. After it closed as a concert venue, the location moonlit as both a jail and garbage transfer facility.

Historic events in Uline Arena

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Originally, the Washington Coliseum was named Uline Arena after local businessman Michel Uline. It was built throughout 1940 and opened in early 1941 for its first show: an ice skating exhibition.

Over the next 20 years, Uline Arena hosted plenty of events. It served as the home stadium for the following sports teams: Washington Lions (AHL and EHL), Washington Presidents (EHL), Washington Capitols (BAA and NBA), Georgetown Hoyas (NCAA), Washington Tapers (ABL), and Washington Caps (an ABA team).

Under the Uline Arena name, the venue hosted a celebration of Franklin Roosevelt’s 60th birthday in 1942. After the war ended in 1945, the Arena returned to hosting sports until 1953, when it held Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first Inaugural Ball. Uline’s death in 1957 led to an ownership dispute for the next two years. Then Harry Lynn purchased the arena for $1,000,000.

In 1964, Uline Arena — renamed Washington Coliseum — hosted the then-unknown Beatles on their first American concert, two days after their legendary Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Lynn hadn’t heard of The Beatles but approved the show. The Coliseum quickly sold out. The ensuing concert launched the Beatles further into America’s collective pop culture. Bob Dylan and The Temptations also performed at the Coliseum in the ’60s. The latter concert led to a riot that injured multiple people.

A detention facility, trash center, and parking garage 

Uline Arena aka the Washington Coliseum
Tag-B Parking inside Uline Arena aka the Washington Coliseum | Linda Davidson / The Washington Post

In May 1971, police used the Coliseum as a large holding cell for hundreds of protesters arrested after speaking out against the Vietnam War. The Coliseum held onto relevance for a few more years, but Capital Centre opening in 1973 was the last straw. The new, modern stadium served as the home for the Hoyas, as well as Washington’s NBA and NHL teams.

From 1994 to 2003, the Coliseum served as a garbage transfer facility and eventually found use as a parking structure. In 2015, REI finally moved in and built a flagship store. The company improved on the original building’s structure and put together a distinctive location.

What the future holds for Washington Coliseum

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REI isn’t the most unusual business to take up residence in the historic building. History indicates it won’t be the last. The Coliseum is a historical relic of Washington DC.. half a century ago, and it’s encouraging to see the building still thriving. In a time when Americans are searching for signs of normalcy, it’s nice to see historic Uline Arena found its way into the modern era.