Home of the Ella Fitzgerald Theater

The Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center is a multi-purpose cultural space in the southeast community of Newport News, VA. The building is owned and operated by the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department of the City of Newport News.

The center houses several event spaces and large/small group gathering rooms available for event rental. The core of the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center is the Ella Fitzgerald Theater, a 276-seat venue named for the “first lady of song.” Other event spaces in the building include the Anderson Johnson Gallery, the Newport News Community Gallery, the L. Marian Poe Meeting Room, the banquet room, and the Charles C. Allen Execute Board Room.


The History

While the space has been a cultural arts facility for only a decade, the framework of this building has been standing for over a century…



The edifice was erected at the corner of 25th Street and Wickham Avenue as the Walter Reed School - a high school for white children. During a massive Spanish influenza outbreak, the first floor of the building was temporarily re-purposed as an emergency hospital. Soon after, it would return to operating as the segregated school.



The population had increased rapidly, necessitating the construction of a larger high school - present-day Huntington Middle School. The Walter Reed School was then converted to a center for primary education. During it's time as an elementary school, the verdict of Brown v. The Board of Education allowed for the integration of Walter Reed.

It remained open until 1971. 



Black community leaders, including Mrs. Jessie M. Rattley, gained prominence in local government by working to meet the needs of the citizens. As a result, the vacant building was transformed into the Wickham Avenue Neighborhood Facility (WANF). It housed several community agencies including:

  • The Department of Social Services

  • The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)

  • A Branch of The Virginia Employment Commission

  • A VPI Extension Service Office

  • A Senior Citizens' Lounge

  • A Child Development Center

  • A Public Library Branch



The WANF closed its doors. The goal was to revive the edifice as a focal point for the cultural life of the Southeast community. These efforts were championed by Mayor Joe Frank and Vice Mayor Charles Allen. The city-appointed task force identified the overall mission of the center as

"...a way to save our children through exposure to the arts."

Utilizing the shell of the gutted facility, as well as additions for a total of 52,000 square feet, the firm of PMA Architects created a master plan to bring this to fruition. The renovation concept entailed a community-oriented cultural arts center, combining art studios, exhibition galleries, a performance theater, meeting rooms, a banquet hall and space for the Office of Human Affairs (currently the Hampton Roads Community Action Program).



In October, the idea became a reality as the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center opened its doors and has since been dedicated to building the community through the arts. Since it’s inception, DGCAC has introduced a variety of programs to the southeast community including free and inexpensive classes and workshops, concerts featuring national and local acts, theatrical productions, and so much more.


Beyond 25th & Wickham

We are proud to be a part of the City of Newport News. With such a rich history and vibrant culture, Newport News is home to many other iconic spaces. Learn more about them below.

+ The Newsome House

The Newsome House honors the legacy of Lawyer and Editor, Joseph Thomas Newsome by engaging the public in an ongoing study and remembrance of African American history and culture. The restored 1899 home of the African-American attorney J. Thomas Newsome and his wife Mary Winfield Newsome. Newsome was a respected attorney, journalist, churchman and civic leader and a member of the postwar Civil War South's new urban African-American middle class. His elegant Queen Anne residence served as the hub of the local black community from which he led the fight for social justice within Virginia. Listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register, the National Register of Historic Places and Recipient of a 1992 National Historic Preservation Award. Permanent exhibit on Lawyer Newsome and changing exhibits available for public viewing. Special events held throughout the year.

+ The James A. Fields House

The James A. Fields House is historically significant for its long association with the development of the social and civic life of the African-American community in Newport News. The house was used by Mr. Fields as his law office and primary residence from 1897 to 1903. In 1908, four doctors pooled their savings and asked the Fields family for use of the top floor to start a hospital. Other than the city jail's infirmary, this institution represented the only outlet for hospitalization for blacks, and provided two years of generous service to the black community. The Fields House was just one of fifteen properties owned by Mr. Fields in Newport News. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 2005, the house was placed on the Virginia Civil War Trails as a museum site.

+ The Mariners' Museum

America’s National Maritime Museum”, The Mariners’ makes a difference in peoples’ lives, inviting them to discover their relationship to the sea by exploring maritime culture, science and history. The Mariners’ Museum is committed to using its art and artifacts to educate local, national and international audiences of all ages about the vital role of the sea in mankind’s development. The Museum aspires to be the leader in promoting an appreciation of the maritime world – past, present and future. The Mariners’ Museum Park and Lake Maury offer the residents of and visitors to the area the opportunity to experience the beauty and peace of an oasis in the city, to enjoy healthy exercise on the Noland Trail and to enhance their appreciation of the natural habitat of the park.

+ The Virginia Living Museum

Opened in 1966 as the Junior Nature Museum and Planetarium through the combined efforts of the Junior League of Hampton Roads and the Warwick Rotary Club, the facility expanded and was renamed the Peninsula Nature and Science Center in 1976. In 1987, the facility again expanded and was renamed the Virginia Living Museum, becoming the first living museum east of the Mississippi, combining the elements of a native wildlife park, science museum, aquarium, botanical preserve and planetarium. Today, the Virginia Living Museum continues to be a museum leader in its use of native wildlife to present its message – stimulating knowledge, awareness and appreciation of the living world. Visitors to the Living Museum encounter more habitats, wildlife and plant species than would be encountered in a lifetime of outdoor adventures in Virginia. The exhibits showcase all of the state’s regions from the upland coves of the Appalachian Mountains to the salty offshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and feature more than 245 different animal species.

+ Peninsula Fine Arts Center (PFAC)

The Museum’s unique exhibits are also a vital component in its extensive education programming. The Museum believes in hands-on education; that by experiencing science it will become memorable. More than two million students have visited the Museum since 1987. All of the Museum’s classes are correlated to Virginia’s Standards of Learning and targeted to specific grade levels.

+ The Ferguson Center for the Arts

The Ferguson Center for the Arts is a theater and concert hall on the campus of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, USA. The complex fully opened in September 2005 with two concert halls and many other facilities. In just over a decade, Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Center for the Arts has become an international force, presenting the finest cultural attractions in the world. Nearly 2 million people from around the world have experienced more than 500 hundred performances in our acoustically superb theaters. The eclectic nature of the Center's season is consistent with its mission: to offer a broad range of performances, reach the largest possible number of community members, all-the-while maintaining its status as the finest performing arts center in Hampton Roads.

+ The Newport News Public Art Foundation

The Newport News Public Art Foundation is dedicated to helping make Newport News an appealing place to live, work, visit and do business by placing monumental-scale works of art by respected sculptors throughout the city, where people can enjoy art as they go about their daily lives. The Foundation also works to encourage and help the public enjoy, appreciate and engage with the sculpture around them, through outreach and education programs.

+ Endview Plantation

Built in 1769 by Colonel William Harwood, the house has witnessed the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. It was used as a field hospital by Confederate and Union troops and as the headquarters for Union General McClellan during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. An exhibition gallery and gift shop are located in the basement.

+ Lee Hall Mansion

Built in 1858 by Richard Decauter Lee, Lee Hall is an antebellum Italianate mansion which served as the headquarters for Confederate Generals Magruder and Johnston during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. The Peninsula Campaign Exhibition Gallery and a gift shop are located in the basement.

+ Lee Hall Train Depot

This historic train station was constructed in 1881 as part of the C&O Railroad's efforts to establish its Atlantic terminus at Newport News. Closed since the 1970s, the City of Newport News, in conjunction with the nonprofit Friends of the Lee Hall Depot Foundation, is working to relocate and preserve this historic depot, the last remaining station on the Lower Peninsula from the railroad's expansion into Warwick County.

+ The Virginia War Museum

The museum traces American military history from the Revolutionary War to the present. The collections include over 65,000 artifacts, including Harry Truman's WWI helmet, a section of the Berlin Wall, and one of the nation's largest collections of propaganda posters. The Duffle Bag gift shop is located in the museum's foyer.

Our Namesakes

Read more about the Cultural Icons of Newport News.