D.C.’s black elite celebrate all the good times, and lament the loss, of the Channel Inn

April 11, 2014

The old-timers call it their after-hours country club: a secluded place where, for decades, local politicians, doctors, executives and judges went to unwind and network over drinks, a meal and music.

But now, the Channel Inn, which has sat in a cozy nook on the waterfront in Southwest Washington for 42 years, is about to close. For a generation, a swath of the city’s African American professional elite have come to this hotel’s wood-paneled bar and lounge to make powerful business connections, forge friendships and plan political campaigns.

“This was a place you brought people when you wanted to impress them,” said Willie J. Toney, vice mayor of Dumfries, Va., who has been a fixture at the Channel Inn since the late 1970s and brought out-of-town guests and business clients to the lounge for a taste of Washington culture. “They saw what Washington, D.C., was all about. This is a white-collar town. The best of the white collar were here, on display.”

That era of community and camaraderie, though, has come to an end. Developers of the Wharf, the waterfront’s new, sprawling development, plan to raze the hotel and transform the aging promenade into a hip, $2 billion boardwalk-style strip of apartments, offices, restaurants and entertainment venues. The Channel Inn will close its doors in May, the last of several long-standing waterfront venues that have disappeared in recent years as new projects continue to spread across the city.

Change is hard for the hotel’s 80-year-old owner, Manuel Fernandez, who came here from Cuba.

“This was my creation,” he said proudly one recent Saturday. “This hotel has been very successful. I wanted to create a place where blacks felt comfortable.”

When it opened in 1973, the Channel Inn filled an underserved niche. The city was still largely segregated, especially in places where people networked, socialized after work and supported each other’s dreams, Fernandez said.

Because of its proximity to Capitol Hill, the Channel Inn attracted a professional clientele that flocked there to sip cognac in the Engine Room lounge or enjoy a seafood dinner at the Pier 7 restaurant.

“This was about 10 years after the [Rev. Martin Luther] King assassination, and you were still feeling it,” Toney recalled. “But you could come to this place and see that there was a thing called ‘black professionals.’ Coming from the South, for the first time I was able to see black people sitting on the top floors running things.”

During its heyday, the place was busy five nights a week with local bands jamming until late into the evening and people working up a sweat on the tiny dance floor. Everyday professionals had a chance to rub elbows with celebrities of the time: Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist, might be at the bar one night; the next, boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard might be on the dance floor.

And after work, visitors knew that they could come in to hand dance and also sidestep political gridlock while gaining direct access to the Engine Room, which then-Mayor Marion Barry and City Council members often frequented.

And it was a place where young professionals could get some guidance about how to navigate the city. The Inn was where Richard Baker, an ambitious young attorney, would meet up with his mentor, a prominent judge.

 “It was one of a handful of venues in DC that you could most assuredly find a group of African-American sophisticates with whom you could have a cocktail, make business deals and engage in a meaningful conversation about politics, business, sports and the stock market,” he said.

 Throughout the late 1980s and ’90s, the Engine Room — nicknamed “Jurassic Park” because of the dinosaurs that frequented it — became a war room where city politicians would huddle to plan campaigns and debate such social issues as the city’s drug problems. Some former regulars talk fondly about how, in hushed conversations, they forged solutions to the city’s problems.

“During the ’90s, there was ongoing heroin use and a lot of killing going on around the city,” said Walter Faggett, a former chief medical officer of the city’s Department of Health. “Anytime we wanted to get funding or let the mayor know what was really going on, the Engine Room was one of the more-frequent places we met.”

The influential connections established in the Engine Room led to the creation of the Ham Hock Advisory Committee. The group — which included then-Rep. Ron Dellums of California, former Washington Redskins players, doctors, lawyers, club owners and developers — would meet every Saturday morning over a breakfast of grits and salmon cakes in the hotel’s coffee shop.

“It was a safe place where I built business relationships and found mentors,” said Mamie Mallory, who was the first woman inducted into the Engine Room’s male-dominated 20-year regular’s club, said of the Inn.

Indeed, when word of the Channel Inn’s closing spread, hundreds of alums flocked to the spot for reunions, including several weekend tributes last month.

On a recent Friday evening, hundreds of people who had started going to the Channel Inn in their 30s and 40s, who are now retirees, hopscotched around the lounge, taking pictures and promising to stay in touch.

Fran Proctor, a self-employed assistant researcher nicknamed “the Queen,” has been holding court in the Engine Room every weekend for 25 years.

On this night, she was spotted dancing to the house band’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.”

But the sentiment was anything but joyful as dozens of old-timers talked about an institution’s passing.

“It felt like a wake,” said Patricia Ann Faggett, who for years joined her husband at the Channel Inn, of one of the last celebrations. “We’re praying that one day we’ll all be together, just like that old song.”

Anqoinette Crosby is a freelance writer in Washington.

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