Maudine R. Cooper said the Greater Washington Urban League searched across the District looking for a place to build a new headquarters before deciding on a historic, but dilapidated, funeral home on 14th Street NW.
Cooper, president of the local Urban League, said she thought renovating an existing building, known as the old Hines Funeral Home, would be easier than starting from scratch. But she soon found out that the funeral home, which was built in the early 1900s and had been closed more than 20 years, was in such bad condition that it had to be gutted. The roof and walls had to be rebuilt and some bricks had to be replaced.
Local Urban League Chairman Jerry A. Moore III, left, local league President Maudine R. Cooper, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial and D.C. Council member Jim Graham cut ribbon.
(Lauren Victoria Burke For The Washington Post)
At the formal opening of the league's new local offices at 2901 14th St. NW last Friday, Cooper held up an aerial shot of a structure with only three walls.
"It looked like bombed-out Beirut," she said. "I couldn't envision this."
Several dignitaries, including Marc H. Morial, president of the national Urban League, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), commended Cooper for not giving up. They attended the ribbon-cutting ritual at the $4.2 million building, which officially opened in October.
More than 100 people crowded into the marble-floor lobby of the Victorian-style building to celebrate the nonprofit social services and civil rights organization's relocation from 14th and Otis Place NW to the new headquarters six blocks south. The league's old building was small, with a sagging ceiling, cramped offices and chipped paint. Three times the size of the former headquarters, the new facility will still provide disadvantaged residents with the same educational, job training, housing and senior citizen programs.
The new headquarters building was showcased the same week that the mayor participated in a marquee lighting ceremony at Tivoli Theatre, which had been closed for nearly 30 years. Just blocks down the street from the Urban League, the $40 million Tivoli project, when it opens next year, will include GALA Hispanic Theatre, a Giant supermarket, condominiums, shops and offices.
Both gatherings signaled a renaissance along a strip of 14th Street NW that was bustling until riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. devastated the area. Money for the project came from a $1.2 million grant from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, $3 million in private contributions from corporations, foundations and individuals, and a bank loan.
The Tivoli and the league's headquarters occupy properties once owned by the city and controlled by the National Capital Revitalization Corp., a publicly chartered agency that oversees development of city-owned land. They are two of 11 projects that the agency has planned for the Columbia Heights neighborhood. The league's project is the first to be completed.
The mayor, whose wife once worked at the local Urban League, drew laughter when he said, "Lord knows, you needed a new building, and this is beautiful."
In his more formal remarks, he said: "We are launching a brand new home. The Tivoli Theatre is down the street. Our plans for a revitalized Columbia Heights are being recognized step by step. Today we strengthen this community. . . . This is a rebirth in the city."
Graham, who represents the Columbia Heights community, described the Urban League as "center stage" for development, a backdrop for an area that has been plagued by drugs, decay and devastation. He touted the fact that a shelter for the homeless will be built nearby, in the 1400 block of Irving Street NW.
Housing the league in a substandard building sent the wrong message to residents who depend on the facility for services to improve the quality of their lives, the council member said.
The state-of-the art facility "sends a message that we want a first-class place for poor people," Graham said. "We don't want a dilapidated building. We want the poor people to walk with pride."
Speaker after speaker said they saw meaning in the league's move that was broader and brighter than the edifice itself. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans, described a tour of the structure that he took with Cooper a year ago. All he saw were three walls held up by struts. He called the changes since then the beginning of a "comeback," a "remaking" of the neighborhood.
The struts were no longer visible. The four-story structure, which combines space from four former rowhouses, features a technology center with 22 computers, an employment and training center, a library and several multipurpose rooms that can be rented by community groups.
Morial said the league is making "a long-term investment" for the disadvantaged residents it serves. "We're getting a fresh new start for the Urban League, for the work we do."