During the 1940s, the corner of 15th and U streets NW rocked with the joyful antics of famous black entertainers, fingerpopping men and women who came to celebrate at the Dunbar Hotel, then reputed to be the largest luxury hotel in the United States to cater to a black clientele.
But dogged by financial problems and a seedy reputation throughout the 1950s, the Shaw area hotel was demolished in 1977 and replaced last year by a modern, 170-unit, senior citizens complex, the Campbell Heights Apartments.
Last week residents of the Campbell had the corner of 15th and U rocking again. More than 200 senior citizens, sporty-looking men and bejeweled women, many of them former patrons of the Dunbar Hotel, joined friends, family members and city officials on the landmark site to reminisce and dedicate a library at the Campbell to the namesake of the hotel, black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.Their ceremony was a tribute to Dunbar in poetry and song.
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon and Effie Barry, the mayor's wife, warmly greeted the senior citizens from a podium bearing a large photograph of Dunbar. Calvin Clark, director of the Shaw area Watha T. Daniels Library, donated five Dunbar volumes to help stock the empty library at the Campbell. Residents are hoping to fill the library through book and magazine subscription donations.
D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy recalled his childhood in the Shaw area and recited several verses of a Dunbar poem. Original music selections, composed to Dunbar poems, were sung. But while the library and the poet were the focus of the ceremony, memories about the hotel dominated conversation.
Theodore Hagans Jr., developer of Fort Lincoln New Town and a former owner of the Dunbar, recalled the hotel's heyday during the '40s and his personal struggle as manager-owner during the '50s.
He reminded the crowd that before 1952 and changes in segregation laws, "the law didn't allow blacks to be in hotels other than the Dunbar and other hotels uptown. There's a lot of history in this block."
After the ceremony, several residents of the building recalled some of that history.
Before World War II, the 15th Street area was a white, middle-class neighborhood of rowhouses and apartment buildings like the Portner, later to become the Dunbar Hotel, they said.
"I lived across the street from it (at 1934 15th St.) and I got married there," Bessie Dorsey, 77, said. "My family was the third black family to buy over there. It was still the Portner when we came. People in the area were very refined."
In 1945, Harvey Warwick, a white architect and builder, converted the Portner to the Dunbar Hotel.
"The idea was to create a luxury hotel for blacks," recalled Akbar Hasson Sharrieff, 64, president of the Campbell Heights Tenants Association and a former manager at the Dunbar. Sharrieff said he came to the hotel in 1946.
Their eyes shining with memories, the senior citizens recalled that the floors of the hotel were done in plush red carpet. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling in the lobby and dining rooms, they said. An elaborate mural of Dunbar was in the lobby. Furnishings were modern.
The hotel, which had amost 500 rooms, was primarily a permanent residence apartment-hotel. Some government workers lived there. "I had a cousin who used to live here, and I used to visit her," 83-year-old Edith C. Matthews remembered.
Cordelia Fields, 84, recalled that her friends "used to stop there."
In lounges with names like the 2011 Club and the Tropical Room, patrons such as Doris Bland, now 66, watched music greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Burrell, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
"At that time I was fingerpopping," said Bland with a wink. "The food was particularly good, too."
Meeting rooms were named after Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, Billie Holiday, and other notable blacks, said Sharrieff. The hotel was the only large meeting place in D.C. where blacks could hold functions, he said. All the large black conventions were held there. Security was handled by Jack Scott, "the baddest thing in Northwest," chuckled Sharrieff. "The vandals feared to tread when Jack Scott and his crew was on.
"Many of the big band leaders stayed at the Dunbar Hotel for weeks and went to various gigs in the South," he continued. "Because of the segregated hotels in the South, if they had any jobs within a 20 mile radius of D.C., they would all work out of here."
Esther H. Jackson, 64, was also around "when everything was swinging. Once I came here for an affair and met Bill Bojangles Robinson and his wife. They had just gotten married. Bojangles was always clowing and cutting up with his wife."
Because telephone operator and hotel management positions were closed to black people in the '50s, Sharrieff said many D.C. blacks who later got jobs in those fields were initially trained at the Dunbar.
By 1950, the hotel, then worth about $2 million, was known to patrons by its nickname, the "House of Mambo," Sharrieff said. By 1951, however, it had lost its liquor license for "unseenly behavior" and was reputed to be a den for pimps, prostitutes, number runners and drug dealers. Police officials called it "a stink hole of corruption," according to early newspaper accounts.
The hotel's operating license was revoked by the D.C. government in 1951, and the Dunbar closed temporarily. Following a lengthy investigation, in which several employes and tenants were ejected, the slowly dying hotel was allowed to resume operations.
"I loved the Dunbar Hotel so much I have two of the bricks from it," said Sharrieff. "Because many times I did loaf on the job, I painted them gold and have them as a conversation piece in my apartment. Living here, I feel like I never left the Dunbar."