Growing up in Southeast D.C., Bonita L. Hagood never heard of the city's historic Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. Growing up in the Shaw neighborhood in Northwest, Tony Lee knew all about it -- he attended junior high school next door.
Three decades later, both know it intimately. Hagood, 38 and between jobs, has called the red brick building at 901 Rhode Island Ave. NW home for three years, renting one of its inexpensive rooms. Lee, pastor of Pillar of Truth Bible Church, holds services in the basement each Sunday.
Shelter and worship -- these are two of the modern roles the nonprofit organization has created for itself after a century in which racial realities in the nation's capital have changed.
Set to mark its 100th anniversary next spring, what was once the only "colored" Young Women's Christian Association affiliate in the nation is now an independent institution that caters to any number of social needs in the fast-changing Shaw area.
"It's a place to grow, after the world has passed you by, and gives you a chance to get stronger," Hagood said. "It's very safe, very nice, and looks like a hotel. There's always someone at the front desk to assist you. You have your freedom, and it's close to everything. I love it."
Lee, who attended Shaw Junior High School, started using a small room in the basement for a Bible study group a few years ago. That group has blossomed into a 70-member church, still holding services in the multi-purpose room.
"The neighborhood is really changing, but the Wheatley YWCA has always been known for its service in the community, for providing refuge for people," Lee said.
The four-story building, which underwent a $3.8 million restoration the past two years, provides 117 rooms for women guests and hosts five church group meetings as well as neighborhood events and a bustling day-care center.
The auditorium, the afternoon teas, the ladies' gym and the cafeteria -- where historian and neighborhood resident Carter Woodson liked to have lunch -- are long gone, but the spirit of the place remains a living thing, said Dorothy P. Patton, president of the board of directors.
"The one thing I would like to have again is a book club," Patton said, laughing. "It's how the place began, and with all the book clubs around today, it is ironic that we do not have one."
In the spring of 1905, a literary book club composed of black women, known as the Booklovers, took up the issue of housing for the young black women who were moving to the nation's capital. In those days of staunch segregation, black women were not allowed at hotels or lodging houses.
"The Booklovers earnestly request your presence at . . . Berean Baptist Church, April 5, 1905, at 7:30 p.m., to consider the advisability of organizing a Young Women's Christian Association," wrote Rosetta E. Lawson, president of the book club, in a letter distributed to members.
The group opened a home for young black women the next month in Southwest D.C. -- the first such institution in the nation. The Booklovers named the organization after Phyllis Wheatley, a slave who was the first black woman in the United States to publish a book.
But the neighborhood was considered so risky that women "went always in groups, never alone," and over the objections of their husbands and male relatives, according to Milestones, a pamphlet history of the organization.
Five years later, the group moved to the 400 block of T Street NW -- the three-story Victorian building cost $4,300 -- and the club associated with the national YWCA. When a white YWCA chapter opened a few years later, it offered to let the Wheatley facility join as a branch.
"The Phyllis Wheatley women responded, 'Well, we were here first, why don't you be our branch?' " recalled Dorothy I. Height, a former executive director of the Wheatley YWCA. "The Wheatley women declined, and this became the only place in the country where there were two YWCAs."
The facility grew exponentially during World War I as young black women moved to Washington in droves. A Traveler's Aid Committee was formed to escort unaccompanied young women from Union Station to the YWCA, and the building quickly outgrew its 15-guest capacity.
The agency moved in 1918 to its current home on Rhode Island Avenue. The four-story building had enough space to house 44 rooms, offices, a gymnasium, showers and a kitchen. There were Italian and Spanish benches and desks, rose-colored rugs and draperies, giving black Washington one of its more elegant settings.
Just before World War II, the institution hired Height, who would become one of the most influential black women of the 20th century through her work in the civil rights movement.
"When the war came upon us, we had 24-hour service for people brought here by the war," Height, 92, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, said in an interview last week.
"Women came from all over the country after getting telegrams urging them to come here for the war effort. Washington was a segregated city, and there wasn't much available to colored men and women," Height said. "We held so many activities, events. . . . We were the hub of things."
But over the ensuing decades, as the civil rights movement took hold, black men and women had other places to stay and hold meetings and social events. The Wheatley YWCA slid from prominence. In 1960, the board of directors opted to leave the national YWCA organization and become an independent institution, and "we had our lean years," said Patton, the current president.
Those hard times lasted until the sweeping renovation, completed in part with federal loans, that has modernized the facility. The huge auditorium is gone, filled now with dozens of rental rooms to help the enterprise stay afloat.
The rooms are clean and simple. An efficiency unit a few feet long and a few feet wide offers a single bed, a wardrobe, a single chair, a small mirror and a narrow closet. It rents for $390 per month. The largest rooms go for $620.
A shared kitchen is down the hall, as are showers and laundry rooms. The rules bar alcohol, smoking and men. A front desk attendant monitors comings and goings, and an adjoining sitting room offers a comfortable fireplace and chairs.
Most women stay for a few months, said Ione Hill, manager of the facility, and current residents range in age from 22 to 77.
"When I walked in, I immediately fell in love with the place," said Melinda Howard, 51, a D.C. native and theater costume designer who became homeless a few years ago after a severe spinal condition left her unable to work. She recently moved in.
"The staff is wonderful," Howard said. "You don't get lost in the system like you do in a shelter. It's a totally different atmosphere, someplace where you can stay, where you can feel at home."