In the early 1970s, third district vice squad detectives recall that they could walk through the lobby of the Whitelaw Hotel - at 13th and T Streets NW - any hour of the day or night and make an arrest.
"There would be a drug addict crawling around the halls with a needle in his arm. Or somebody would stumble over you with a sawed-off shotgun. Or you'd stop a guy to ask him a few questions and a packet of dope would fall out of his pocket," said Det. Bryant Y. Anderson, who has frequently investigated cases at the Whitelaw.
But the Whitelaw, which was the hotel in Washington for the black elite in the 1930s, a refuge for the poor in the 1950s, and a haven for drug sellers and users since the riots of 1968, will close its doors this September.
Yet the Whitelaw may well reappear, riding the crest of the renovation phenomenon currently afoot in Washington. Many of the old houses in the area of 14th and U Streets NW, once the focal point of Washington crime, are being purchased by middle-class home buyers and being renovated. As a result the community. has seen a remarkable drop in crime figures recently.
Onver the years the Whitelaw has reflected the history of the neighborhood around it. Prosperous when the community was prosperous, lower prices in times of economic disaster. New signs of prosperity are emerging in the community now, and the Whitelaw could once again mirror them.
Talley R. Holmes Jr., who owns the building and says he is closing it because of the hundreds of housing code violations citations he has received, said he has been offered $200,000 for the structure. The object, he said, is the conversion of the building into condominiums or luxury apartments.
Last December city housing officials refused to grant a new license to Holmes, a self-professed slum landlord, to operate the dilapidated graybrick building of 18 apartments and 40 transient rooms.
That decision ended a running battle between Holmes, city housing inspectors and police over whether the building should remain open or be closed as a threat to public health and safety.
In the end, Holmes lost. He was charged with failure to correct 331 housing code violations in the building. In addition, third district police who patrol the community sent a letter to city housing authorities recommending that the Whitelaw, built 68 years ago, be closed as a "nuisance to public safety."
"For years I hadn't been making any money on the Whitelaw," said Holmes, 54. "It was just a public service for people who couldn't afford to live anywhere else." Without a license to operate or funds to renovate the building, Holmes said he decided to give up the Whitelaw.
"It is with deep regret that I am informing you that I am closing down the Whitelaw Apartment Hotel," he wrote in a June 14 eviction letter sent to his 30 roomers and 17 apartment tenants still in the building.
" . . . I can no longer afford to withstand the economic pressures placed upon me by the D.C. government and the soaring cost of fuel, water, taxes and other utilities," he added. "You will have 90 days from the day of receipt of this letter to find another place to live."
Holmes' father, Talley R. Holmes Sr., a millionaire banker, bought the Whitelaws at a foreclosure sale in the late 1930s, during the depression, in an effort to pull the former luxury hotel for blacks out of bankruptcy, rents were greatly reduced and low-income tenants flocked to the building.
In time dope dealers and prostitutes found that the Whitelaw was a lucrative marketplace for their trades. And drug addicts rented rooms at the Whitelaw so they cuold invite their friends in to take drugs. The hotel eventually gained the dubious status of being the city's busiest "shooting gallery."
But there are some people who can remember when the Whitelaw was symbol among blacks of pride, class and elegance.
Cornelius Jenkins, 66, born in Moncks Corner, S.E., worked at the Whitelaw during its heyday. He was first employed at the hotel as a bellboy 44 years ago. He eventually worked his way up to desk clerk and, finally, to assistant manager before he retired last year.
"When I started working here the Whitelaw was a high class hotel," Jenkins said recently as he looked around at the peeling plaster and filthy conditions that generally characterize the building. Although Jenkins has retired, he continues to visit the hotel almost daily.
"I can remember when the Whitelaw was the only hotel in town for colored people," Jenkins said. "If you were traveling through Washington the Whitelaw was the only place you could stop. The big hotels were for white only."
Although, at four stories high with about 60 units, the hotel was not built on a grandiose scale, it is the only structure in Washington ever built from the ground for use as a black hotel.
There was an elegant ballroom where banquets and fromal balls once were held. The ballroom is now piled high with junk and boarded up. The hotel restaurant, once the favorite dining room of blacks who could afford it, is also a trash room. The barber shop remains open after 58 years.
The hotel's clientele in the 1930s was a virtual who's who among black professionals, entertainers and businessmen.
Jenkins said he remembers carrying the bags of such prominent figures as boxing champion Joe Louis, entertainer Cab Calloway and his sister Blanche and civil rights lawyers Charles H. Houston and Thurgood Marshall, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Jenkins said he also met black scientist George Washington Carver on several occaisons. "Whenever Dr. Carver came to the Whitelaw, people would gather around him in th lobby to talk," he said. "Dr. Carver didn't mind taking his time and talking with anybody. He always spoke in a soft voice."
"A lot of colored people coming to Washington for the first time thought the Whitelaw was run by white folks," Jenkins said. "Then they'd look behind the counter and see a colored face and they'd know it was all right to come on in."
"Once a white state senator from Alabama stopped at the Whitelaw to drop off his colored maid while he went back downtown to stay in one of the big hotels," Jenkins recalled. "He was amazed that the colored had such a nice hotel. He said they didn't have nothing like it back in Alabama.
During the Depressions, when the Whitelaw was sold to the Holmes family Jenkins said prices were redueced to keep the rooms occupied and some maintenance was discontinued.
"After World War II people had money again. The hotel rooms were fixed up and new furniture was put in to attract the old high-class clientele. But the upper class people never came back to the Whitelaw," said Jenkins. "They were able to get into the big white hotels and that's where they wanted to spend their money."
After the 1968 riots Holmes said it became increasingly difficult for him to find responsible tenants for the Whitelaw.
"When the riots struck, the lower-middle-income clientele who had been renting my apartments moved out," he said. "A lot of dope addicts started coming in.
"It got to the place that I couldn't control what was going on in my own building," he added. "I had to board up the public restrooms because addicts would come in off the street, shoot dope and nod off in a corner."
Vice squad detectives who work in the area surrounding the Whitelaw said they have tried on occasion to blot out crime at the hotel. But the problem has been overwhelming.
"We're going to miss the Whitelaw," said Det. Larry Thomas."It's one of the few places in the city that you could go to every day and count on finding somebody who had to be arrested."
Thomas said he and another plain-clothes detective were walking through the lobby of the Whitelaw in the early 1970s when two other men approached them and asked if they wanted to participate in a robbery in which a drug seller was to be held up.
"They didn't know we were cops," Thomas said. "We joined with them and were on our way to stick up this big dope dealer when somebody along the street recognized us. We couldn't arrest the men because they hadn't committed a crime."
On another trip to the Whitelaw, Anderson said he found and picked up a toy plastic shotgun on the steps as he entered the building. "As we started up the stairs a man walked around the corner and threw his hands up and said, 'You got,'" Anderson recalls. "We frisked the guy and found a sawed-off shotgun in his underwear."
The officers told of another man who rented a room at the Whitelaw and then paid his rent by charging drug addicts a dollar to come into his room and take dope and another dollar for the use of a syringe.
There was also the well-dressed businessman who followed a prostitute into the Whitelaw and ended up being robbed of a $25,000 check, according to the detectives. "We were able to get the check back, but the man almost died of embarrassment," Anderson said.
But in the last three years the frequency of crimes at the Whitelaw has been on the decline as more houses in community are renovated and more white families move to the areas, according to police.
"There's been a definite change in the area," said Det. Thomas. "You know something is different when you see a white guy jogging down 14th Street late at night. Three years ago, if we even saw a white man walking in the area after dark we'd stop him and ask if he was lost."
Maggie Samuels, 69, moved into the Whitelaw on April 30 after being evicted from the house she rented at 1771 Willard St. NW. That house will be restored and sold.
Mrs. Samuels, who has diabetes, said she "Thanks the Lord" she was able to get an apartment at the Whitelaw, when she pays $95 a month for one bedroom. But six weeks after she arrived at the Whitelaw, she received notice that she was being evicted again.
"I'm not really worried about finding another place to stay," she told a recent visitor to her tiny apartment. "Mr. Holmes has already told me he would try to move me into one of his other apartments."
Holmes said he already has received four offers to buy his hotel - one offer is for $200,000, which Holmes said it is cheap, "but I'm anxious to sell."
The Whitelaw probably will be renovated into condominiums or luxury apartments, Holmes said.