- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The modern sights of U Street Northwest belie the history of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Hotel that was once at the intersection of 15th and U streets.

Before public accommodations were integrated in the nation’s capital, the Dunbar Hotel was the only major hotel where blacks could stay. Performers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and D.C. native son Duke Ellington were patrons.

The Dunbar Hotel was to the District what the Hotel Theresa was to Harlem in New York City. The Dunbar, opened to blacks in 1946, was a grand Victorian structure with 485 rooms with baths.

The reputation and the business at the Dunbar Hotel began to deteriorate during the late 1950s through the early 1960s when the city became racially integrated.

The building was condemned and sold to the D.C. government in 1970. In 1974, it was demolished because there were no historical societies or legislation at that time to save the structure.

In 1978, the Campbell Heights Association constructed the first independent-living and affordable-housing units for senior citizens on this historical site and named it the Campbell Heights Apartments.

The 10-story structure of one-bedroom apartments offered the kind of living environment and amenities for people 62 and older who wanted to live independently. Developers took advantage of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that assured reduced rents for at least 25 years.

When property values skyrocketed in the District in 2003, the Apartment Investment and Management Co. (AIMCO) looked at these properties again as a means of profit. They began to consider either tearing down and rebuilding the apartments or renovating them and selling the units as condos.

Last year, the executive board of the Campbell Heights Residents’ Association Inc. discovered, after meeting several times with Carl Ruff, former vice president of AIMCO, that the apartment complex had been put up for sale.

The association members wanted to make sure that this news wasn’t another rumor because they had heard for several years that either the building had been sold or that it was on the market. Each time, the rumors proved to be false.

About the same time, the original 25-year HUD contracts that assured reduced rents were rewritten as five-year contracts. The senior citizens who resided there did not know whether they were going to have a place to live if the building was sold as the five-year contracts expired.

The residents association had already been researching a way to purchase the building. They sought support from D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, and D.C. Council members Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, and Kwame R. Brown, at-large Democrat.

The association board and members soon educated themselves on the Tenants Opportunity to Purchase Act. They hired attorney Michael Diamond and received assistance of the Georgetown Law Center, the Jair Lynch Development Corp., a development partnership, and others to begin the process of purchasing the building.

The dream of ownership is slowly becoming a possibility for 171 residents at Campbell Heights as the association’s executive board continues to pursue funding through the proper process, which should take about two years.

Ella Creech Peete, a native Washingtonian, president of the Metropolitan Democratic Women’s Clubs and part owner and vice president of R.N. Horton’s Funeral Home, said, “The thought of an organization of majority black seniors having ownership on the U Street corridor is elating.”

James Gaither, the tenant association’s finance chairman, said he is watching the finance process and moving forward with Mabel Abbott, fundraising committee chairman. They continue to raise funds for out-of-pocket expenses as the association searches for funding sources.

ampbell Heights resident Lillie Mae Baker said she is learning a lot about ownership of such a valuable property, but “I will be happy when I know that I have more control of my destiny as a resident.”

Sandra Butler-Truesdale, a volunteer board member of the Campbell Heights Residents’ Association and former member of the D.C. Board of Education, is owner of Emma Mae Gallery.

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