A 1938 postcard from the Dunbar Hotel. Source: Hidden Los Angeles.
An unlikely group – Los Angeles’ senior citizens – are indirectly saving a building that was once the heart of the black community and jazz scene in South Central Los Angeles. Our friends at phenomenal architecture and real estate blog Curbed alerted us to the most recent developments at the legendary former Dunbar Hotel.
The Somerville Hotel, erected in 1928, was built entirely by black contractors, laborers, and craftsmen. Its owners were trailblazers; John Alexander Somerville was the first African American to graduate from the USC School of Dentistry and served on the LA Police Commission, and his wife, Vada Watson Somerville, was USC’s first-ever African American woman graduate and the first African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in 1918.
Upon opening, the Somerville hosted the first NAACP convention in the western United States. The hotel, renamed the Dunbar in 1930 after African American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, was the most prestigious that admitted blacks in Los Angeles. Its amenities included a restaurant, cocktail lounge, and barbershop, making it the most luxurious center for African Americans the city had seen. It became a hub for renowned black musicians, black dignitaries, and other affluent members of the black community, and anchored the black community in South Central Avenue.
In 1931, the Dunbar was issued a permit to “conduct a cabaret in the dining room.” The Somervilles, by then no longer the hotel’s owners, opposed the establishment of a nightclub in the hotel. This same nightclub, however, would give the hotel its fame and later establish it as a landmark. In the 1930s and 40s, legendary jazz performers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan took to the stage there. A second nightclub was opened in the hotel by Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, in the 1930s. The hotel and area surrounding it became a congregation spot for hipsters, jazz enthusiasts, and well-known faces in show business, including white ones – actor and singer Bing Crosby famously bounced a check there.
Ironically, a major advancement in the civil rights movement, the de jure end of racial segregation, was the beginning of the hotel’s downfall. Middle and upper-class African Americans were no longer restricted to the Dunbar. The hotel closed in 1974.
After years of on-and-off vacancy, the building was used for low-income housing for senior citizens in the 90s, but it was mismanaged, and the hotel’s architecture was badly dealt with in its reappropriation. Until recently, it was in danger of being foreclosed into City of Los Angeles ownership.
Now the hotel is being renovated by a public/private development partnership for use as a senior living community, set to open in June. This time, they’re paying proper homage to the building and its history – murals and the old fountain in the central atrium that spans from the lobby to the former lobby is being maintained, and the hotel’s neon sign is being switched back on. And of course, there’s talk of opening what’s being called a “speakeasy” in the space that was once the hotel’s original nightclub. What could be more appropriate?