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When Central Avenue Swung: The Dunbar Hotel and the Golden Age of L.A.'s 'Little Harlem'

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Photo: Yosuke Kitazawa

I grew up with jazz. Today I sing jazz. I was introduced to jazz by my father, who would put in a CD of Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong as we drove around town and encourage me to sing along. In his office, there is a framed poster of "A Great Day in Harlem," the iconic 1958 photo of 57 jazz greats, standing in front of a brownstone in the famous neighborhood. So imagine my delight when I discovered that there once was a place where many of the musicians featured in that photograph stayed, located within a vibrant neighborhood of nightclubs and restaurants. And it was right here in my back yard, in the area now known as South Central L.A.

The Dunbar Hotel was once the epicenter of African-American culture and society in Los Angeles. Today, it is a nice brick building that houses seniors; it looks like a million other well made, slightly dingy structures from the 1920s. It blends into the urban landscape. Blink and you'll miss it. But there are plenty of hints of past glory. A peek through the gates reveals an elegant Spanish style courtyard. At the front entrance, inlaid in stone is "Hotel Somerville," the structure's original name. There is a neon sign reading "Hotel Dunbar" and two historical markers covered by green leaves and branches. Across the street is the "Central Avenue Jazz Park."

The hotel is surrounded by the Somerville Apartments, a subsidized housing complex named after the hotel's founder. As I peer into the empty, whitewashed galleries of the Dunbar, I notice an older man in a puffy Raiders' coat, who I saw earlier in the courtyard. He has followed me outside, curious as to why I am sneaking around his home.

"We charge $20.00 for pictures!" He jokes. We chat for a few minutes. "Is it a nice place to live?" I ask. "Oh, sure it's a nice place to live," he says, as we both reverentially gaze at the building. "And man, what a history!"

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

The Largest and Finest Edifice for Its Purpose

Dr. John Somerville was raised in Jamaica. When he arrived in California in 1902, he was shocked by the lack of accommodations for people of color on the West Coast. Black travelers usually stayed with friends or relatives. Regardless of income, unlucky travelers usually had to room in "colored boarding houses" that were often dirty and unsafe. "In those places, we didn't compare niceness. We compared badness," Somerville's colleague, Dr. H. Claude Hudson remembered. "The bedbugs ate you up." 1 Undeterred by the segregation and racism that surrounded him, Somerville was the first black man to graduate from the USC dental school. In 1912, he married Vada Watson, the first black woman to graduate from USC's dental school.

By 1928, the Somervilles were a power couple -- successful dentists, developers, tireless advocates for black Angelenos, and the founders of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP. As the Great Migration brought more black people to L.A., the city cordoned them off into the neighborhood surrounding Central Avenue. Despite boasting a large population of middle and upper class black families, there were still no first class hotels in Los Angeles that would accept blacks. In 1928, the Somervilles and other civic leaders sought to change all that. Somerville "entered a quarter million dollar indebtedness" and bought a corner lot at 42nd and Central. 2 On this lot, in the heart of L.A.'s black community, a $250,000 four story hotel was built. It is said that only African-American labor and craftsmen were used.

The Hotel Somerville boasted 100 guest rooms, 60 private baths, and assorted public rooms, all dressed with $35,000 worth of custom furniture. The opening gala in June 1928 brought out over 5,000 people. "It was a palace compared to what we had been used to," H. Claude Hudson remembered. 3 Like most grand hotels, there were numerous businesses within the building (many run by women). Over the years these included a 100 seat dining room, bar, popular café, flower shop, nightclub, barbershop, ladies' hairdresser, and a stenographer's office. According to the L.A. Times:

Hotel Somerville ca. 1928 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Hotel Somerville ca. 1928 | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Postcard view of the Hotel Somerville lobby
Postcard view of the Hotel Somerville lobby

The Somerville quickly became the unofficial town hall/country club of black Los Angeles. The hotel's guest rooms were consistently booked by various cosmopolitan visitors, including many entertainers (Josephine Baker), sports stars (Joe Louis) and important thinkers like Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. The year it opened, the first West Coast convention of the NAACP was held in the hotel. W.E.B. DuBois was an honored guest. "It was a place where the future of black America was discussed every night of the week in the lobby," Celes King III recalled. "There were very serious discussions between people like W.E.B. DuBois, doctors, lawyers and educators and other professionals. This was the place where many of them put together plans to improve the life style of their people." 5

Despite the hotel's success, the depression hit the Somervilles hard. The hotel fell into the hands of a group of white investors, before being sold to Central Avenue powerbroker Lucius Lomax. He renamed it the Dunbar Hotel in honor of the tragic poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of ex-slaves, who had risen to fame at the turn of the 20th century. It has been reported that in 1935, the hotel was briefly owned by the Father Divine cult, which used it as a dormitory and office building. In 1936, former Chicago businessman James "Jimmy" Nelson and his wife, Katherine, bought the Dunbar for $87,500. James, who friends called "the champ," proved to be a popular owner. A "very capable, progressive but reserved and unassuming" man who loved boxing and entertaining, he would become the face of the Dunbar during its most influential decades. 6

However, the transition to new ownership wasn't all smooth sailing. In 1937, a gossipy article in the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that hotel guests had "awoke Monday morning to find the air about the spacious lobby tense with dynamic vibration." 7 The cause was the sudden departure of hotel manager, Mrs. Camille Keys, who had left after an on-going feud with Katherine Nelson. The Dunbar soon became a family affair, when Jimmy asked his nephew, Celes King Jr., to come to California and help manage the hotel. His son, Celes III, (who would become a prominent bail bondsman and civic leader) "grew up in the lobby," running around like a male Eloise, talking to all the famous and infamous guests who gathered at the hotel. 8

Postcard view of Dunbar Hotel, ca. 1940
Postcard view of Dunbar Hotel, ca. 1940
Dunbar Cocktail Lounge and Grill | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Dunbar Cocktail Lounge and Grill | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The Great White Way of the Eastside

During the '30s and '40s, Central Avenue was the peak of chic. The Dunbar was the sun around which the tight-knit neighborhood revolved, and the scene of many big celebrations:

Next door to the Dunbar stood the legendary Club Alabam, across the street the Last Word, both of which featured the biggest names in jazz. The basement was filled with music emanating from the intimate Turban Room piano bar. For a brief period in the mid-'30s, boxing champion Jack Johnson, a personal friend of Jimmy's, had a club in the Dunbar called the Showboat. At various points there was a nightclub run by different managers within the hotel.

Everybody who was anybody in the jazz world stayed at the Dunbar -- Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles and Count Basie. Celes III, a future Tuskegee Airman, became fascinated with flying after the bandleader and frequent Dunbar guest, Jimmy Lunceford, took him up in his private plane. When the big bands came to play in the all-white venues across town, their black musicians would almost take up entire floors at the hotel. Musicians would tune up in the mezzanine or harmonize at the bar. Duke Ellington and his high strung band threw raucous parties at the hotel, filled with "chicks and champagne everywhere." 11 Trumpet player Buck Clayton recalled what happened when Ellington's band heard their latest record, "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" playing on the jukebox in the Dunbar restaurant for the first time:

Those who couldn't afford to stay at the Dunbar congregated outside, "holding up the wall." The strip in front of the hotel became a cruising area, where locals showed up and showed off. Lionel Hampton, the famed vibraphone player, who recorded "Central Avenue Breakdown," remembered:

Flyer for The Last Word night club on Central Avenue, 'The East Side Smartest Sepia Night Club, ca. 1943 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Flyer for The Last Word night club on Central Avenue, 'The East Side Smartest Sepia Night Club, ca. 1943 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Ringside at Club Albam, ca. 1945 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Ringside at Club Albam, ca. 1945 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Careers were made at the Dunbar. Celes III told how "Rochester," Jack Benny's longtime sidekick, got his most important role. "One day comedian Jack Benny called the hotel looking for an actor named Johnny Taylor," Celes III recalled. "But Taylor was in jail so Eddie took the call. That's how he became Rochester." The men holding up the wall could be kind as well as cruel. Actress Hattie McDaniel recalled driving by the "Central Avenue playboys," who had once taunted her, in her new luxury car. "'Sorry gentlemen,'' she said, shifting into high. "Got no time to socialize. They're waiting for me at the studio. We're starting to shoot 'Gone with the Wind' today." She chuckled as she explained her motives to a reporter from the L.A. Times:

The Dunbar was also a popular hangout for many white Angelenos, who were drawn to the brilliant music and ambiance of the Central Avenue District. Legend has it that W.C. Fields accidentally "integrated" the Dunbar one night when he passed out in the lobby after a drunken night at the Club Alabam. A $20 check Jimmy cashed for Bing Crosby bounced, leading to a life long joke between the two. "It was very important for a talent like Crosby to be well regarded in the black community," Celes III recalled. "So Crosby came right down to Uncle Jimmy, paid his debt, and collected his paper." 15

Katherine, who was confined to a wheelchair in later years, died in 1947. That same year, Jimmy remarried the "lovely, personable, vivacious" Julia Franklin. 16 The couple entertained frequently and lavishly. One dinner party was described thusly:

And so the Dunbar rolled into the '50s under the leadership of "kind and thoughtful" Jimmy Nelson. 18 There were characters everywhere, like O. Mosely, a neighborhood fixture who everyone called "86," who lived at the Dunbar for over 20 years. A collegial atmosphere permeated the hotel. Future Mayor Tom Bradley worked the Central Avenue beat as a young cop. He would often stop by the Dunbar Grill and lightly flirt with waitress Tille Euliss. 19 A sports reporter recalled a typical night in the lobby:

Lionel Hampton in front of Club Alabam, ca. 1953 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Lionel Hampton in front of Club Alabam, ca. 1953 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Central Avenue Breakdown

Jimmy died after a long illness in September 1952. An obit in the Los Angeles Sentinel summed up his legacy. "The guys and gals up and down the avenue thought a lot of the 'champ'." 21 Julia managed the hotel for a time. Celes III and his wife, Anita, also ran the business, now called King's Dunbar Hotel, until it was sold in the mid-60s. By then, Central Avenue was a shadow of its former self. Ironically, this downturn was prompted by the abolishment of racist, segregationist laws during the 1950s. Black Angelenos were now "allowed" to live and own businesses anywhere. Many Central Avenue residents moved downtown or to other neighborhoods.

Bernard Johnson bought the Dunbar in 1968. He dreamed of restoring it to its former glory. It was recognized as an L.A. Historical Cultural Monument in 1974. Johnson opened a small Black History Museum in the Dunbar. It was now a tenant apartment building, housing mostly poor male residents. A reporter, visiting during the filming of the movie "A Hero Ain't Nothing But A Sandwich," described what the Dunbar had become:

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Bernard Johnson in front of 'Dunbar Historical Black Musem' | Photo: Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLA Library/Creative Commons

In 1990, through a series of complicated maneuvers and grassroots movements, the Dunbar was renovated and reopened as a low-income apartment complex for the elderly. Mayor Tom Bradley spoke at the opening ceremony. "I am proud to see that this property has been restored to its former glory," he said. "This time, the hotel will provide lodging for senior citizens who may have frequented this establishment in their youth. It is a fitting tribute to the legacy of this hotel that it is being returned to the community for use, once again, as lodging for residents." 23

In 2012, both the Dunbar and the Somerville Apartments underwent a 14 million dollar renovation. This renovation of the newly dubbed "Dunbar Village" was spearheaded by a public-private-partnership between Thomas Safran and Associates and the Coalition for Responsible Community Development. Architect Dan Withee worked hard to preserve the best historic features of the Dunbar, while making it a safe and comfortable space for senior housing. A gym and entertainment room were among many features added. In 2014, the newly completed Dunbar Village was honored by the L.A. Conservancy with a 2014 Conservancy Preservation Award. As Withee poignantly explained: "We are trying to find a way to bring back some life into the neighborhood that hasn't been there for a long time." 24

If that happens, it will be a great day in L.A.

_____

1 "Group fights to save dunbar hotel" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1983
2 "Avenue hotel lives in history, service" Los Angeles Sentinel, June 25, 1959
3 "Group fights to save dunbar hotel" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1983
4 "Washington didn't sleep at the dunbar but look who did" Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1976
5 "Group fights to save dunbar hotel" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1983
6 "Close up: marriage of the week" Los Angeles Sentinel, December 4, 1947
7 "Ruth: dunbar hotel has new manager" Los Angeles Sentinel February 18, 1937
8 "Group fights to save dunbar hotel" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1983
9 "Yoohoo hiya Hattie" Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1940
10 "central ave celebrates as Armstrong wins" Los Angeles Sentinel, June 2, 1938
11 Buck Clayton, Nancy Miller Elliott. Buck Clayton's Jazz World, p. 62. Continuum Int'l Publishing Group, 1995
12 Ibid.
13 "Group fights to save dunbar hotel" Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1983
14 "Yoohoo hiya Hattie" Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1940
15 "Core state chief leads living" Los Angeles Sentinel, May 29, 1987
16 "Close up: marriage of the week" Los Angeles Sentinel, December 4, 1947
17 Los Angeles Sentinel, August 10 1950
18 "The Wright corner" Los Angeles Sentinel, September 25, 1952
19 "Washington didn't sleep at the dunbar but look who did" Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1976
20 Halley Harding, Los Angeles Sentinel, April 20, 1950
21 "The Wright corner" Los Angeles Sentinel, September 25, 1952
22 "Washington didn't sleep at the dunbar but look who did" Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1976
23 "Dunbar Hotel is living history" May 11, 1989
24 Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2012

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