City Within a City
Greater U Street Heritage Trail
8 The Whitelaw Hotel and “the Duke”
The elegant Whitelaw Hotel at the corner of 13th and T Street opened its doors in 1919, offering African American travelers their first opportunity to stay in a first-class hotel in the segregated nation's capital. Inside they found a lobby with fine rugs and potted palms, a richly decorated dining room, comfortable rooms, and convenience shops on the first floor.
The Whitelaw was the creation of African America business entrepreneur John Whitelaw Lewis, who also built the Industrial Bank building on U Street. A former construction worker turned builder and financier, he raised the funds for its construction, and hired a Black builder and Isaiah T. Hatton, a Black architect, to make it a reality. Its restaurant/ballroom was a favorite choice for elite dinner parties and dances. The clientele included many of the famous of the day – Cab Calloway, Joe Louis, and the neighborhood’s own native son, Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington.
Duke Ellington lived on this block from age 11 to 18 – at 1806 13th Street, from 1910 to 1914, and across the street at 1816 13th Street from 1915 to 1917. While living here he chose music over baseball, soaking up the varied and rich musical traditions of the neighborhood. He was inspired and taught by his gifted teacher at Armstrong High School, Henry Grant, by traveling pianists hanging out in the local pool halls, by choirs and soloists in the neighborhood’s many churches, and by teachers at the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression at 9th and T Streets.
Ellington left for better opportunities in New York in 1923, but frequently returned to play the Howard Theater and other clubs in his old neighborhood, where his talent and magnificent style made him the hometown favorite. The Whitelaw Hotel, where he sometimes stayed while visiting here, has now been converted into affordable apartments by Manna, Inc. Its ballroom with stained glass ceiling has been restored to its former grandeur, and continues to be a community gathering place.