A former high-end hotel with a booming nightclub right here in South LA? Yep. And, boy, does structure have a story that you need to know.
Today we’re going back in time to look at the Dunbar Hotel, a four story, brick building with decorative windows, that, well, almost doesn’t fit in its Historic South Central neighborhood on 42nd Place and Central Avenue. If you’ve watched my earlier videos, my wife and I visited the Dunbar Hotel during our Central Avenue food crawl.
So how did this building get here? To know that, we have to understand the creators behind it. And to start, the Dunbar Hotel isn’t even the original name of this building.
The Dunbar Hotel, originally known as Hotel Somerville, was built by John and Vada Somerville, who were wealthy black residents of LA at the start of the 1910s. John and Vada Somerville were the first and second African American graduates from University of Southern California’s School of Dentistry. As early pioneers in Black Los Angeles, the Somervilles were naturally advocates for the black population in South LA, and established the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1913.
In Early Los Angeles, LA had a small but booming black population, but overcrowding in predominantly black neighborhoods worsened, especially in the Historic South Central neighborhood, where the majority of Black residents lived. Desiring to meet housing demands of LA’s black population, the Somerville’s built a 26-unit apartment house called La Vada in 1925.
In their next venture, they wanted to challenge the status quo by building a first-rate, 115-room hotel that could accommodate black people. In the early 1920–and for half of the 20th century–black artists and celebrities were allowed to perform in segregated, whites-only hotels and nightclubs, but Jim Crow laws prevented them from residing at those establishments. Often, some of the greatest black performers were limited to far-off motels and low performing hotels. The Somervilles wanted better.
Now, how did these Somerville’s get the capital to build this four-story, high-class, unbelievable hotel right here in South LA? The stock market, of course.
The Somervilles were resourceful business people, and established an investment company that crowdsourced funding through stocks, with the promise of great dividends for investors. Nearly built in April of 1928, the Somervilles not only built a hotel, but had lease agreements for shops, including a barber, drug store, and doctor’s office; and a lucrative lease with the Fred Harvey Dining System, the nation’s most successful dining operation on railroads across the United States.
The Somerville Hotel opened for business on June 23, 1928. From the jump, the hotel was visited by a slew of black aristocrats (Judges, Boyd), and the NAACP used the hotel as its headquarters for the NAACP’s 19th national Conference, and it’s Anniversary Party.
The monstrous success and high hopes were short lived. By March 29, 1929, 9 months after the hotel opened, John and Vada Somerville lost the property through foreclosure, likely an event triggered by the stock market crash of 1929. Consequently, they were ordered to vacate the managerial role of the property.
The property was seized by a larger non-black company, represented by Harry Kronick. Lucius Walter Lomax Sr., an astute black businessman, bought the Somerville Hotel for $100,000 in 1930, and renamed the Somerville Hotel the Dunbar Hotel, after the Black poet Paul Dunbar. While his investment didn’t save John and Vada’s role in the hotel, it did keep the hotel in Black ownership.
A New Lease on Life
Under Lomax the hotel was known for its Superb dining room and food (including Fried Chicken), an attractive Mezzanine, a pharmacy, and a clothing store. In 1931, the hotel obtained a permit from the police commission to operate a nightclub, which many nearby residents disliked. And former Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson operated his showboat nightclub here with his accompanying orchestra named The Melody Champions. With the hotel frequented by prominent 1930s black celebrities, including actress Nina Mae, Louis Armstrong, and Singer Mae Johnson, and many others, it almost appeared as if the hotel was operating better than ever.
This booming 1930s success came to an end around 1933, where the property owner faced another round of foreclosures. Lomax sold the property to Father Divine in 1934, a prominent spiritual leader who founded the International Peace Mission movement–and likely deserves a video on his own. The Dunbar was accordingly converted into a hostel for members of the Peace Mission Movement of Father Divine, and no longer operated as a hotel.
In May of 1935, the property was leased again and converted back into a hotel with Camille Keys as manager. Under her leadership, the hotel resumed its nightlife operations with weekend dances, live music, and an available hall space for rent.
The hotel was sold again, bought by James Nelson in 1936, an astute black business man in South Los Angeles.The hotel resumed its briefly lost role as the spot of interest in South Central, quickly becoming became the ticket-buying hub for events across Los Angeles for Black residents (concerts and another concert). The newly redesigned Art Deco Lobby captured attention from across the city. In fact, Nelson is heavily credited with reinvigorating the hotel after years of being defunct.
This lively energy lasted until 1952, when Nelson passed. The property went up for sale. In 1958, Celestus King bought the Dunbar Hotel, where he later renamed it King’s Hotel, wiping decades of history away from this neighborhood.
The Downfall and Rebirth
The hotel was never the same, and Kings purchase was not a success. Benard Johnson bought the Dunbar Hotel in 1968, but the hotel did not have its original pull, flare, or neighborhood demographics for that matter. Eventually it fell into disrepair, and closed doors for good in 1974. The once vibrant scene became yet another urban monolith marred with graffiti and the antithesis of its 1940s heyday. Between 1974 to 1987, the hotel remained vacant. However, in 1976, the Dunbar Hotel entered the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite its decline, there was still support to save the historic monument. Johnson, who had not given up on the Dunbar Hotel, founded the nonprofit Dunbar Hotel Cultural and Historical Museum project. In 1983, the nonprofit group formed a taskforce to seek funds to refurbish the hotel with a new facade, affordable housing, and a black museum.
After advocates fought for revival, and held several public fundraisers, the Dunbar Hotel Cultural and Historical Museum project received a $2.9 million, 30-year loan to refurbish the hotel in April of 1987 through LA City’s Community Development Department and Community Redevelopment Agency. In 1990, the Dunbar re-opened as a 73-unit apartment building for low-income senior citizens with a museum of black history, but that restoration did not last long, and fell into disrepair nearly two decades later.
Around 2008, LA City foreclosed the property, after the owner failed to pay the majority of the $2.9 million loan.
In 2011, Dunbar Village L.P. formed and purchased the Dunbar Hotel and its adjacent buildings. Through a massive $30 million renovation, Dunbar Village L.P. converted the low-income senior housing into a mixed-use development called the Dunbar Village, which offers affordable and senior housing, and a leased commercial floor space. Today the Dunbar Hotel has a total of 83 units, with 41 units allotted for senior housing and 42 units for affordable housing. Downstairs, Delicious at the Dunbar operates the dining space, which I think is reminiscent of the dining room that existed nearly 80 years ago.
And that…is the brief history of the Dunbar Hotel, told as briefly as I know how to do it.
Thanks everyone for watching this video, and I hope you learned something new today. If you have something to add about the Dunbar Hotel, or anything else along the historic corridor of Central Avenue, drop it down in the comments below.