The Whitelaw Hotel showcases an early example of minority real estate development. It was financed and built entirely by African American entrepreneurs, investors, designers, and craftsmen. Associated with prominent businessman and civic leader John Whitelaw Lewis, the Whitelaw is a significant example of the attempt by civic leaders to counter the effects of racial discrimination and economic adversity in the early 20th century. Before Lewis established the Whitelaw, he arrived in the city during 1894 as a bricklayer’s assistant. Through the years he worked his way up the social ladder and in 1913 he founded the Industrial Savings Bank, the first successful African American banking institution in DC.
The design and construction of the Whitelaw was very much a collective effort, not only by Lewis and Hatton, but by much of the black community as well. In order to fund his idea, Lewis was able to encourage the African American community to buy twelve dollar shares for the property. When the hotel officially opened on November 24, 1919 it joined other businesses on “Black Broadway” as an important social and cultural space for DC’s African American community. With 25 apartments and 22 rooms hosting a variety of amenities, the Whitelaw was the first first-class hotel in DC for African Americans that provided the marginalized community with permanent housing, public accommodations, and a space for communal events. The Whitelaw’s success continued up until the 1968, when violent protests following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. destroyed homes, businesses, and displaced many from the neighborhood.
The economic and cultural success of Black Broadway had been dealt a major blow and businesses like the Whitelaw felt its effects deeply. Like other businesses, the hotel was not able to bounce back quickly from the event and in the 1970s, it was shut down and abandoned. In the 1980s, the neighborhood was rebuilding itself and businesses were making a comeback in the area. However, a succession of organizations trying to bring life back into the Whitelaw experienced significant obstacles to redevelopment.
In 1990, MANNA, Inc., a non-profit with a goal to help develop housing for low to moderate-income individuals, garnered financial support from both private and public partnerships and restore the Whitelaw. The building is a notable work of Isaiah T. Hatton, locally trained as one of the nation’s first African American architects. It serves as an example of a large apartment building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style and was important in the expansion of apartment living to a broader middle class. The building is four stories, U-shaped with facades of buff brick and limestone trim, classical details, and a stained glass skylight over the dining room. It was built in 1919 and extensively restored in 1991-1992.
Today, the Whitelaw Hotel once again houses DC residents and is a surviving reminder of the efforts made by black Washingtonians to create communal spaces in the face of segregation.
DC Inventory: September 16, 1992
National Register: July 14, 1993