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Then and Now: The Dunbar Hotel

Then (left): The Dunbar Hotel on 15th Street between U and V. Pictured here ca. 1950, it was originally completed in 1902 as the Portner Flats. The Portner family sold the apartment building in 1945, and it reopened as the Dunbar Hotel, Washington's leading elite black hotel. The Dunbar declined after the City's other hotels integrated, and the building was razed in 1974. Image from the Smithsonian Institution.

Now (right): The Campbell Heights apartment complex for senior citizens was built on the site in 1978. The complex comprises a seven-story high-rise and low-rise garden apartments.

Kent Boese posts items of historic interest primarily within the District. He's worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He's been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and is the force behind the blog Park View, D.C.


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What an amazing piece of history that could have told a unique story of the city's unfortunate legacy of segregation.

Now, its just another blank cinder block in Socialist City.

by Dan Augusto on May 22, 2009 4:19 pm • linkreport

actually the original Portner Flats was built as a high end luxury apartment building- also built by the great architect Adolf Cluss. Imagine what kind of prices the developers would get for condos or rental if it had only been saved instead of demolished? James Goode's book has quite an article on this masterpiece.To those who say DC has little history- they have no idea what has been lost here.

by w on May 22, 2009 4:42 pm • linkreport

I notice the gas station says: Texaco Amoco Sinclair

I don't think i've ever seen such a multi-branded one before.

by dcseain on May 22, 2009 6:12 pm • linkreport

You can also see in the older picture that 15th street was a two way street, with cars pointed southbound.

by Gern on May 22, 2009 7:39 pm • linkreport

In this one case I think we might say this wasn't so much a "loss" as a "you're getting something better out of it." Looking at the pictures side by side, the Portner was fairly gloomy and ugly, while the sleek lines of the Campbell Apartments with their individual balconies make them far far more attractive ... and useful to their occupants. Now, are the Campbell Apartments today in need of some catch up maintenance? It sure looks like it from the times I've walked by ... but wasn't that part of the problem with the Portner Flats ... and what led to their being flattened ... ? Maybe that's part of why we lose our historical fabric. Maybe it has far less to do with what is unique, historical, or whatever ... and far more to do with how the current (and past) occupants have maintained a building. The Third Church of Christ is a good example of this phenonmemon. Like the Portner Flats it too might end up being brought down because a lack of maintenance will have made it look "unappealing" to some. And I'm not judging whether the maintenance was affordable or not ... since Mike has pointed out that the Third Church might require more maintenance than most structures, but simply saying that in the end if the maintenance required to keep a building in its original building condition, its problems from lack of maintenance later tend to bring upon its destruction much more directly than any public sentiments for or against its style and design. After all, like a person, if a building hasn't "aged well", we tend to over look any natural beauty that might have once been there.

by Lance on May 23, 2009 6:55 am • linkreport

Campbell Heights was a pre-fab building that was put up in short time for very low cost. it's worked much better than some of the expensive re-habs of older buildings for subsidized housing.

not that I ever approve of tearing down historic buildings but Campbell Heights shows that pre-fabs we sometimes scorn as Soviet type housing is effective.

by Tom Coumaris on May 23, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

Sad that the one thing that has survived is the gas station across the street.

by Paul Hohmann on May 24, 2009 11:31 am • linkreport


I was going to say something like you did, but only sarcasticaly. Oh well. But one of the main things that contributed to the whole sale destruction of our architectural history post WWII beyond wear and tear was the training architects recieved during that period. Victorian architecture was dismissed as passe, derivative, and "gloomy". That's what you get when ideology supplants common sense.

by Thayer-D on May 26, 2009 7:47 am • linkreport

Thayer you are on target. My only critique is that Cluss' buildings were not- as many seem to think- "Victorian" at all- they were more akin to "Klinker Gothic" as Cluss had imported this style from germany and put it to work. Lance- the National Museum is also one of Cluss's masterpieces- and it is undergoing rehab as we speak. Portner Flats was considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the city when it was built- and was celebrated. Cluss used colored brick and tiles to creat a color extravaganza- and I would never call his work "gloomy" at all- it was quite the spectacle. the problem was that the the modernist wave/hystria called for all new buildings w/o any color or traditional materials and Cluss's work was pushed aside as being too anarchic if anything.

by w on May 26, 2009 11:02 am • linkreport

This wasn't a Cluss.

by spookiness on May 26, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

according to James Goode's book it was a Cluss- and an important one at that.

by w on May 26, 2009 4:04 pm • linkreport

Yep- It is very close to the look of the Portland Flats which was a Cluss building- you are right Spookiness.

The Portner was however- built by a Cluss associate- and had lovely ornate architectural sculptures outside of it that were in the Viennese style. No one can build like this anymore.

I stand corrected- but was looking at the towers which are very very similar to the Cluss masterpiece on Thomas Circle.

The Portland & Portner were both destroyed- losses that never should have happened.The modernists cannot even come close to this kind of quality anymore.

by w on May 26, 2009 4:44 pm • linkreport

show me something that Mies, Wright or Corbusier did that even can even come close to this kind of architecture...

This is another view of the Portner Flats.

by w on May 26, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

Whether or not it was a Cluss, it was an urbane, well detailed building that held down the corner there really well. I wish I could say the same about the replacement, but that grass moat and those blank walls aren't doing too much for it.

by merarch on May 26, 2009 11:48 pm • linkreport

This detailed article by Paul Kelsey Williams in the August 2005 In Towner, pages 12-13, shows both a drawing and lovely pictures of the Portner Flats apartment building and indicates Clement August Didden (1837-1923) was the architect of Portner Flats

by cdw on Aug 15, 2009 12:20 am • linkreport

James M. Goode's book Capital Losses, 1979, page 183-5 has a detailed article about Portner Flats which he attributes to Clement A. Didden, Washington, D.C.

This house, also designed by C. A. Didden, as he was often known, at 2013 H Street, NW amidst the GWU historic district is about to be overwhelmed by a seven-storey glass "addition"

by cdw on Aug 15, 2009 5:43 pm • linkreport

I grew up two blocks south of the HISTORIC Dunbar Hotel, which was the only "full service" BLACK Hotel in DC then, and typically the location that ALL of the Jazz and R&B acts who played the Howard Theater would stay when visiting DC prior to "Integration" the Late 1950's/early 1960s.

by Dave Cole on Nov 24, 2015 10:05 pm • linkreport

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