So What’s the Deal with that “New” Mural?

If you’re paying close attention to us – hopefully on Twitter or Facebook – then you know that last week, we partied it up for the Funk Parade.  You can catch the old post here should you need a refresher.

The thing about last week is that we didn’t make a big deal about the biggest event of all: our new mural.

Mural Kickoff

You might have caught this pic and just breezed right past it but that was the kickoff to our tribute to Paul Dunbar.

When we first received the funding to start what is now known as “15&U” – we also applied for a creative grant to bring more art into our ‘hood.

As a small community, we’ve struggled with graffiti periodically but we’ve also been wanting to pay homage to some of the richness of our community.

Given that we’re fortunate enough to be located in an area formerly known as “Black Broadway,” we had a lot of history and potential subjects to choose from.

Few people know that the Campbell Heights apartments, which is now home to seniors and located across the street from us, was first an apartment building and then a hotel.

Originally constructed in 1902, the Portner Flats was owned by millionaire Robert Portner. To avoid disputes with unions, Porter went so far as to start his own construction company called: “Capitol Construction Company” to kick off development on the building.

Initially, the apartment building was referred to as “Portner’s Folly” because it was assumed the building was located too far from the center of town to be viable.

The criticism Portner received was silenced when the apartments went on to sell very quickly. Portner even built other sections after the success of this first building. The Portner Flats became the largest apartment building in Washington.

For years,  the Portner Flats remained under the Portner family’s ownership until the death of Robert Portner and the untimely passing of his son. It was then that the apartment complex was put on the market.

In 1945, the apartment building was sold to Paul Laurence Dunbar. Paul Dunbar, was a famed African-American poet, novelist, and playwright. He was also the first African-American poet to earn national distinction and acceptance. The purchase of the building was one of his many business ventures.

It was Dunbar who made the decision to transform the apartment complex into a hotel.

The Dunbar Hotel was considered elite and one of the only major hotels blacks could stay in. Performers such as Sammy Davis Jr, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey and Duke Ellington were all patrons of the hotel.

The building was successful for a number of years, even several after the early passing of Dunbar. When integration began in the District, the hotel began to see a decline.

It was condemned in 1970 and demolished in 1974. Any preservation society that would fought to save such a historic site was yet to be established.

In 1978, the structure was remodeled and became what we know it as today – the Campbell Heights Senior Living Facility.

As you can probably imagine, after we doing a bit of research and discovering all of this history – we decided we needed to do something to preserve it.

Thanks to a grant from JBG and the artists at Art B.L.O.C, specifically Founder Cory Stowers, we found a creative way to pay homage to the culture that existed here on the historic U.

Cory Stowers, an artist whose work can been seen all over DC, including the famed “Black Broadway” and the new “Robeson” mural on 14th and U ST NW –  is who ultimately developed and drew our vision – a dual sided and immersive mural showcasing the interior of the hotel.

We’ve dubbed it “Meet Me at the Dunbar” and we’re basing it on images we’ve found at the Smithsonian.


The mural will bring to life the beautiful architecture and decor of what was formerly the Dunbar Hotel.

BRINK, one of the small businesses on the block and a digital agency that’s been hugely supportive of 15&U will be assisting with interactive elements to help bring the story to life.

And we can’t mention 15&U without also mentioning Shannan Fales of Junction Vintage, who has been instrumental in securing the funding for 15&U, the mural and a number of other 15&U projects, such as last week’s Funk Parade. Without her and the young artists of Art B.L.O.C., the temporary mural that see today would not have been possible.

And when we say “temporary mural,” we mean just that.

In a few weeks, we plan to paint over the beauty that you see today (which features Paul Dunbar himself) and start on the interior of the hotel.

In an homage to the changing history of the structure, we’re changing the mural in stages from the man who purchased the apartments to the hotel that lived on after his death.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the mural, so be sure to email us or contact us on social media.

As a small business community, we’re doing our part to keep the arts, the history and the beauty of our community alive.

See you in a few weeks!

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