Anyone walking along U Street can see the name True Reformer Building on the side of 1200 U Street, but few realize the significance of its history.
As a building designed by the first registered African-American architect in Washington, D.C., one that was financed, built, and owned by the black community as a testament to their abilities mere decades after the abolition of slavery, and subsequently owned by benevolent organizations and prominent blacks including John Whitelaw Lewis, the True Reformer building is indeed an outstanding historical document in itself.
By 1902, the property holdings of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers were increased to include a contract for the construction of the True Reformer building in Washington, D.C., at “a cost of forty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty dollars. The design of the building is the work of a Negro architect, J.A. Lankford, and is a monument to Negro genius and an ocular demonstration of the results of combination, concentration, and co-operation” (Burrell, p. 293). The organization owned a retail store in Washington that opened in 1902, and had earlier owned a small lot at the corner of Vermont, I, and 12th Street, N.W.
The True Reformer Building was dedicated on 15 July, 1903. Construction had begun just one year previous. The Washington Bee of 12 July 1902 reported that the architect’s drawings had been “submitted to the Engineer’s Department of the District Government and have been fully approved.” The Reformer’s Mercantile and Industrial Association, Inc., had secured the land in a 26 February 1902 deed transaction.
Architect John Anderson Lankford had moved with his wife to Washington in 1902, to supervise construction and complete designs for the building. He continued maintain offices close-by for the remainder of his career, which spanned well into the 1940’s. Lankford’s personal ties and utilization of the building after it was completed are somewhat unusual, as he attended concerts, held meetings, and even attended Law classes in the building throughout his life in Washington. I wrote a chapter on Lankford that was included in the book African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945 by Dreck Spurlock Wilson (2004).
Lankford’s designs for the building feature classical revival and Romanesque architectural features in a subtle composition that is considered stately. It clearly conveys a sense of monumentality for the black community for which it was built, at the time Washington itself was being revitalized as a result of the McMillan Commission projects.
Independent builders S.H. Bolling and A.J. Everett joined together to form Bolling and Everett of Lynchburg, Virginia for the construction of the True Reformer building. They later combined once again in 1907 for the Negro Exposition Building (designed by William Sidney Pittman) at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Norfolk, Virginia.
At the dedication Ceremony on 15 July 1903, Dr. W. L. Taylor of Richmond, Virginia, the National Grand Worthy Master of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, offered a brief history of the events leading up to the Washington DC building, and the creative financing he had initiated to make it possible:
“I was not willing to put any kind of a building in Washington. This was the capitol of the nation. The critics from all over the country center in Washington. The Negro is the bone of contention, and there are many who say he is indolent and only fit for a ‘hewer of wood and a drawer of water.’ Therefore, I made up my mind, in keeping with Mr. Browne’s request, God being my helper, to put up a building in Washington that would reflect credit upon the Negro Race.
In the meantime the Board voted forty thousand dollars to put up a building in St. Louis. It was impossible to put up a building that would reflect the proper credit upon this Negro national Organization for that money. We found a building on the corner of Pine street and Jefferson avenue which, at a small cost, could be made to suit our purposes. The lowest price set on the building was thirty-five thousand dollars, and the lowest figures anticipated by the owners was thirty thousand dollars, but we succeeded in buying it for twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. Take twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars from forty thousand dollars; we had seventeen thousand five hundred dollars of the money voted for St. Louis to invest in property elsewhere.
We went on from St. Louis to Louisville, Ky. We soon located a place there that was valued at twelve thousand dollars. We got it before we got through for four thousand six hundred dollars. Take four thousand six hundred dollars from seventeen thousand five hundred dollars, which leaves twelve thousand nine hundred dollars of the amount that the Board donated to be spent in St. Louis.
We went from that point to Cincinnati, Oh., and selected a site that had been sold twelve months before for twelve thousand dollars on Sixth street, with a double car line running by the door. The agent told us that he thought we could get it for nine thousand dollars. I said ‘If you want to sell the place at proper figures, I will buy it.’ He became very anxious for me to make an offer, and I made an offer of seven thousand dollars cash. The owner came over and signed the paper. I asked for the deed, which I gave to a guarantee company to examine the title. I sent Lawyer Robertson to put it on record. Thus, you see I got a building in St. Louis, Mo., Louisville, Ky., Cincinnati, Oh., and still had some of the money left.
Now, we came to Washington. We found that the seating capacity of a possible building at Washington, on the old site, would not exceed three hundred and fifty persons. The agent offered us five thousand dollars for the lot. We had paid ten thousand dollars for it, so we could not take that. He said it was all that he could give, but he had a lot on U street that he would sell for eight thousand five hundred dollars. I said ‘I will not do that.’ But finally, we came to an agreement and made an even exchange of the lots.
Then we went to work to put up this building. We called for bids, and the lowest was fifty-five thousand dollars. We threw them all out and called for other bids. This time we succeeded in getting a Negro contractor in Lynchburg, Va., to bid. We wanted this building to put up as a credit to the Negro Race. So we found a Negro architect in the person of J.A. Lankford. He drew up the plans. Then we found the Negro builders at Lynchburg, Messrs. Bolling & Everett. We said to the contractors, ‘If you cannot get security in the Guarantee Company, give us a good bond elsewhere and we will accept it.’ They found a Negro, Mr. A. Humbles, who came to their rescue and gave us a certified check for twenty thousand dollars, to hold until the building was completed. So we completed the job without a hitch. The building was completed and turned over to us July 1st.” (Burrell, p. 319-322).
“How shines the light of True Reformerism through the darkness; how it burns its fire upon the alter of Race development; how does it satisfy and help those who are struggling upward through the gloom of a most unreasonable and unwarranted prejudice.” (Burrell, p. 322).
Several writings and discussion of the time reflect the attitudes of the black race during this age of electricity and industrial revolution, when most could still remember the injustices of slavery. Washington at the turn of the century had one of the largest black communities that resulted in sizable achievements and opportunities not available elsewhere to minorities. At the opening dedication ceremony, Dr. Taylor replied, in an optimistic statement:
“The starry flag has become a fixed constellation o’er the Asiatic seas, but better than all, we have learned to love our native land. Gone, we trust, are the days of strife, bitterness and doubt within the enclosure of this Organization, and welcome the days of peace, of confidence and of lasting brotherhood. We come to you in the early dawn of the twentieth century-a century of wonderful development, a century of great achievement in both private and public affairs, an age in which science and invention reign supreme, an electrical age. Old Empires have passed away, and nations with them gone. Kings and czars have been born, have ruled, and have been forgotten. Boundaries of nations have been changed, thrones have fallen and old dynasties have been destroyed, yet man remains and asserts his power.” (Burrell, p. 232).
Speaking at the National Negro Business League convention in 1906, architect Lankford offered what contributions blacks had made to the physical development of Washington, and what role the True Reformer building played:
“In the past three years, I have designed for Washington and fifteen states of the Union, nearly six million dollars worth of buildings. I have designed, overhauled, and built in Washington and vicinity over seven hundred thousand dollars worth of property during the same time. I had the pleasant pleasure of designing and supervising the construction of the one hundred thousand dollar office, lodge, and store room building for the True Reformers...and being in Washington, it stands out to the civilized world as a sample or example of what the Negro can do and has done with his brain, skill, and money. The building was designed, built, paid for in cash, is occupied and controlled by Negroes. It has done more to give new life to the Negro architects and builders and lift the standard of work of this kind and character in Washington and in fact, throughout the country than any other one thing we know of.” (Landmark Application, as cited from Etheridge, Harrison, p. 12-13).
Upon completion, the building was used by a host of community organization, musical groups, and societies for events and celebrations. A well established local music school known as the Washington Conservancy was established in the True Reformer Hall in 1903 by Oberlin trained pianist Harriet Marshall Gibbs. In 1904, it moved its headquarters to 902 T Street (still standing) and had long associations with Ellington.
“In 1913 the Magnolia Dancing Class met Wednesday and Saturday nights in the hall, with music supplied by Carroll’s Columbia Orchestra and the Yale Orchestra, admission fifteen cents” (Tucker, pg. 50).
Following the bankruptcy declaration of the United Order of True Reformers sometime in the early 1910s, the building was eventually sold at auction and deed transferred on 2 May 1914 to John Whitelaw Lewis, President and founder of the Industrial Savings Bank at 11th and U Streets, N.W. Through a series of transactions over the next few years, Lewis deeded the property on 4 January 1915 to the Laborers and Mechanics Realty Company, which he was a trustee.
Through a series of transactions, the property was deeded from John Whitelaw Lewis and the Laborers and Mechanics Realty Company to the Trustees of the Knights of Pythias of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, Jurisdiction of the District of Columbia. In January of 1917, they renamed the building Pythian Hall. It was also affectionately known as the Pythian Temple (Washington Bee, 27 January, 1917), but to this day retains its first name designation, the True Reformer Building. They continued to offer spaces in the building for a myriad of community groups, musicians, and organization to meet, host receptions, and special events.
In 1916, a social group called ‘The Happy Four L.M. Club’ sponsored entertainment in Room 5 of the hall, advertising ‘Good Music’ for a charge of fifteen cents (Tucker, pg. 50). The Hall was advertised as the “best equipped public hall owned by colored people in the country,” (Tucker, advertisement unknown). An elegant and very formal affair took place on February 23, 1917 at the hall entitled the “Masque L’Allegro Frolik” that included “serpentine waltzes, confetti showers, characteristiques, etc., danced to the strains of divine music under the direction of the unexcelled Louis M. Brown.” It was staged in the main auditorium and featured an orchestra of ten to twelve players. At the same event, a solo dancer interpreted ‘Poor Butterfly,’ and the Orphean Quartette sang Ethelbert Nevin’s ‘The Rosary” (Tucker, pg. 50).
In 1916, Ellington filled in for Doc Perry at the Stenographers weekly afternoon meetings (Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m.) which featured matinee dances at the True Reformer’s Hall (Washington Bee, 19 February 1916). And on 25 November of 1916, an advertisement in the Washington Bee newspaper features a musical notice for the “Happy Four LM Club” at the True Reformers Hall.
While attending Dunbar High School from 1914 to 1918, Washingtonian Roy Ellis belonged to a social club called “The Rockaways,” comprised of a half dozen friends who promoted parties and dances. Ellis remembers Ellington bringing along only a drummer or a banjo player when the club would hire him for events in the hall. In 1917, Ellington was not yet well enough established to offer musicians regular work, so he drew from a pool of friends as work permitted. Some of these men included three Miller brothers; Bill (guitar), Felix (saxophone), and ‘Devil’ or ‘Brother’ (drums), William Escoffery (guitar), and Lloyd Stewart (drums). Later, Otto Hardwick (bass fiddle), and Arthur Whetsol (trumpet or cornet) joined the bands that Ellington had coined “The Duke’s Serenades,” a name he would continue to use after leaving Washington in the 1920.
For at least the years 1917 and 1918, the basement was rented to the First Separate Battalion as an armory and drill room, a black branch of the District of Columbia National Guard until the new armory was built after WWI. The segregated black troops who drilled in the basement armory volunteered to go to the Arizona boarder in 1916 during the Mexican-American crises, and to Europe in 1917 for World War One participation. (Conversation with Col. West Hamilton, 10 January 1978, Washington, D.C., as part of the HABS/HAER Collection #DC 234, Library of Congress).
Frelinghuysen University, a Washington D.C. school for the self advancement of working class African-Americans, held classes in homes and businesses located throughout the city before purchasing 1800 Vermont Avenue, N.W., in 1921 (A house the author once owned and renovated). They also held classes in the True Reformer Building, as evident in an advertisement placed in the November 15, 1919 edition of the Washington Bee:
It is interesting to note that architect John A. Lankford indicated the he had received two Law degrees from Frelinghuysen University, and actually attended classes within the very building he had designed 20 years previously. From the University’s Decennial Catalogue, he is listed in the John M. Langston School of Law classes for the years 1917, 1918, and 1919, and for the year 1921, he was listed as a post graduate for LL.M. with the Indiana and D.C. Bars.
The 1918 City Directory lists Banks and Burnell, drugs, Armory, DC National Guard, and True Reformer Hall as occupants of 1200 U Street.
The True Reformer building was deeded to the National Savings Bank and Trust Co., following the default of a trust, on 1 May 1934. It was eventually sold to the Boys Club of the Metropolitan Police of the District of Columbia on 4 January 1938. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the new use of the building before a crowd estimated at well more than 2,000, and within a month of the opening, the club’s membership stood at 1,600. Two months later, it swelled to over 4,100, and was thus the largest of the city’s four clubs.
The Boy’s Club of the Metropolitan Police had been established in 1934 to combat juvenile delinquency and provide supervised activities for segregated Washington’s black children at the time. It first leased the True Reformer Building in 1937, and had John Lankford supervise the extensive interior renovation necessary for the building’s new use. The $17,000 project provided a gymnasium, locker room, library, music room, and game room.
Following tradition, the building was witnessing a continuation of uses by various organizations and societies in the community. In 1951, a fashion show at the Turner Arena was presented by the XI Omega of Alpha Kappa Alpha entitled “Fashion Novelty.” A brochure for the event featured an advertisement for “Chapman Tailoring and Designing School, at 1200 YOU Street, No. 4978, Philip Chapman, director.” (Historical Society Washington, DC Collection, U Street vertical file)
In 1957, the District Commissioners banned Police participation in fundraising after court cases and demonstrations challenged the Boy’s Club policy of racial segregation in its branches and summer camps around Washington. As a result, the Boy’s club in the True Reformer building closed following difficulty in fundraising without the Police Department leadership. On 19 November 1959, the Boys Club of the Metropolitan Police sold the building to Gary H. Lebbin, et ux, et al who shortly thereafter opened the first distribution center for Duran Paints in the District.
In 1947, the ground floor display windows and front entrance were altered along the U Street facade to meet fire code. The columnar and arched entry portico was modified, and encapsulated in a cast stone facade.
The DC Landmark and the National Register of Historic Places Nomination application was heard before the Historic Preservation Review Board on September 16, 1987. It was sponsored by the LeDroit Park Preservation Society (Theresa Brown) and the Evans Tibbs Collection (Thurlow E Tibbs, Jr.). Mr. Tibbs lived close by at 1910 Vermont Avenue, and his grandfather was on the building committee during the design and construction phase of the building. At the time, Gary H. Lebbin, et ux, et al, still owned the building.
The abandoned building was photographed by the author (above) about 1992, when it was for sale and was eventually renovated by the Public Welfare Foundation after several attempts by former owners. Duran Paints was the ground floor tenant for decades, while the upper floors and auditorium were vacant. In 1993, Metro ridership for the U Street/Cardozo station averaged just 2,800 passengers per day! The station opened on May 11, 1991. G. Byron Peck's mural to Duke Ellington on the side of the building that used to overlook the U Street Metro station was completed in 1997.
Copyright Paul K. Williams
Burrell, William Patrick. Twenty Five Years History of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, 1881-1905. Westport, Connecticut, Negro University Press, reprinted. (Library of Congress Call No. HV5827.U553B84)
Decennial Catelogue of Frelinghuysen University. Anna J. Cooper Papers, Moorland- Springarn Research Center, Howard University, c. 1939.
Etheridge, Harrison. The Black Architects of Washington, D.C., 1900-Present. Dissertation, Catholic University, 1979. Washington, DC: Catholic University, 1979.
Etheridge, Harrison. True Reformer Building. Historic American Buildings Survey Documentation, HABS No. DC-362. Washington, DC: Historic American Buildings Survey, 1979. Prints and Photographic Division, Library of Congress.
Historic Landmark Application, Washington D.C. Architectural Review Board,
dated 3 March, 1987.
Tucker, Mark. Ellington. The Early Years. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Vertical Files on Metropolitan Police Boys Clubs, Washingtoniana Division, Martin Luther King Memorial Library.