Built as the Hotel Somerville, the Dunbar Hotel played a key role in L.A.’s African American community for decades. Doctor John Somerville built the hotel for the first West Coast convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1928. The hotel provided first-class accommodations for African Americans in segregated Los Angeles, who were denied comparable lodging elsewhere.
The hotel was a great source of pride, having been financed and built by African Americans. An instant landmark, it was considered the finest black hotel in the nation—and quickly sparked the area’s development.
The Dunbar was an important gathering place for notable figures, intellectuals, and community leaders.
At the heart of the Central Avenue jazz scene, many prominent jazz musicians stayed or performed there, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Bessie Smith. Other notable guests included Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Hern Jefferies, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Arthur B. Spingarn, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
The Dunbar fell into a slow decline starting in the 1960s and stood vacant for over a decade. Despite several attempts at renovation, the building languished until the City put it into receivership.
Thomas Safran Associates and the Coalition for Responsible Community Development revived the hotel as the centerpiece of Dunbar Village, an affordable housing project for seniors and families. Reversing years of deferred maintenance and alterations, the team restored hundreds of original features with great attention to detail, while fully upgrading the building for modern use. The building’s atrium, which was enclosed years after the building was first constructed, was reopened as a communal space with skylights and replicated tiles, flooring, and a fountain in the same location as the original - all elements that bring back the hotel’s grandeur.
The work to restore this Central Avenue gem earned a Conservancy Preservation Award in 2014.
Of the overall project’s eighty-three units, the Dunbar provides forty-one affordable apartments for seniors, as well as a beautiful gathering space for the community. Some of the current residents were active participants in Central Avenue's jazz scene during the 1960s.
Architecturally, the Somerville (now Dunbar) Hotel featured a blending of styles. It most prominently displayed Mediterranean Revival influences, particularly the generous use of arches along the exterior, and its interior spaces enlivened with Art Deco inspired fixtures. A cast stone stringcourse divides the rusticated scored plaster base from the upper brick façade.
When it opened in 1928, the Somerville Hotel was the center of the cultural life of African-Americans in Los Angeles. The hotel hosted many Black luminaries and celebrities, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Herb Jefferies, and Duke Ellington.
Many of the famous guests performed next door to the hotel at Club Alabam and at local jazz clubs along Central Avenue, where a jazz scene thrived for decades. Although the hotel was also known for top notch musical performances in its dining room area, the owners didn’t receive a cabaret license until 1931, well after Somerville had sold the hotel to Lucius Lomax. Somerville sold the hotel due to financial difficulties after stock market crash of 1929, and the name was changed to the Dunbar in honor of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Dr. John A. Somerville himself was a leader in the fight for full civil rights for African Americans in Los Angeles during the early twentieth century. Jamaican-born, in 1907 he became the first African American student to graduate from USC’s School of Dentistry. In 1918 his wife, Vada Watson, whom he had met while she was an undergraduate at USC, became the second African American to graduate from USC with a degree in dentistry.
Upon learning of the very real and imminent possibility of Dr. Somerville’s conscription into the military to fight in World War I, Ms. Watson felt a strong sense of duty to continue serving Dr. Somerville’s dental clients, which led her back to USC for her training as a dentist. Originally when Somerville had arrived in this country, he faced discrimination in finding hotel accommodations – an experience he sought to rectify by building a first class hotel for people of color.
The Somerville Hotel immediately won a national reputation after housing some of the luminaries attending the first NAACP National Convention on the West Coast, including W.E.B. DuBois, James Wheldon Johnson, Mary White Ovington, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Soon it was described as one of the best African-American owned hotels in the country.