9th and U circa 1928

Thanks to Lydia DePillis for sharing this new blog, The Ruined Capitol, which shows before and after shots of the streets of DC. Above is 9th and U, click through after the jump to see some more shots of the greater 14th and U street area. (more…)

I really love learning about the history of our neighborhood, and I find pictures just bring what U street used to be like alive. When I saw that DC’s Historical Society had some of their images online (and searchable by city block), I couldn’t help but immerse myself in the images (via Penn Quarter Living). Here are some of the most interesting I found, with even more after the jump (all images courtesy of DC’s Historical Society). Enjoy!

1200 block of U street, 1920

1200 block of U street, 1920

Sunny South Market, now Saint Ex, 1949

Republic Theatre, U street b/t 13th and 14th, 1960

Republic Theatre, 1348 U street, 1964

Wow! 12th and U, where the 7-11 now is, 1977


Odessa Madre with her lawyer, 1952 (courtesy of the Panache Report)

Ever heard of the club owned by “the Al Capone of DC” on 14th and W? Club Madre, owned by Odessa Madre, was a popular nightclub where Moms Mabley, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole played in the 1940s. Now, after years of being empty, 2204 14th street houses Bicycle Stations.

The story here really isn’t Club Madre, but rather the Madre herself. She ran a bookmaking operation, was the madam of multiple brothels, trafficked narcotics, sold bootleg liquor, and had her fingers in other organized crime ventures. In her prime in the 1940s, she made $100,000 a year. The legend goes that at every party she threw, she set out a number of bowls of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana for her guests. She often made an entrance to a party or club dressed in fur and diamonds from head to toe, surrounded by her call girls. Many believed she was a lesbian.

She had the MPD so under her thumb, one story says, that when two officers refused to take a bribe from Odessa, they were demoted and reassigned. Of course, she was arrested often. By 1980, Madre had been arrested up to 30 times on 57 charges over 48 years, seven of them spent in a federal prison. To celebrate one time when she got out of prison, she bought a Cadillac, another a Lincoln Continental.

Madre died in 1990 at the age of 83 of kidney failure. She had been very generous to the area’s poor and spent nearly all the money she had, leaving her penniless at her death. Her friends could only scrape together $51 for her funeral.

Club Madre, now Bicycle Station

Madre said of her life of crime, “You say was it worth it? Child, you wonder does crime pay? I’ll tell you, yes. It pays a helluva lot of money. And money is something. I don’t care who you are, when you got money you can get a lot of doors open because there’s always some larcenous heart who’s gonna listen to you. And when you show ’em that money . . . if you got a wad, honey, they’ll suck up to ya like you was a Tootsie Roll.”

A feature in which I look back at the history of buildings in the U street area.

club bali

Club Bali at the corner of 14th and T (courtesy of the book, Greater U Street DC)

This is the first post of a new feature in which I look back at the history of a building in the U street area. I’ve always been interested in the history of buildings, and after a few posts Prince of Petworth had of pictures of the area, showing how completely it had changed in just a few years, my curiosity just grew. Thanks to some Internet research, I present to you my first Looking Back post.

The first building we’re looking at is at 1901 14th street, which was formerly Club Bali, a popular place where jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway performed. Now the building is home to the Arena Stage’s Community Engagement Studio.

Benjamin Caldwell opened Club Bali in 1943 as mainly a venue for live music. The club also featured tap dancers and chorus girls. Club Bali supposedly held 200 or 300 patrons, one of the largest clubs in the area. Club Bali was one of the first clubs to successfully charge a cover to get in. In the 1940s it was five dollars (which was a lot of money in the 1940s!). And, in contrast to the name, they also served a not-often found cuisine in the time: Korean food prepared by George Kim.

The building that housed Club Bali was built in 1907 as a billiards and bowling alley (PDF). In 1937, the building featured the exhibit “National Memorial to the Progress of the Negro Race in America.”

Arena stage now

Arena stage building, now

“It was a magic place, its rear garden lit with strings of lights in the summertime…the magic often continued late into the night, as name entertainers, winding down after formal engagements, played to intimate gatherings into the wee hours of the morning in the many tucked-away, after-hours clubs located throughout the neighborhood.” (from U Street Heritage trail).

In 1950, owner Benjamin Caldwell was convicted of jury tampering in a gambling case. After his conviction, the former Club Bali housed numerous restaurants and clubs in the 1950s and 1960s, including Cafe Trinidad. It eventually became Jack Wiseman’s Lounge. In 1975, Jack Wiseman was murdered in his office in the building. Police attributed his murder to participation in a heroin drug ring, but his murder was never solved.

After Jack Wiseman’s murder, the building remained vacant until a string of theater companies, starting in the 1980s, used it as their home.

A feature in which I look back at the history of buildings in the U street area.