By Robyn F. Barnes
The True Reformer Building at 1200 U Street Northwest in D.C.’s Shaw District is at once, a glimpse of the past, an oasis for today, and a window into the future.
The building sits in the heart of the U Street corridor just steps away from the U Street or Cardozo Metro Station and across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theater. The outside wall of the building features the iconic mural of Duke Ellington in the heart of thriving Black Washington, D.C.
The True Reformer Building is where Ellington gave his first public performance when the area was known as “Black Broadway.” If it’s up to Candace C. Jones, she would like to see future creatives, visionaries, and many more “firsts” in the building.
The Public Welfare Foundation (PWF) has fully restored and now occupies the True Reformer Building. Jones, PWF’s CEO, wants the community to know that preserving the building’s history, and service to the community are themes that have supported the renovation.
These themes will be continued as the building is now administered by Jones and the Public Welfare Foundation (PWF).
Jones said the opulent history of the building and the efforts taken in the renovation to both preserve the historic architecture and ensure that visitors know the importance of the community, the street, and the building itself.
It is the African-American story that has made U Street one of the bright lights of Black America– no matter what vitriol raged in the larger American story.
Key features of the renovation pay homage to both the history of the True Reformer Building and to the Public Welfare Foundation. Two hallways inside the building boast large murals, one visually depicting the history of the building, the other, the history of the Foundation.
Doorframes from the original building were preserved and frame the passageway along the murals. You feel a sense of the many souls who once passed through those doors and the legacy that they left. Artwork throughout the building speaks of juvenile and criminal justice, culture change, and social uplift.
Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated in July 1903, the True Reformer Building is the first building constructed after Reconstruction to have been designed by an African-American architect, financed, built, and owned by an African-American organization.
The architect, John Anderson Lankford, was the first professionally licensed African-American architect in Washington, D.C. The building is named after the Grand United Order of True Reformers who were the original owners and an African-American organization focused on social change. It gained a listing on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1989 and ten years later, it would be purchased by the Public Welfare Foundation
The renovated building is a feast for the eyes and the mind. It occupies the corner of 12th and U Streets. The Public Welfare Foundation was founded in 1947 by Charles Edward Marsh, a newspaper magnate, to make “gifts for education, charitable or benevolent uses under a plan which shall meet the changing need for such gifts with flexibility.” The organization set their anniversary celebration for Sept. 7 and 8th.
Marsh intentionally chose the generic name, Public Welfare Foundation, to allow the focus of the foundation to evolve. Under its current CEO, C. Jones, the foundation supports criminal and juvenile justice and social uplift efforts in underserved communities.