Walking down U Street, on any given night of the week, it’s impossible to not look up when passing by Nellie’s. The white brick facade and black trim are lit up bright against the black sky and orange hue of the streetlights. The noise from inside is the unmistakable shouts and cheers of people having a good time. There is always a party upstairs at Nellie’s. It’s been this way almost since they first opened, so owner Douglas Schantz tells me.
Whether you’re new in D.C., or you’ve lived here forever, there’s a recurring phrase you’ll hear somebody utter at least once: “U Street’s changed a lot.” And they’re not wrong; U Street has seen a startling amount of change, particularly in the past five years. Condos, storefronts, bars, and more condos have gone up all over the U st. corridor. It’s easy to understand why some passers-by would look at place like Nellie’s, consistently full of patrons every night of the week, and mistakenly believe it’s been here as long as Ben’s Chili Bowl. Nellie’s has only been at 900 U Street NW since 2007.
In spite of the rampant developments up and down U Street, the neighborhood has a deep history. LeDroit Park, a community synonymous with the Black American elite, was originally designed to be a Whites-only gated community. Howard University Hospital is at the former site of Griffith Stadium, the ballpark where every US president from Taft to Kennedy threw a first pitch. Everything in this neighborhood used to be something else. 900 U st., for instance, used to be the home and the studio of one of America’s most significant photographers.
Addison Scurlock was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1883, and moved to Washington, D.C. with his parents when he was 17 years old, and already adept at photography. After finishing his apprenticeship under Moses Rice, and running a photo studio out of his parents’ house for a short time, Scurlock finally opened his first standalone studio at the corner of 9th and U. He lived and worked out of the address until his death in 1964, shortly after passing the business on to his son.
Scurlock’s work is arguably some of the best photography to come out of the early 20th Century. While making a significant amount of money from posed studio portraits, he was also able to document city life, particularly Black American city life in Washington, D.C. His subjects included notable figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, but also subjects like Howard University students watching a football game, or kids off to a picnic. His eye was egalitarian, and wanted to cover all walks of life. His eye was also unflinchingly honest; His shots of high society, in all of its pomp and circumstance, are a stark contrast against his shots of Freedman’s Hospital interior. He showed the world what everyday life was like in a Black community, in the middle of the Nation’s Capital.
One of the most fascinating things about Scurlock’s portfolio is how it’s interpreted today. While he hasn’t been a household name in D.C. for more than fifty years, his photos are strikingly familiar to those of us who live here. The pictures of athletic teams lining the walls of the Anthony Bowen YMCA are mostly from Scurlock’s studio. The famous shot of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from performing at DAR Constitution Hall was also shot by Scurlock. His camera, photo equipment, and most of his negatives have been donated to and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution, and he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. If Mathew Brady is the definitive photographer of the mid-19th Century, Addison Scurlock is certainly the early-20th Century counterpart.
It’s for this reason Doug Schantz wanted to feature some kind of commemoration of Scurlock in the 2007 construction of Nellie’s. When the walking tour signs went up all over the District, he immediately contacted the ANC to get a plaque for the building. He also decided to keep the original windows, trim, and fireplace that once belonged to the former occupants of 900 U Street. As the city changes and grows, and as the developers run rampant through U Street, Nellie’s holds fast to the identity they’ve carved out for themselves over the past decade.
Part of being a “straight-friendly gay bar,” which is a term Douglas Schantz coined, is the notoriety. While Nellie’s doesn’t have it’s own Wikipedia page either, the bar has become a landmark in the changing tides of U Street, and a destination spot for the Gay community and their straight friends. The downstairs bars are full of college sports memorabilia and fraternity paddles, not from Schantz’s own college days, but from customers’; bringing in an official paddle from your frat gets you a bucket of beer. Lining the wall up the stairs are all of the awards Nellie’s has accrued. Word has gotten around about this bar.
Today, the former Scurlock Studio is busier than ever. Schantz’s vision of a gathering spot for the Gay community has developed a significant following. And like Scurlock, Nellie’s staff works overtime to attract people from all corners of the District. Drag Brunch, Schantz tells me, sells out two weeks in advance. The crowd that attends Drag Brunch, though, is entirely different from those who show up to “Smartass Trivia.” And the folks who show up to trivia are entirely different from the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. drinkers.
Schantz welcomes all in his bar, in the same way Scurlock welcomed all in front of his lens.