Two Dukes, one building, and a whole lot of speculation

Curious coincidence? About 1913 young Edward “Duke” Ellington began hanging out in a pool hall operated by Frank Holliday in a building in the 600 block of T Street NW owned by Washington, D.C. physician Louis Kolipinski.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. i, Plate 32.

Howard Theatre vicinity, c. 1919. Arrow indicates former Frank Holliday pool hall location. Credit: Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Vol. I, Plate 32.

Kolipinski was born into a Russian (Polish) immigrant family and he graduated from Georgetown medical school. He began practicing medicine in 1897 and by the first decade of the 20th century was investing in real estate throughout Washington. He owned several buildings in the 600 block of T Street NW including the two-story brick building where Holliday and later proprietors operated a pool hall. The Howard Theater, completed in 1910, is located across an alley to the east.

The entire block was a hotbed of African American entrepreneurialism and artistic expression. The businesses there straddled the line separating “proper” Washington and the city’s underworld which was populated by numbers men, bookmakers, and bootleggers. Ellington credited his time on the block with being critical to forming his identity. There does not appear to be any evidence that Ellington and the Kolipinskis ever met. Dr. Kolipinski died in late 1914 and his wife assumed control of his real estate assets, which remained in the family until 1987. Today the one-story building constructed in 1931 that replaced an earlier two-story building is a brew pub that opened in 2013. The Ellington connection is a key part of the establishment’s nostalgia narrative: “Established on the spot where Frank Holiday’s Pool Room once stood — next door to the Howard Theatre and where Duke Ellington learned how to play jazz as a teenager.”

624 T St. NW, former Frank Holliday pool room location.

624 T St. NW, former Frank Holliday pool room location.

The Kolipinskis had several children, including Andrew Leopold Kolipinski. Andrew was born c. 1910 and was about a decade younger than Ellington. Though Washington was rigidly segregated in the early twentieth century, underworld establishments – like pool halls, after hours clubs, and brothels – were among the few places where people of different races and classes could mingle. Holliday’s pool hall heterogeneity, at least when it came to class, was one of the things that attracted young Ellington.

“Ellington also spent significant time as a teenager in a less rarified area of black Washington, at Frank Holliday’s poolroom in the Shaw neighborhood,” wrote Harvey C. Cohen in his 2010 book, Duke Ellington’s America. “The poolroom attracted a mix of people who Ellington claimed educated him as much as his schoolteachers did: ‘pool sharks,’ lawyers, well-traveled ‘Pullman car porters,’ ‘professional and amateur gamblers,’ a slew of piano players, and Dr. Charles Drew.

Ellington biographer Mark Tucker wrote about Ellington’s time in the T Street establishment in his 1991 book, Ellington: the Early Years:

Ellington also learned race pride could be carried too far, as when the “proud negroes” of Washington opposed school desegregation because they did not want their educational standards lowered. And he saw how this pride could become prejudice in a black community where caste distinctions were made on the basis of skin color. Perhaps to escape this stratification, Ellington sought out places like Frank Holliday’s poolroom at Seventh and T streets, a place that showed “how all levels could and should mix.” There he found college graduates, professional gamblers, Pullman porters, law and medical students (probably from nearby Howard University), and musicians. In school Ellington studied Negro history and learned to be proud of his people; in the poolroom he was taught “the art of the hustle” by card sharks, check-forgers, and pickpockets. But even these small-time criminals, with their worldly airs and slick style, were worthy of emulation: “At heart, they were all great artists.”

Ellington has acquired his nickname, “Duke,” by the time he was hanging out in Holliday’s pool hall. Andrew Kolipinski died in a car accident at age 21. According to his November 1931 obituary he had acquired the nickname “Duke” while attending Randolph-Macon College. There don’t appear to be any documents or narratives surviving that describe how the Kolipinskis interacted with their tenants and the businesses housed in the buildings they owned.

It may be that Duke Ellington and Duke Kolipinski never met. It’s also possible, however unlikely, that their paths crossed in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. I wonder what a pair of teens, one a talented and curious African American and the other, the son of European immigrants, would have talked about had they met each other in or around Frank Holliday’s pool room.

The Howard Theatre and former Holliday pool room, January 2016.

The Howard Theatre and former Holliday pool room (left of truck), January 2016.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein