Duke Ellington’s Former Haunt Gets Restored

A once popular music hall and tavern off of Rhode Island Ave. frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington is being restored.

The town of North Brentwood and the Hyattsville Community Development Corp. are rehabilitating the historic Sis’ Tavern at 4516 41st Ave., a landmark of the first African-American community incorporated in Prince George’s County.

Constructed around 1912, the wood-frame building was originally supposed to be anything but a tavern. Under the terms of sale, the new owners were not allowed to sell  “intoxicating liquors” while the original owners or their children lived within a half mile.

At first, the building housed a grocery, but eventually owner Emma Hawkins (wife of North Brentwood’s first mayor) leased it to Marie “Sis” Walls, who ran it as a watering hole when the restrictive covenant no longer applied. Old-timers recall Ellington and Pearl Bailey dropping by to perform after their official shows at the Howard Theatre in D.C.

Sis’ Tavern closed in 1970, and the site was later run as Baby Dee’s Guest Club by Deloris Spriggs until 1996. It also housed a barbershop.

The building is considered historic because of the role it played as the first commercial building in North Brentwood, which was founded in the Reconstruction era by African-American veterans of the Union Army.

“Owned by local African-American residents, the property was an important commercial and social fixture in North Brentwood, first as a grocery and later as a tavern, and is still a recognizable landmark in the community,” notes the official historic property designation. “The property is also significant because it was a commercial building operated by African- Americans for African-Americans.”

The town and the CDC are using a $50,000 grant from Maryland’s African American Heritage Preservation Program for architectural design and interior rehabilitation; a grant from Prince George’s County to improve the facade; and smaller grants from Anacostia Trails Heritage AreaPreservation Maryland and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to restore signs on the site.

In 2015, the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center also added a mural by Chanel Compton called “Play That Song, Mr. Ellington” to the site.

You can see a mix of recent and historic photos of Sis’ Tavern in this video by the Maryland Department of Planning.

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