One of my courses in graduate school was in historic preservation, and for that class we were required to create a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. I chose to write a nomination for the building once used by the University Club in Detroit. Due to a number of factors (including the fact that the owner had no interest in historic preservation), my nomination was never submitted to the National Register. However, the story of the University Club is fascinating and so I thought I would shorten my lengthy nomination and share it here. That is, I tried to shorten it, but it is still rather long!
The University Club is located in the city of Detroit along Jefferson Ave, less than a mile northeast from Woodward Avenue, the heart of downtown. The story of the club begins in a period of rapid growth near the end of the 19th century, which saw a number of changes in the city. Automobiles arrived and roads were paved; electric lights and long distance telephone lines were built. The social life of the city changed along with its physical appearance. Previously, much of the social world revolved around the home and family. Detroit began to follow the rest of the nation in creating separate spheres for leisure, just as the spheres of work and home had been separated earlier in the century. One common new form of leisure was men’s associations, which were practiced by men at all levels of society. At the lowest level men joined gangs and associated on the streets, middle class men joined fraternal orders such as the Elks or the Oddfellows, and in the elite classes men formed a variety of exclusive city clubs, among which was the University Club.
The earliest city clubs were formed on the east coast, reaching Detroit by the 1880s. That decade witnessed the founding of the Detroit Club (1882) and the Detroit Athletic Club (1883). They were followed in the 1890s with the Yondetega Club (1892). The University Club, although its clubhouse was not built until 1931, was also founded around this time. The first incarnation of the club began in 1888 and lasted for five years before folding during the Panic of 1893. In 1899, a new University Club was born. Detroit college men decided to form the club because in the late nineteenth century there was just beginning to be enough educated men in the city to form a club, without there being so many educated men that groups from different schools formed individual alumni associations instead. Although it was once called the University of Michigan Club by the Detroit Free Press, and was often confused as such, it remained throughout its existence a place where men from many different colleges could make friends and network with other elites. Additionally, collegiate men considered their education to give them an elite status, but often did not have enough money to afford the dues at other private clubs. With their own organization, they could have lower fees.
The University Club made its home in many locations before the current building was built. Its first location was above Swan’s Chop House on the northwest corner of Larned and Woodward. This location, above an unruly saloon, did not last long as two members were shot on the premises! They moved to an old Baptist church in 1900 and then to the James McMillian mansion in 1913. In 1926, the club celebrated the final payment on their mortgage on the McMillian mansion. They decided they needed a larger home, and after considering many options chose to tear down the mansion and build a permanent clubhouse. The cornerstone for the new building was laid on January 24th, 1931. Behind the cornerstone the officers of the club placed a box with bylaws, constitution, membership list, list of past presidents and a copy of that day’s Detroit Free Press. The new building officially opened on October 4th of the same year and was celebrated with an afternoon tea accompanied by music by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The opening was an important social event in the city and even made it into the society pages of the Detroit Free Press.
To design and build the new clubhouse, the club chose the architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. Both Theodore H. Hinchman and H.J. Maxwell Grylls were members of the club. Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, known today as SmithGroupJJR, is one of the oldest continually running architecture firm in the United States. The firm helped shape the city’s skyline in the 1920s with skyscrapers such as the Buhl Building, with its innovative Greek cross design, and the Art Deco styled Penobscot Building, once the tallest building in Detroit. The designer behind the club was noted Detroit architect William Kapp, head of the architectural department in the 1920s and early 1930s. He designed many other prominent buildings in the city as well, such as Music Hall and Meadowbrook Hall while with Smith, Hinchman & Grylls and later the Cultural Center and Temple Israel as an independent architect. His work also included many private clubs, including the Players Clubhouse in 1925 and the Women’s Colony Club in 1927.
Kapp employed the Collegiate Gothic style popularly used on college campuses for the University Club. Collegiate Gothic originated in the 1880s at Columbia University and Bryn Mawr. The style is strongly reminiscent of elite English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and thus provided American institutions with the same associations of grandeur and elitism. As the style spread to universities across the United States, it became a recognizable symbol of academia. By designing the University Club building in the style of Collegiate Gothic, Kapp made the structure a physical representation of the purpose of the club.
The clubhouse is an excellent example of the Collegiate Gothic style, although unique in its location unassociated with a particular institution of learning. The color of the exterior brick was chosen to match that of Cambridge University in England. The arched and recessed entrance, oriel windows with elaborate fenestration, dormer windows on steeply pitched roofs, and crenellated parapets are all commonly found in Collegiate Gothic buildings.
Although the exterior of the building was designed to fit the academic nature of the club, the interior fit more common clubhouse needs. It contained a library, formal dining and ballroom along with smaller, private dining rooms, ladies lounge and dining area, tap room, bedrooms, five squash courts and a racquets court. As with most clubs, women could not be official members but space was provided for wives of members to use.
In the new, grand, building, membership in the University Club continued to soar even as the Great Depression set in around the country. By 1932, membership was capped at 600 people, although numbers did drop to the 400s in the middle of the decade. Nonetheless, the club remained a strong part of the elite Detroit social scene for the next few decades. During these years, the club hosted a number of events for its members. Events included speakers, such as Jack Manning, managing editor of the Detroit Times in 1933, the début of a series of murals of the history of the club in 1936 and a gala to celebrate the retirement of one its members in 1941. In addition it held regular social activities such as card games and dances.
At the end of World War II, club members feared another recession as had followed World War I. They paid off their mortgage and prepared for the worst. However, the next decade instead brought prosperity to Detroit as the city embraced the automobile industry, which expanded to meet growing demand. The city’s population grew again, reaching its highest point in 1954. Yet this prosperity did not last, as both automakers and people began to move out of the city by the end of the decade.
As wealthy people fled the city, many city clubs faltered as they were tethered to their grand city clubhouses. Additionally, culture changed and focused more on the family, encouraging men to spend leisure time at home rather than at clubs. The club’s overall membership dropped precipitously, leading it to admit women in 1978 and then people with only two years of college in 1985. Nonetheless, the club was forced to file for bankruptcy and close its doors for good in 1992. The building was bought by the Detroit YWCA, which used it until 2008. In 2010 it was bought by a private owner.
Unfortunately, in the years since the YWCA vacated the building, it has been all but destroyed. Numerous break-ins have occurred and certain damage may have been committed by the owner himself. The interior is filled with trash, either items left behind by the YWCA or by those breaking into the building. Many of the walls show signs of water damage and potentially mold, particularly in the basement squash courts. In the ballroom, several of the chandeliers are broken. Many windows have been broken, and many others on the bottom floors have been boarded up by the city. In 2011, the exterior was damaged when someone (likely the owner) tore up a portion of the slate roof with large machinery, damaging the grounds and scraping parts of the brick walls in the process.
Last I heard, the owner of the building (who also owns a liquor store nearby) wanted to raze the building. The historic preservation community in the city was trying to stop that action by giving it local historic designation. I haven’t been able to find out how that played out, but as far as I know, the building is still standing. Sadly, the damage is so severe that it is unlikely to ever be restored to its former glory.
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