As the city of Detroit became an industrial boomtown in the 1880's and 90's, it became home to a wealthy elite, whose mansions lined Woodward Avenue and dotted Brush Park. Exclusive clubs, where the upper class could dine and discuss matters of business and culture started to spring up towards the end of the century. One of the earliest was The Detroit Club, founded in 1882, and quickly followed by a succession of others including the Yondotega Club, The Detroit Athletic Club, and a club for alumni of the University of Michigan. Some were more successful than others; the Yondotega continues to this day as an exclusive dining eating club, while the U of M Club folded in the mid 1890's.
A few members of the former U of M Club continued to meet informally, however, and from this group arose the idea of a club for university-educated men of any academic institution to meet. What became known as the University Club was established at a meeting of members on January 19th, 1899. The club secured the third floor of an apartment building at 87 Woodward Avenue, furnishing it with easy chairs, lounges, card rooms, and a large dining room. Among the 32 charter members was George P. Codd, the clubs first president and later mayor of city.
In the early days members could be found relaxing in the main room, reading newspapers and magazines, playing cards, and discussing matters of importance. Noonday lunch was an important part of the day; members would sit around a large table, setting aside their collegiate affiliations, and partake in a communal meal. After lunch, one hour was set aside for the smoking of cigars. "Club nights" on Saturday evenings featured card games, songs, and stories.
By the summer of 1900, the club had outgrown its modest setting, and moved to the Walker building at Griswold and Fort. Architect Alpheus W. Chittenden, also a member of the club, oversaw extensive renovation of the building. By 1902 the club had 250 members, many of which were graduates of the leading universities in the US.
Around 1909, the club moved again to the Hiram Walker house at Fort and Shelby streets, and from there to the former home of James McMillan in 1913. It was here, at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Russell Street that the University Club settled for good.
At some point in the late 1920's, the club razed the McMillan house and started construction of a purpose-built clubhouse, unlike any other Detroit had seen. Architect William E. Kapp, working for the firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, designed a rambling, collegiate gothic building of red brick, lead glass windows, and heavy wooden beams. On the first floor was a well-stocked library facing Jefferson Avenue, with wooden bookshelves and deep armchairs. Just outside the door were offices, a "poets bar," and the check-in desk. A wooden staircase led up to the dining hall on the second floor, which was designed to evoke the feel of a medieval castle. The third floor was made up of private living quarters for permanent residents, as well as rooms for visiting guests. The main entrance facing Russell was for men, while the more modest entrance on Jefferson was for women, who were only allowed in the club on New Years Eve.
The University Club was not merely for scholars, but focused heavily on athletics as well. Squash courts, a swimming pool, locker rooms, and a world-class rackets court were located in the basement. The cavernous rackets court in particular was interesting, as it was made with Bickley concrete, a smooth, dark surface ideal for the sport. For refreshment afterwards, there was an appropriately named "rathskeller,"or "council cellar" bar.
As with the rest of Detroit, the University Club prospered through the 1930's, 40's, and 50's. Pictures from the era show the dining hall packed for lunchtime, with a pall of cigar smoke hanging over the room. Only 300 members were allowed at any given time, and there was always a waiting list. But high society evolved and changed in later years, with the upper and middle classes exiting the city and its clubs. By 1970 the University Club was losing money and members to the suburbs, and had to adjust to changing social standards. The club admitted its first female member, stockbroker Susan Reck, in March of 1978, and by 1986 there were six women.
After losing money for over 15 years, the club appeared to turn a corner in the mid 1980's, as new management made repairs to the aging building and brought in a professional kitchen staff. Membership rose to 200, including Mayor Coleman Young, who joined in early 1986. But by 1992 the University Club was bankrupt, and closed for good.
The building got a second lease on life in 1994, when the Detroit branch of the Young Women's Christian Association, or YWCA, leased it for use as their regional headquarters and service center. The Downtown YWCA offered day care services for working women, classes for women interested in starting a business, and other programs geared towards women and children. Some parts of the former University Club were changed to meet new purposes, with the rackets court being converted over to basketball and the former dining hall used for meetings and fundraisers. But large parts of the club were not especially useful to the YWCA, which started looking into remodeling the building in 1996. Drawings indicate that the living quarters would have become office rental spaces, a pool where the rackets court stood, and an exercise room in place of the squash court.
Ultimately, however, the expanse of renovations made them impractical, and the expense of maintaining the aging building drained away badly needed funds. By July of 2006, the YWCA was looking for a new home and the University Club was put up for sale. The branch went down to operating just four days a week in October of 2008 before closing at the end of the year.
With no one to look after it, the building quickly began to succumb to the elements. A leaking roof already badly damaged by a storm let water in, spreading mold and mildew. Most of the fixtures and pipes inside were scrapped, leaving large holes in the walls. A rotating cast of homeless people took up residence in and around the club, including a large, schizophrenic man who lived above the dining hall. After sitting vacant for two years, the University Club was bought by Albert Ammori, who owns a liquor store across the street, in April of 2010 for $600,000. Though at the time of purchase he denied he had plans to demolish it, the building took a turn for the worse under his ownership, as most of the wood paneling inside was ripped out and piled in the center of the dining hall and library.
In July of 2010 the Historic Designation Advisory Board of the Detroit City Council requested that the University Club be given a historical designation, which would prevent the owner from altering or demolishing the building. There was fear that the owner was attempting to slowly demolish the building, fears heightened when he used a backhoe to gouge holes in the roof and rip off some shingles, and was forced to stop work by the city. The board went to the city council in September, 2011 to present its case for preserving the building, arguing that the University Club was a unique and historic building worth saving, but ran into especially pointed opposition from councilman Kwame Kenyatta:
"I don't have the same nostalgia that most folks have about some of these buildings; most of them were built many years ago when certain folks couldn't even go in them, in this case women couldn't, blacks probably couldn't. You've got slave institutions that were designed by great architects and some of them still stand and people make good arguments for keeping them to stand, I would not be one and I'm sure folks would not be for preserving any elements of the Holocaust as well. So just preservation for preservation's sake is not one of my concerns... My vote would be to deny the motion."
Debbie Goldstein, speaking on behalf of the board, replied, "Mr. Kenyatta, we do preserve monuments of the Holocaust. We need to remember that."
"They can have the ones that belong to slavery; I don't want them," he said.
Ultimately the city council denied the historic designation, with other members recognizing that while the building had historic value, the attempt to have it designated came after it had been sold to Ammori.
Today, the property on which the University Club stands is being marketed as an ideal location for fast food restaurants. Though the owner continues to secure the property against the homeless that set up camp inside, little effort has been made to halt the decline in the condition of the building.
At 4:30 in the morning of June 15th, 2013, a 2-alarm fire destroyed most of the dining hall and caused widespread damage to the rest of the building. It took fire crews nearly six hours to completely extinguish the blaze, which continued to flare up into the evening. Demolition of the University Club began in November of 2013 and finished a month later.