The Vestiges of Evil

October, 2009. 

Since it is now demolished and carted away to become landfill, I might as well dig out my old photos. Let us enter again into the realm of muttonchopped gents, dusty old safari trophies mounted upon burled walnut panelling, curling pipe smoke, and harumphing monocle the University Club.

Though most sources state that the University Club started in 1899 in a room above Swan's Chop House at Woodward & Larned, an entry on MittenHistory by a student who wrote a historic designation proposal for the doomed clubhouse offers an earlier genesis. She asserts that the University Club's first incarnation was in 1888, but the Panic of 1893 caused the club to fold.

The second stab at the University Club was made in 1899 by George P. Codd. A former University of Michigan baseball pitcher, Codd would go on to serve a term as Detroit mayor and as a congressman, and was the club's first president.

Its members included seed baron Dexter M. Ferry, and Senator James McMillan (one of the men who "ran" the railroad business in America in the mid-1800s), Albert Russell, Packard Motors president James Joy, and their ilk. In other words, the "muttonchop & monocle" crowd; crusty old white men whose names are etched into Detroit's history and the names of its street signs.

Their ranks had expanded so dramatically that they had to institute a membership cap of 600 by 1932.

There is some disagreement amongst my sources as to where the club relocated to after Swan's Chophouse was quickly found unsuitable. In 1900 the club moved to either "an old Baptist church," or to the "old Walker block" for nine years, then to the Walker residence at Fort & Shelby Streets, where they stayed until 1913. After that the University Club moved into the c.1880s residence of Senator James McMillan (a member), but that was torn down to erect this building on the same spot in 1931. According to MittenHistory, the cornerstone contained a box with the club's bylaws, constitution, and membership list, as well as a list of past presidents and a copy of that day’s Free Press. I wonder if any of that survived the demolition?

This building used to front on Russell Street (also named after a member), but the street was later blocked off and became the parking lot. For what it's worth, the book Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, 125 Years of Architecture and Engineering states that the University Club also met briefly in the "venerable" Oliver Newberry House as well, prior to Sen. McMillan's place, which by my tally brings the number of alleged homes of the University Club to a grand total of seven.

Membership in the club hinged on a candidate's having completed a degree at some prestigious university. I speculate that this requirement may have been designed to draw a social line between Detroit's new-money, and the "landed gentry" of its old-money industrialist aristocracy; that is, to exclude the less-refined likes of the nouveau-riche that were springing up from the automobile business, such as the rowdy Dodge brothers for instance.

Women were only allowed into the University Club for New Year's Eve, and they had to use a separate entrance; they were also restricted to a separate dining room and lounge. The club did not relax its "no girls allowed" restriction until 1978, when the first female—a stockbroker—was admitted.

The club was designed to cater not only to dusty old fossils, but also to recent university graduates (i.e., the sons of dusty old fossils) by providing them a place to help build up their networking skills as they tried to get established enough to launch business enterprises of their own.

Over 20 rooms were available for lodging, as well as a library and athletic facilities, which included included racquetball courts, squash courts (four single and one double), a gaming room, even a barbershop. Of course there was a tap room in the basement as well. According to a (now-defunt) link I saved from the Detroit News, the club served as the location of "many blue-blood bachelor parties and society wedding receptions." I can just imagine.

Detroit architect William Kapp designed this place after "one of the finest of the great houses of England," Knole in Kent, in a style becoming known as "Collegiate Gothic," which was intended to resemble the Oxfords and Cambridge Universities of England. Kapp's experience studying such architecture in jolly old England was what earned him this contract, and the finished result appears to be well suited for the scene of some crappy goth music video.

Kapp reportedly designed this particular staircase directly after the one in Knole in Kent:

Holleman & Gallagher's book about the history of the architectural firm Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls says that H.J. Maxwell Grylls was also a University Club member, and had personally executed the redesign of the James McMillan house when the club moved in in 1913, so I suppose it ought to come as even less of a surprise that William Kapp—a SH&G associate—was awarded the contract for the new building design.

W. Hawkins Ferry further writes in The Buildings of Detroit that Kapp modeled the entryway of this club was to be a brick version of the one at Compton Wynyates, another country house in Warwickshire. The AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture states that even the masonry of this structure was an attempt at mimicking the type of handmade brick commonly found in Cambridge. Kapp also helped design the Kelvinator Corporation's headquarters on Plymouth Road.

In 1985 the club loosened its age-old membership requirements again, to allow in those who had completed a mere two years of college, in hopes of attracting new members to its sadly dwindling, undoubtedly Roderick Usherian ranks. The University Club went bankrupt in 1992, and the building later housed a YWCA—a move that I think is poetic justice at it's finest.

Ironically, the YWCA in turn closed down in 2008, after the new Boll YMCA opened downtown.

On a late summer's day we slid in through a basement window while a homeless dude took shelter in the front door entranceway outside. The first thing we came to was the downstairs tap room or rathskellar. I couldn’t believe how thrashed-on the place was already. The floor was littered in pipe insulation from plumbing that had lately been removed.

I noticed the ceiling decor had a gaming motif...note the dominos and badminton rackets painted on the beams...

There was a small bar at the opposite end of this room, which also sported a fireplace. It sure was cozy, to be sure. Above the hearth was this seal:

I understand the Latin, ("Lux"="Light," "Veritas"="Truth," as in the enlightenment of education, etc.), but the Hebrew is Greek to me.

We then found our way past some locker rooms and a sauna to a huge court:

Going into it was reminded me of the "holodeck" on Star Trek, or some kind of gladiatorial pit.

Coming back toward the front of the building we discovered the library, where I started having a bibliogasm...

But I realized slowly that most of what was left behind here was the typical uninteresting junk such as old copies of Reader's Digest.

Oh well, the room sure looked cool.

Here’s what the fireplace looked like in the heyday:

From the Detroit News
And again in 2009:

The center panel above the hearth has been removed, probably bought & sold by an "antique dealer" to some classless out of state nouveau-riche bastard, so he can awkwardly shoe-horn it into his contextless c.2000s McMansion.

In 2010 the University Club was bought by Albert Ammori, who owns the liquor store across the street. The condition of the building was in a terminal nosedive by 2011, thanks to its new slumlord owner, who obviously studied the Demolition By Neglect Handbook extremely closely.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against architectural salvage by any means, but there was no reason why this building should have been left open to decay and trespass like this except for the fact that it was owned by a slumlord.

Homeless took up residence inside, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but let's just say the interior quickly became rather nasty. Ammori apparently hired contractors to destroy parts of the structure in 2011, but members of the preservation community moved to halt the dismantling by getting the city to designate the club as a historic landmark.

At the time certain outspoken members of Detroit City Council (ahem, Kwame Kenyatta) stood against protecting this building from demolition with a historic designation, on the grounds that it represented the white aristocracy, and their "slave institutions," because blacks were excluded from places like the University Club. And he is right—the University Club in my estimation is a vestige of the elite class which both directly and indirectly oppresses or exploits people of low status throughout our nation's history.

But tearing down the vestiges of evil has never once been an effective means of destroying evil itself, or of relieving oppression. If we were to tear down the Old Slave Mart in Charleston—a National Historic Landmark—would that change anyone's opinion on the ongoing civil rights struggle? Would it thwart some powerful person from being able to oppress a lowlier person? Would it teach white kids not to use "the N-word"?

I don't blame Councilman Kenyatta for feeling the way he does, but erasing the bad parts of our history never once improved our history...leaving us doomed to repeat it.

Anyway, the next interesting point was the formal dining room. Soaring banks of gothic windows drew the eye upward in a most pleasing way...

...and cast long autumnal shadows across the paneled floor.

Obviously the Middle Ages theme was strongest here.

It was so hard to get balanced shots in here off a point & shoot camera, thanks to the huge windows with blaring sunlight contrasted against super dark, nearly black woodwork...

Another giant stone hearth:

Notice the continued gaming motif...the shield on the left has a cross made out of dominoes, while the one on the right features playing cards and chips.:

Wrought iron chandeliers, long red silk curtains fluttering in the September seemed as though Errol Flynn might come flying into the scene any moment...

Piano anyone?

The only way this could have gotten more goth is if it were a harpsichord. Thankfully it didn't become as popular as the Lee Plaza piano at least. These tall curtains were fantastic:

Around the corner was a much more intimate room:

By the time I returned here about a year later, this room has been totally ravaged; windows were busted, graffiti bombed the walls, fires had been set, and there was a squatter living in that far left corner.

I am a total sucker for leaded glass windows.

Across Jefferson Avenue (which follows the river and used to be Detroit's main drag, before Woodward existed), we could see the mysterious Yondotega Club...

The Yondotega is the most exclusive club in Detroit, and one of the most exclusive in this country. It was founded in 1892 and thanks to their code of silence its membership rolls have remained mostly secret, but included the same basic cast of characters—Buhls, Fords, Fishers, etc.—it is the narrow list of famous guests however that has made it so notable. Some of the few who have been *allowed* to dine there have included the Prince of Wales, Admiral Byrd, and Teddy Roosevelt.

The days of these men's social clubs like the University Club have practically completely vanished. The only ones that still remain of the scores that once existed in the city are the Detroit Club, Detroit Athletic Club, and the Yondotega, and the first two are hurting for members last I heard. Also across the street is the Croul-Palms House:

As I said, Jefferson Avenue was once the "main drag" of Detroit, and as such many of the mansions of its most prestigous men were built along it (back when that thinking was still en vogue). Senators, mayors, governors, lumber barons, prosperous descendents of the original French…all built their magnificent homes in full view of the passing city for all to see. Very, very few remain.

The Croul-Palms was designed & built in the Queen Anne style in 1881 by William Scott, who was father to the architects of the old Wayne County Building. Later, as the age of the automobile dawned on Detroit, these gentry moved further upriver to Grosse Pointe, which is still one of the most opulent and exclusive residential areas in America today.

The Croul-Palms House is a National Historic Landmark.

We popped up on the roof for a minute, then we called it a day.

I came back at night once to show a friend around before this place went to hell, and the interior of the dining hall as seen bathed in streetlight from multiple directions was just dazzling...

The patterns thrown on the already fancy walls made it just an absolutely sublime space. A healthy dose of Colt 45 didn't hurt either.

The University Club was completely gutted by a severe arson in October of 2013 and demolition began not very long after. Leaving an abandoned structure open to trespass for years, and then burning it down to suit your needs constitutes a willful and felonious disregard for public safety. Yes, I just went there...and I'm not the only person who thinks that Ammori had this structure torched in order to get rid of it. This kind of action is an epidemic in Detroit, and has been for decades.

Because I just can't resist the temptation to tempt fate I came back during demolition, after the building had been made significantly more dangerous. Sadly there wasn't much to salvage, except for some extremely historic rubble.

But there was one upshot to this story however; on one of my trips into the club's library I picked out a book to take home that looked like a keeper, because it was about the Lincoln Highway.

I flipped through it briefly once I got home, then set it on my table and forgot about it for awhile. Then one day sometime later it occurred to me that I had seen one of those "ex libris" tags pasted into the front cover of the book denoting whose personal collection it had come from. I cracked it open again to see who it had belonged to...and nearly sh*t my pants when it dawned on me whose book this had been.

"From the Library of HENRY BOURNE JOY"...with an etching of a Packard car on one side:

  I flipped to the title page, to find an inscription:

"To Detroit University Club with Compliments of Henry B. JoyA Founder."

I stood there in disbelief for several moments...I was holding a bonafide piece of Detroit history that I had literally snatched from the jaws of oblivion, completely by accident. What's more, I had inadvertantly picked up this rare out-of-print book on almost the exact 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Lincoln Highway Association.

Henry B. Joy was the president of Packard Motor Co., and the president of the Lincoln Highway Association...this had been his personal copy of a book that was written about his greatest legacy—which he had also personally autographed and donated to the library of the University Club, which he helped found. His father, James F. Joy, was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, and had coincidentally enough gone down in Michigan history as the man who persuaded the Michigan legislature to sell him the bankrupt-before-it-was-completed Michigan Central Railroad. 

The Joys stood on equal footing in the pantheon of famous historic Detroiters as Henry Ford himself, and were immortalized in the name of Joy Road, the road I grew up on. My mind was blown.

Suddenly, I thought back to a day in 2008 when a friend and I were on one of our many trips to the Packard Plant and I was taking some photos of the Packard executive offices. As I was setting up shots in one of the devastated board rooms, I noticed something that caught my eye from behind the shattered walnut paneling. Inside the damaged wall, I could see some sort of painted sign in red and blue...with an "L" on it. Looking closer, it was painted on one of the building's concrete support pillars found throughout the plant, but which in this area are hidden from view by the cladding of the office walls. The damage to the wall had brought it into view once more:

I climbed up and looked closer. It was a Lincoln Highway marker, just like the old roadsigns! At the time I vaguely knew that the Lincoln Highway was built around WWI, and was the first real trans-American road; one that had been built—like the railways before it—at great cost and effort, to unite the eastern and western halves of the nation, but I had no idea of the connection to Packard and Joy. It occurred to me then that the Packard Plant itself dated to about that same era, and I wondered how old this sign was. I looked even closer and could descry pencilling near the painted sign itself...a flourishing signature, and the date: December 20, 1918.

Amazing—I tried to figure out what the use of such a sign would be, painted near the top of what appeared to be just this one column, a column that probably spent its whole life hidden behind office walls. This part of the Packard Plant was Building 12, and had been constructed from 1907-1910. This column was in no particularly special location, however it seemed as though we were looking at something that was meant to identify a certain corridor, almost for "navigational" purposes per se; perhaps it once marked a path for tour groups visiting the plant to follow?

The Sanborns of the plant that I've looked at only date back to 1915, and the Lincoln Highway idea was first conceived in 1912, while Building 12 was built no later than 1910. I'm thinking that this particular area of the plant may not have always been executive offices, and was later converted for that purpose, obscuring whatever had been previously painted on the columns.

The Lincoln Highway itself was the brainchild of Indianapolis Speedway founder Carl G. Fisher, and James A. Allison, Michigan-born inventor and founder of what became Allison Engine Company (which eventually merged into Detroit Diesel under General Motors). Henry Joy became the figurehead and cheerleader of the movement, as well as a major financial backer. He even tried to get Congress to spend the money they were going to use on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on the Lincoln Highway.

In 1915—exactly a century ago this year—Henry Joy saddled up a Packard automobile and formed a team to survey the planned route of the Lincoln Highway to test its viability. This was as much an advertising stunt and test of the Packard's durability as it was a test of the viability of the highway's route.

Detroit bankers and investors led the Lincoln Highway movement, which was headquartered here in the Dime Bank Building, even though the Lincoln Highway was not planned to pass through any part of Michigan. It was seen however that Michigan would still benefit enormously from the project, because it would lead to improved roads nationwide—without which the automobile industry would never have been able to continue expanding. Furthermore one could also argue that the prolific Michigan cement industry would eventually benefit from demand for paved roads.

I eventually sold the book to John King so that some Lincoln Highway historian could enjoy it. The Lincoln Highway Association still exists and is planning a Henry B. Joy Centennial Detroit-to-San Francisco Tour for later this year.

AIA Guide to Detroit Architecture, by Eric Hill & John Gallagher, p. 234
The Buildings of Detroit, A History, W. Hawkins Ferry
Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, 125 Years of Architecture and Engineering, 1853-1978, by Thomas J. Holleman & James P. Gallagher, p. 83-84, 130
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, by R. Szudarek


  1. Carl Fisher is not related to the Fisher Bros of Fisher Body Fame. Carl Fisher started out as a bycycle manufacturer in Indianapolis. Later he had the first auto dealership there, and then he started the Prest-O-Lite Company that made carbolic gas headlights, and later auto batteries. Then he started the Indianapolis Speedway with James Allison. Then he came up with the idea of the Lincoln Highway. Henry Joy was the first President and made a run in 1915 - the photo scrapbook of this trip is at the Bentley Library. Then Carl Fisher created Miami Beach. Then he came up with the Dixie Highway which ultimately ran from Sault Ste. Marie to Miami Beach - it had parallel routes, loops, doglegs and feeders starting in 1915. Later he tried to develop Montauk, NY. Quite the visionary. There us a new Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) and we are having our 2015 National Conference in Detroit - see:
    There was a Detroit to Elkhart Feeder route that followed current US 12 (Old US 112) from Detroit (MIchigan Ave.) to Mottville, MI.
    After the Conference the LHA is partnering with the National Packard Club for a Centennial Henry B. Joy tour from the Packard Prioving Grounds to San Fransisco. See:
    In additional to the Dime Bank Builidng the LHA later moved to the Garfield Bldg on Woodward, and later to the GM Building. They had their annual meeting at the Detroit Athletic Club.
    Enjoy the blog - be safe and warm out there!
    Russell S. Rein aka ypsi-slim

    1. Thanks for the catch--correction made! There were so many Fisher Brothers that it's hard to keep track of all of them haha.

      I read about the Centennial Henry B. Joy tour this year, that's part of what prompted me to put this post up. Very cool that the LHA was also in the Garfield Blg and DAC...didn't know that!


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