Higher Education

The buildings that I photographed in the late 1990s and early 2000s were ruins in the truest sense of the word. Not only that, they had been in that condition for a very long time. The Statler Hotel, for example, was not operational at any point in my lifetime. Therefore, it was easy to think of the forces that lead to their physical decline and ruined state were things that were historic and in the past. I was merely seeing and documenting the results.

In recent years, as many of the long-abandoned ruins have faded from the landscape, a new generation has appeared. In the process the opportunity exist to observe destructive forces as they happen. It has been a rather depressing education.

I could cite countless examples. Detroit has closed more schools in the last five years than I could keep track of. Don’t get me started on the hotels, churches, residential structures, etc. But it seems timely to look at the University Club on Jefferson Avenue, which is facing almost certain demolition by neglect. Alarmingly, within a very short span of time it went from being a well-preserved vacant building to a severely damaged ruin.

I haven’t done an extensive amount of research on the building yet, so historic trivia is somewhat limited. But I can state the following. The University Club was established in 1899 as a social club with the primary requirement for membership was a four-year degree from an institution of higher education. This was a time during which a college education was far less common than it is today, so the club was fairly exclusive. For the club’s first three decades it rented space in a number of commercial and residential structures, the last of which was the Sen. McMillan mansion located on the present Jefferson Avenue site.

In 1931 the old mansion was replaced by the present structure, the University Club’s first and only purpose built clubhouse. The building was designed by William Knapp who employed a combination of Tudor and Collegiate Gothic for the building’s interiors and exteriors. These were the architectural styles which were popular on college campuses of the time. As far as clubhouses go, it is fairly typical for the type. The building is divided into three components. There were social function rooms and their support facilities, a block of guestrooms, and athletic space. Overall the building has been a handsome addition to Jefferson Avenue and the nearby Indian Village Historic District.

My understanding of the purpose of such social clubs is that in addition to gaining access to the clubhouse facilities, a benefit of membership is the opportunity to network and meet various elites and/or business contacts. While this may still ring true to an extent, perhaps such benefits are viewed in decreasing importance. For the past several decades, social clubs throughout the country have struggled with attracting members and many have closed. In an effort to attract more members the University Club made changes to its requirements, admitting women in 1978, and individuals with two-year degrees in 1985. But such actions were not enough and the club closed in 1992. The former clubhouse was then used as a temporary location of the Detroit YWCA, being vacated for good in the late 2000s.

I first photographed the former clubhouse in 2009. Having been recently vacated, the building was far from the ruin that the Statler Hotel had been when I first saw it. The vegetation around the exterior was somewhat overgrown, but otherwise at a glance the building appeared occupied. Even the interiors, for the most part, were intact. They appeared to require little more than some dusting and vacuuming.

Highlights included squash and racquetball courts that resembled the holds of cargo ships, a Tudor card room with built-in booths, and the various meeting rooms. The clubhouse’s two signature spaces were its ground floor library and the second floor dining room. These rooms featured leaded glass windows, wood paneling, and great fireplaces. The library was still fully stocked with the old club’s books, and during my first visit, was largely undisturbed.

However, subsequent visits have revealed the effects of being open to the elements and trespass. Obviously little effort was made to secure the building. Besides being popular with photographers and architecture enthusiasts, the University Club attracted a more destructive element. Architectural fixtures have been removed, graffiti appeared, the library’s books were pulled down and torn to shreds, other rooms were filled with evidence of human habitation and water damage appeared on the wood and plaster. The building has been steadily transformed into a ruin at an increasingly rapid pace.

On the occasion of my final visit, earlier this year, I found the interior ravaged beyond recognition. The library was stripped, and a rather elaborate “tent” constructed around the fireplace. Perhaps an effort to create a warm shelter? The dining room’s wrought iron fixtures and decorative shields were long gone. I suppose that it could have been worse. Literally days after my visit contractors arrived on site and began the removal of materials from both the interior and exterior of the building. This was a violation of the building’s pending landmark status and they have, for the time being, been halted. Among other things, the slate roof was damaged and the interior’s wood paneling was ripped out to access ventilation ducts for their scrap value. Photographs of this recent damage by other photographers can be viewed here and here.

There have been noble efforts by the local neighborhood and preservation organizations to preserve the building, ie: the aforementioned local landmark designation. But the building is now in the hands of an unsympathetic owner of a neighboring business. It appears increasingly likely that an institution which once celebrated higher education will be replaced by a liquor store. Given the damage already done to the building, and prior experience in preservation battles, I can not be optimistic. Sadly, Detroit’s preservation laws lack the teeth they need.

The University Club has only been vacant for a few years, and I have been photographing it for less than two. However, within that time I have seen the condition of the building transform considerably, not to mention its preservation prospects. This was a change that I never witnessed with the downtown hotels and theaters. They were already ruins the first time I ever saw them. But with the former club I have been able to see the transformation into a ruin firsthand, rather than just the final result. As I have noted, it has been a rather depressing education.

12 comments to Higher Education

  • Arthur Salcido

    This is really sad to see but it is happening in other major cities as well. Take the train through Los Angeles and you will see lots of abandon buildings and homes. Even small towns are drying up and becoming a wasteland. No jobs.

  • Hi David,
    I follow your work, and I’m glad to see you posting some more. I remember The Kohrmann Report fondly, and I’m glad you picked it up in another format here. RE: This particular location – it’s incredible. As a West Coast explorer, I’m envious of what you have in Detroit, but it also strikes me as melancholic for those who don’t wish Detroit to be known for this. At the same time, places like the one you feature here are disappearing every day, and I’m glad you’ve taken up the torch to record these very important micro-histories. Also, I should be in your area soon (grad school) potentially doing research that deals with this very subject, so I’d love to keep in touch and see if you’d be interesting in tromping around with a like-minded explorer.

  • Sarah

    When I first traveled to downtown Detroit, I believe the first massive abondoned building that caught my eye was the Michigan Central. Since, I have taken a self guided tour around downtown Detroit to view the rest of the forlorn, massive archetectures that sprinkle the area. On my tour, I was curious as to what the inside looks like which led me to this website. Enjoying your website I noticed that many of your sites are in need of an update. Whether its taking a photo of the land where the building once stood, or braving the elements and re-exploring the previous and freshly exploring new landmarks of a “Forgotten Detroit”. 🙂 Exploring old places and taking lots of photos from weird and untouched angles has been one of my favorite past times. Let me know if you gentlemen need a third adventurer. 🙂

  • Evan Elliott

    It is so sad to see this kind of irreplacable beauty reavaged and neglected. Sadly it is beginning to take hold in more cities across the nation. What kills me I guess is that I have always been in awe of Detroit’s excellent collection of architectural marvels and to see so many of them rotting and being stripped away to nothing is quite disgusting. The special skills it took to craft these bulidings such as woord carving and elaborate plaster work have gone by the wayside. You can’t replicate anything like this in the “McWorld” of today. Such a sad and useless waste…

  • Eric

    Thanks for the pictures and information on this lost treasure. Although I have never been to Detroit, I have taken great interest in the amazing history lost every day in that once great city. So sad to see how this building has been raped over the past year. It just amazes me how buildings such as this and the Lynnewood Hall outside of Pittsburgh can end up in the hands of such reckless, ignorant and arrogant owners. These are the buildings that need to be rescued before they reach this state; it would have been a reasonable restoration only a year ago. Now, like the Lee Apartments, it looks like the treasures that made those places timeless have been destroyed and the cost to bring those places back to their former glory would be too great. Hate to say it but with further economic hardship likely to face fed, state and local governments, I think losses like this will become far too common. Thanks for the photographic documentation of this once great place. I would love to see posts of other pics and perhaps ideas of where to check out in Detroit before many more are lost.

  • Ava

    My husband works for a property management firm in Indian Village. Many times he has mentioned that he is saddened by the decay of so many of these wonderful and historic buildings. He didn’t grow up here. He never saw many of these buildings when they were gorgeous, vibrant and functional as I did. I had the privilege of visiting the club with my uncle in the Spring of 1980. We were the guests of a member who was his childhood friend. I couldn’t stop staring at the architecture. Then I found the library. I curled up on one of the leather sofas and spent the afternoon lost in a book. I even remember the book: an original, leather-bound volume of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”. The men were amazed that a teenage girl would not only read, but understand, the book. I didn’t tell them that we were reading the book in my English class, and that I had a paperback version in my bag.

  • Jason

    Sounds like the building was finished off this morning. What a horrible demise for such a beautiful building.

  • I did the flowers for a wedding held in the great hall of the University Club after it had been taken over by the YMCA. It was probably one of the last events to be held in the stately facility as the YMCA lamented not having the money to properly keep the building up. The extreme utility costs alone were beyond what they were using the facility for. It saddens my heart to see the quick progression of decay once a building is taken over by those who do not cherish it but would rather ravish it for personal gain and/or survival.

  • Thomas

    It’s a pity to see such pictures of wonderful buildings slowly fading away. And it’s really a shame, that the mankind does nothing to avoid this. Hopefully our children will learn to handle resources more careful.
    Kind regards from germany.

  • Went by to find the building destroyed by fire (arson) the day I posted on here previously. So sad… https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10200668746338826.1073741834.1165790691&type=3&uploaded=47

  • […] at the time most of these pages were written. But I photographed it, none the less. As I noted in a prior post, the building’s demise provided me an opportunity to see the forces of destruction firsthand, […]

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