Life

Where Detroit's elite met to eat

The Detroit Club at the corner of Cass and Fort streets downtown was built in 1891.

Detroit in the 1800’s and the early part of this century was very much a club town. The Detroit Boat Club, recently closed, dated from 1839. The Detroit Club  organized in 1882, and the first incarnation of the Detroit  Athletic Club was founded in 1883.

In those early days, business and transportation moved at a snail’s pace. Offices and businesses closed at noon for a couple of hours and the men went home to lunch.

The Detroit Club

Two bachelors, James R. Campbell Jr., and Samuel T. Douglas, who presumably had no one to go home to, met by chance one day and came up with the idea for a downtown club where “men of culture could associate to mould into form that atmosphere and enthusiasm which are important factors in club welfare and where they could give interested attention to the development of art , civics, literature, and other elements in the permanent upbuilding of the city.”

<TDVALIGN=TOP>When Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan was a dinner guest at the Detroit Club in 1959, 500 angry picketers marched and threw eggs outside the club.
     With an original membership of 10, they held their first luncheon meeting in a little wooden house on Lafayette between Wayne and Cass. For several years afterward, the members met in a house at the corner of Fort and Wayne. The original charter was signed by 101 men. The current clubhouse at 712 Cass was built in 1891, an architectural blend of Romanesque Revival and Italian Renaissance.

It was a select group of men who hobnobbed for lunch, dinner, or a game of billiards, or who used the club for “summit meetings.” Since the very beginning in 1882, the club was a place where decisions were made. Its membership was a blend of big business, the professions, and the men who have contributed to the cultural growth of the city.

In the early days, they were pioneers in lumber, real estate, and railroads, and men holding office.

An early member was General Russell A. Alger, a prominent lumberman who had a distinguished career in the Civil War, served as Governor of Michigan, as Secretary of War for President McKinley and as a U.S. Senator.

Hugh McMillan, the club’s first president, was a founder of the Michigan Telephone Company, and had interests in railway, electrical, mining, manufacturing, steamship, and bank businesses.

James B. Book, heir to vast commercial and real estate interests, was a member as was Charles B. King, the man who drove the first car on Detroit streets in 1896. These early men were followed by the men who made their fortunes with the automobile, chemicals or steel.

The list of dignitaries entertained at the club is long: Presidents Truman, Hoover, and Roosevelt; Prince William of Sweden, Empress Zita of Austria, and the Duke of Windsor; Margaret Truman, Charles Lindbergh, Gene Tunney, Admiral Byrd, John D. Rockefeller and Edward G. Robinson.

When Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan was entertained at dinner one night in 1959, 500 picketers, most of them Hungarian freedom fighters and refugees from Eastern Europe, shouted insults and threw raw eggs.

Yondotega:

Founded in 1892, the Yondotega Club was built on the river at 518 E. Jefferson. The name is an Algonquin word for ‘beautiful view.’ Strictly an eating club, it is one of the most exclusive clubs in the United States, with a membership of around 150. Only when a member dies is a new member admitted.

<TDVALIGN=TOP>The mysterious Yondotega Club (this is the original clubhouse at 518 E. Jefferson) is one of the most exclusive clubs in the nation.
     When the Chrysler Freeway was built, the old clubhouse was torn down, and a new one built in 1959, further up Jefferson between Riopelle and Russell. No woman ever crossed the threshold of the old building. The gates open for the traditional Wednesday night dinner.

Dining and cards are the pastimes in the Yondotega Club (‘the Yon’ to intimates). The food is rumored to be fabulous, and has been consumed by James McMillan, Frederick Alger, Ernst Kanzler, Wendell Anderson and assorted Briggs’, Buhls, Fords, and Fishers. Visitors who have enjoyed the food? The Prince of Wales, Admiral Byrd, and Teddy Roosevelt.

As for cards, in a trial contesting taxes in 1938, members testified that after a deck of cards was used once, it was donated to charity. Also unearthed at that trial, the existance within the club of a side organization, known as “Kibitzer’s Foundation for Needy Friends to Encourage Scientific Card Playing.” The Yondotega Club continues, behind its wall of secrecy, to host fine dinners for its elite membership.

The University Club:

The University Club was founded in 1899 in Swan’s Chop House at the northwest corner of Woodward and Larned. George P. Codd, a University of Michigan baseball pitcher, congressman and mayor, was the first president. After one year at Swan’s, they moved to the old Walker block for nine years, then to the Walker residence at Fort and Shelby until 1913. The club then moved to the McMillan mansion at Jefferson and Russell, the former home of U.S. Senator James McMillan, which had been built during the 1870’s. During this period, ladies were only allowed in on New Year’s Eve.

<TDVALIGN=TOP>The University Club on East Jefferson originally was a place for college graduates to gather and compare educations.
     The members built their final home in 1931 on the same site on East Jefferson. It included squash and racquetball courts, leaded glass, antlered trophy heads, and the dining room: a two story great hall. There were 20 bedrooms on the third floor for permanent occupants and 4 for visitors. The main entrance was on Russell, but the ladies’ entrance was through a ‘delightful garden’ on Jefferson.

Members had to have graduated from a University or other establishment of higher learning although in 1985, in an effort to attract new members, the club was opened to those who had completed two years of college. Early members included Dexter Ferry and Albert Russell, and the club was the location for many blue-blood bachelor parties and society wedding receptions.

Residents of the guest rooms in 1962 included two brokers, a manufacturer, several business executives, a group of lawyers and a Chrysler Personnel chief. The first woman, Susan Reck, a stockbroker, was admitted in 1978.

The University Club went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992, and the building now houses the YWCA.

The Detroit Athletic Club:

An early incarnation of the DAC was organized in 1883 strictly as an athletic undertaking: a field between Woodward and Cass, Forest and Canfield. Later, in a move designed to prevent the city from running Garfield Avenue through the property, a clubhouse was built.

The present club was chartered on January 4, 1913 in the old Ponchartrain Hotel and opened two years later on April 17, 1915. The list of founding fathers reads like a Who’s Who of Detroit: Henry Joy, Roy Chapin, Abner Larned, Hugh Chalmers, and Emory Clark. There were 109 men who formed the original membership of the club.

<TDVALIGN=TOP>The Detroit Athletic Club, shown here in 1931, opened in 1915 in this Albert Kahn-designed building on the north edge of Grand Circus Park.
     On staff at the time of the opening (actually two days before) was Howard Wickison, who served as doorman of the club well into his 80s, retiring in the 1970’s. He ushered into the club such local luminaries as Walter Chrysler, the Dodge brothers, and Henry Ford. Visitors included Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Billy Sunday, and John Philip Sousa.

Although the 1980’s saw the club at war with some women in the community, notably Marianne Mahaffey, an earlier confrontation also ended in a victory for the ladies. Although club bylines prohibited women smoking in the club, and a vote by the membership reinforced the rule, women in 1927 just went ahead and smoked anyway. The men, though not taking the rule off the books, gave in and allowed the transgression to go unpunished and unchecked. The ladies, though, entered through a side door and had their own lounge; most of the Club was off limits to them, with the exception of the dining rooms.

Built by Albert Kahn, the large building had several reception rooms, dining rooms and informal dining spaces such as the Men’s Tap Bar and the Grill Room. On the upper floors were sleeping rooms, and suites which were home to clubs within the club, meeting places for select groups of friends.

Another club within the DAC is the famous Beavers, swimmers who compete in games such as water basketball. The Beavers have special poolside luncheons, to which speakers are invited such as Arnold Palmer, Henry Ford, Duffy Daugherty, and assorted war and sports heroes.

<TDVALIGN=TOP>Howard Wickison served as doorman at the DAC from 1915 until his retirement in the 1970s.

Along with its own members gymnastic facilities, the Detroit Athletic Club was long a promoter of sport in the Detroit neighborhoods, particularly boxing. The Club has hosted Golden Glove competitions, and an early Club manager was Joe Louis’ trainer in the beginning of his career.

Families were always important at the DAC. The club sponsored Easter events for children that featured lambs, bunnies and chicks for petting and cluddling. There were other club-sponsored family events throughout the year, with performing chimps or clowns.

The Savoyard Club:

The Savoyard River snaked through a willow swamp on the Guoin farm where Riopelle crosses Congress. At Woodward Avenue, a wide bridge spanned it. French settlers depended on the stream to turn the wheels of their mills. It was a favorite of anglers, but over the course of time, the settlers used the stream as a drain. After Fort Shelby was demolished, the bottom and sides of the stream were planked with the lumber from the fort. It became practically an open sewer, growing so offensive that residents along the shores were happy to have the city encase it in stone in 1836, and convert it into a great sewer.

A group of men who had made a habit of lunching together discussed the possibility of an eating club near the Buhl Building, where they worked. The Buhl Building had had been built over the now vanished stream. What began as a joke — a suggestion that the club be built at the top of the building which had dis0lace the stream — became reality in 1928. The architect, William E. Kapp, named it the Savoyard after the long gone creek. He aimed for the look of a French provicial inn.

An elevator took members to the 28th floor. Ahead was a vaulted stairway, with three turns and landings. Halfway up a flood of sunshine poured through a stained glass window covered with the Savoyard shield: Cadillac’s duck floating in the Savoyard river, with the French Fleur-de-Lis above.

At the head of the stairs was a rusty tin stand holding two candles for lighting cigars. When an attendant found that the members liked to light the candles, he began snuffing them out unobtrusively, so they could have the pleasure.

A screen bearing a map of the Detroit River stood at one end of the lounge, and the windows bore colored medallions featuring the coat of arms of the four nations who took turns governing the territory: the Pottawatomie, the French, the British and the American.

<TDVALIGN=TOP>The James McMillan Mansion on Jefferson was an early home of the University Club.
     The chestnut panelled dining room had a magnificent view of the city.

In 1957 the Savoyard had 650 members and dominoes was a favorite game of the regular denizens. By the 1990’s, liesurely luncheons were a thing of the past; corporate headquarters were moving to the suburbs, and the city’s movers and shakers were spending more time shaking things up than lunching. The Savoyard closed its doors in 1994.

The Recess Club:

Also founded in 1928 in the elegant new Fisher Building the Recess Club was another male lunch bastion. It formally opened on on the 11th floor Nov. 7 of that year with 500 members, many of them prominent in the automobile world. The main dining room seated 400, was decorated in French Renaissance style, with Louis XV furniture, teakwood pillars, and tapestries on the polished marble walls. Elevators opened directly onto the private lobby.

The seven Fisher brothers, Walter Chrysler, C.E. Wilson and William Knudsen were all members. By the 1950’s, the membership had risen to 1,000, with 200 on a waiting list. The club manager in 1959 told the News that the members’ favorite foods were roast beef, steak and apple pie. Also in 1959, ladies were invited to luncheon at the club for the first time (they had been allowed at dinner since 1931.) The purpose of the luncheon was to let the ladies see the new decor of the club which had been thoroughly modernized by Harley Earl Associates and the Albert Kahn firm.

A News article described the renovation:

” Light contemporary furniture replaces replaces the old heavy chairs and tables and color is used freely. Lighting is alternately bright or dimmed while plastic grills give a lacy effect to the wall treatment in the lounge. The ceiling has been lowered in alternating panels. Oranges, yellows, gold and ochres are used in the festive main dining room.”

<TDVALIGN=TOP>The clubs usually featured dark paneling and leather upholstery that reeked of the smoke of expensive cigars, like this University Club lounge.
     The Recess Club closed in 1990, after membership dropped to 225, and bottles from their famous cellars were sold off to members.

The Standard Club:

The Standard Club was founded in 1934 in a room at the Leland Hotel, and moved on to the Book Cadillac in 1940. It was the idea of a group of Jewish businessmen to start a luncheon club downtown, and over the years the roster had a stellar list of members — Max Fisher, Avern Cohn, Alfred Taubman among them. More than a luncheon club, invitation to membership was based on contributions to charity.

During the World War II years, they held Sunday night dances for servicemen in cooperation with the USO and the Army Navy Committe of the Jewish Welfare Board.

In 1977, the club moved its quarters to the 400 Tower of the Renaissance Center. The club had eventually opened to Gentiles and women, but remained predominately Jewish. Sadly, the decline in downtown businesses and competition from the Renaissance Club led to the closing of the club in February of 1981.

An attempt to reopen in Southfield ended ingloriously, with fraud charges against two brothers who were running the club.

The glory days of the men’s luncheon club have come and gone. The University Club, the Savoyard, the Recess and the Standard Club are all gone. The Detroit Club is hanging on, counting on the rising fortunes of the city of Detroit to lift it from its lethargy. The DAC is in the center of a now thriving area, with the Opera House on one side and the new stadiums soon to cast their benevolent shadow upon it. Yondotega remains, mysterious as ever.