The Scarab Club: Detroit's artist hangout since 1907

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

When visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts park their cars in the Farnsworth lot behind the building, they walk by a curious brick building with a walled garden. The building is unadorned except for a Pewabic Pottery glazed scarab over the front entrance, a bronze sculpture at one end, and a Michigan historic marker beside the entrance.

It’s called the Scarab Club and about 15,000 people a year stop in for a visit. The “club house” is small compared to the other imposing cultural sites in the Midtown neighborhood, and most people don’t stop to look further, but they should, if just for a tour. For some it has changed their lives.

Entering the Scarab Club is like walking into a jewelry box: every wall, door, door knob, light fixture, window and ceiling is adorned with frescos, Pewabic tiles, carvings, stained glass, paintings, bas-relief or sculpture. While the 1928 building’s exterior seems subdued (it is actually an early modern masterpiece in the Northern Italian Renaissance style designed by Detroit architect Lancelot Sukert), the building’s interior is decorated in the American Arts and Crafts style. Colorful art engulfs you as you walk through halls, up stairs and into galleries.

According to the current energetic gallery director at the Scarab Club, Treena Flannery Ericson, it began as an exclusive club in 1907. “You had to apply and be approved by a committee to join the Scarab Club. (It) had a strong appeal to automotive designers, creative types from advertising agencies, and visiting artists. When Diego Rivera and his assistant Pablo Davis finished a day’s work on his famous DIA courtyard murals, they would slip over to the Scarab Club for drinks, cigars and dinner.”

The organization was founded by Detroit artists and originally was called the Hopkin Club, named for one of the club’s leaders, Robert Hopkin. Arguably Detroit’s most prominent 19th century artist, Hopkin was nationally known for his beautiful paintings of ships and maritime scenes on the Great Lakes, other bodies of water and some landscapes. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1837, Hopkin immigrated with his family to Detroit in 1843 and remained a resident of the city until his death in 1909. In all, he produced at least 390 watercolors and oils.

Like many artists, Hopkin was self taught. In major cities across the U.S., artists who were not formally trained had difficulty gaining acceptance by big city museums and finding buyers for their art. They formed groups and clubs to set up their own exhibitions and offer artists or art lovers a place to congregate, relax and make art; the Hopkin Club was just such a place.

Dung beetle inspires name

The name was changed to the Scarab Club in 1913 by a new director, John Swan. Swan collected artistic renderings of scarabs (an African beetle), which were used in many art forms, such as jewelry, as an iconographic Egyptian symbol of resurrection; real scarabs in Egypt lay eggs in camel dung, so larva and eventually new beetles emerge from the dung. Swan saw this as renewal through the arts in Detroit and changed the club’s name.

The Scarab Club generated a lot of coverage in Detroit newspapers very early on. The club’s first public exhibit was in 1910. At that time they had only a dozen members, but it was growing rapidly. As they grew they moved from space to space, including 80 Gratiot Avenue, 10 Witherell Street, and in 1916, “The Scarab Studio Building” at 292 Woodward Avenue.

Some of the early annual exhibits were quite popular and featured more than 100 works of art. From the very beginning the club awarded the Scarab Club Gold Medal, given to the best work of art at the annual exhibit and still awarded to this day. The medal was designed by Detroit sculptor and Scarab Club member Alfred Nygard, whose works can be seen at Detroit churches. His carved and painted scarab panel from 1922 is featured in the front lobby.

In addition to paintings and sculpture, the club held musicales, lectures, work sessions and “Ladies nights” when women members got together for “frolic and dance.” Before the current building was completed in 1928, the Scarab Club exhibited and held events throughout the city, such as Hudson’s department store and the old Hotel Ponchartrain.

From the start, the club was a great proponent of Detroit and Michigan artists. The Michigan Artist Exhibit some years received up to 600 submitted entries by regional artists. In 1914, the Scarab Club featured something completely new: women artists.

Women Are Admitted

“Another move that added interest to the exhibit was the admission of works by women. There was no hesitation on their part when the barriers were lowered.”

– Detroit Free Press, December 13, 1914

To this day the club continues to champion women artists.

Elaborate costume balls

In 1917 the Scarab Club held the first of what would become its most famous event of the year — the costume ball held in January. These were huge affairs attended in some years by a thousand Detroiters.

“The portals of the ‘Forbidden City’ were thrown wide open … in the ballroom of the Hotel Pontchartrain for the Scarab Club members and their friends and high carnival reigned until early the next morning,” read a report on the 1920 ball. “The fete was in a courtyard within the city of Mecca … Oriental lights flooded the gardens … In the garden were 600 guests impersonating types from every land and every period from the Medieval Knights to the sometimes unconventional costumes of today. … Chinese and Turkish costumes were favored. A large number of gorgeous Mandarin coats were noted. Many of the outfits had been purchased in the Orient by those who wore them.”

Scarab Club costume ball

An undated photo of the popular annual Scarab Club costume ball, which began in 1917. (Detroit News archives)


What you’ll see today

Touring the galleries and rooms of the Scarab Club is unforgettable. The top floor is artist studio space and is not open to the public, but the second floor, called “the lounge,” is open and needs to be seen. On the ceiling are nine wooden beams that over the years have been signed by artists, some from Detroit, ome visiting. Once a year in September, in a special ceremony/party, an artist is selected to sign a ceiling beam, accompanied by a crowd of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and club members. Some of the artists who have signed the beams are famous, such as Norman Rockwell, Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Isamu Noguchi (sculptor of the Hart Plaza fountain) and Marshall Fredericks (sculptor of the “Spirit of Detroit”). Even Detroit’s own John Sinclair of the MC5 has signed the beam.

Running crosswise are 32 smaller beams that are hand painted with patterns and coded images. These small beams are all titled, such as the “Founder’s Beam” or “Round Table Beam.” To help sort through beams and artists the Scarab Club installed in 2012 a computer kiosk with a touch screen that allows one to touch a name to bring up a beam map showing the location of a signature and brief biography of the artist. The strange painted beams can be brought to the screen for details and history.

The lounge has a large, colorful mural from 1928 over the fireplace, titled “the Scarab Club Family Tree” by Paul Honore (Robert Hopkin can be seen in the tree), and in the lounge’s lobby, a gold ceiling fresco from 1928 by Philip Sawyer called the “Four Domains of Art.” The lounge is also a gallery for contemporary art and at this time the oil paintings of Lois Primeau are displayed and for sale until March 30.

Doors to the men’s and women’s restrooms have tiny stained glass images, as does a former working telephone booth. The stunning lighting fixtures are original New York Arts and Crafts; they are shaded with translucent mica and as gallery director Treena Flannery Erickson explains, “They were made more amber from years of cigar and cigarette smoke in the room.”

There is so much art in the building they still uncover things: one fresco was not discovered until a leaking water pipe began crumbling surface plaster to reveal another painted wall underneath. A beautiful fresco in the large women’s “powder room” on the first floor was covered in ugly silver foil and black frocked wall paper. It was discovered from an old photograph taken of a woman putting on makeup in a mirror at a counter in the powder room; the fresco was noticed in the mirror that reflected the wall over the woman’s shoulder. The wallpaper was carefully removed and the beautiful painted images can be viewed today.

Gallery shows and more

The main floor gallery is the Scarab Club’s largest space, with white walls that house major art shows. The room is also used for poetry readings, chamber music, jazz concerts and blues performances in a special series called “The Detroit Blues Heritage Series.”

The main floor gallery sometimes displays work from club members, including beginning artists. Other times art shows are more selective and curated, such as an annual exhibition of Michigan women artists. This year’s show is “Woman Image Hot,” curated by Zimmerwoman (also known as Marilyn Zimmerman, associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University). This exhibit features 13 women artists, including six artists from regional university faculties, as well as newcomers like Golsa Yagoobi, a young Iranian woman who taught herself English and recently came to Detroit. Her large oil portraits take up an end wall of the gallery.

Zimmerwoman described her take on a long-held Scarab Club core value: seeking out and promoting new artists. “Mingling established artists with lesser known artists who are just starting to exhibit builds confidence in young people and introduces them to a bigger audience. This is something the Scarab Club is good at.”

Woman Image Hot will be open until March 31.

When the weather is nice, the Scarab Club garden, which also holds events, is a well-tended space with beautiful brick work on an enclosing wall, sculptures and artfully arranged landscaping. Even the basement is used in the Scarab Club as a studio in which people at easels can sketch live models on Thursday evenings and Saturdays during the day.

So many have come to love the Scarab Club rooms that the club now rents out space for weddings. Some couples come from across the country to hold their wedding at the club, which can accommodate up to 125 people.

The future

Today, with Detroit’s exciting contemporary art scene that is daily gaining recognition, the Scarab Club is a little fearful that it may be left to its past. It is not a big organization, with 300 members. The club’s director, Scott Maggart, himself an artist and musician, is working with the board of directors, members and outsiders to change the century-old organization, reach out more to the public and find collaborations with other organizations.

“One of the differences between the Scarab Club and the DIA or MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art and Design) is that they are galleries for the most part, while the Scarab Club is also studio space for working artists, including the performing arts. We offer live model sessions for artists of any skills, beginners to veterans, for very little money; students can sketch or paint here for free. In the past the club was just that — a private, inwardly focused club. We are working to get the word out to more people.”

Working with Maggart is operations director Julie McFarland, who pointed out some of the changes the Scarab Club is making. “We are offering more open houses and events,” she said. “For instance, on ‘Noel Night’ in Midtown last December, 5,000 people visited the Scarab Club for catered food, drinks and a tour.”

The Scarab Club is a 501 C3 non-profit organization. Money is tight and while the beloved Scarab Club building is magnificent, it is also old and costly to operate and keep in good repair. Maggart smiles as he admits the Scarab Club is not a business and members at all levels are involved in determining the club’s direction. “I get both the ridiculous and sublime when I listen to people.”

He continued, “It’s important for us to balance the past with a strategy for the future. What do we preserve and what do we let go?”

In many ways a good question for the entire city of Detroit.

The Scarab Club
217 Farnsworth St.
Detroit, MI 48202
(313) 831-1250
Gallery: Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Office: Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.