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Reviving Detroit's Hidden Jewel

There is something about a walled garden that entices you at every level. Its elusiveness, exclusivity and exotic nature makes you want to go inside all the more.

It is interesting that Detroit's Scarab Club has such a garden sitting right within the city. This intimate gathering spot, flanked on one side by glass doors leading into the first floor art gallery, has long been a hidden treasure enjoyed by a small impassioned base of artists, writers and musicians.

Home of Detroit's arts community, the Scarab Club resides directly behind the Detroit Institute of Arts in its historical landmark building.  For years, many have perceived this as an “exclusive, members' only club” yet the truth is the opposite -- and the Scarab Club wants to spread the word.

It has opened the walls, physically and spiritually. Now, the public can see into the garden – and Club members hope more people will stop in.

It is something of a metaphor for how the city itself is trying to shed its past image and embrace something new. The Scarab Club also shows how the city's grandest institutions are opening themselves up to new possibilities – and the world around them.

“We want to be a place where local artists want to show,” said Gallery Director Treena Flannery Ericson. That way, you can go to the neighboring Detroit Institute of Arts, see the Masters there and then check out the up-and-coming artists at the Scarab Club across the street.

The whole building, built in 1928, is undergoing a massive renovation. The floors are shiny again. There is air conditioning. (The second-floor artists' lounge remains true to its original state: dark paneling, wingback chairs and the famous wood beam guest book…more on that later).

Several months ago, the Club removed the awning above the entrance and pulled out the cloistering bushes that surrounded its exterior. Now, it is a clean slate, more a part of its dynamic district than ever before. With neighbors such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Science Center and the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, the Club is an oasis among giants.

Some history: Founded in 1907, the Scarab Club was the home of the Detroit arts community. Its original members were automotive designers, advertising illustrators, graphic artists, photographers and architects. The name Scarab Club was inspired by then President James Swan's collection of carved Egyptian Scarabs symbolizing “resurrection of life.” (Look for the little buggers all over the exterior and interior.) The building was named to the state historic register in 1974 and added to the National Register of Historic Places a few years later because of its architectural and historic significance.

Yes, the Scarab Club wants new members. Young members. People to want to take the Club into its next 100 years. It wants more public interest in its events, which touch on fine art, music and literature.

The public has long been invited inside the Club's doors, whether they realized it or not. The first floor contains the main office and a substantial exhibition space, which is free and open to anyone who wants to wander in and view the art work there. You can also attend a sketch session to draw with fellow art lovers in their element (small fee required).

On the second floor the public will find another coveted treasure – the wood beam ceiling guestbook.  That is where some of Detroit's and the world's most famous artists and writers have put their John Hancock. To sign a beam means you've made your mark on the Club, the city, the arts. Luminaries such as Diego Rivera, Norman Rockwell, Marshall Fredericks, Marcel Duchamp and Elmore Leonard have all put their scribbles there.

“You could spend days looking at the signatures,” Flannery Ericson said.

According to Ericson, there are new discoveries all the time with an 80-year old building.  Last year, a leak on the third floor, where there are six artists' studios, ran down and ruined the plaster around one of the stairway landings. As the repairs began, the Club noticed what looked like decorative painting under the plasterwork. Hidden there were frescoes on the walls and ceiling, painted in 1928 and original to the building. Artist in Residence Mike McMath is in the process of restoring them to their original glory.

The third floor has the most amazing two-story artist loft studios. Each one is different, a reflection of the artist who is living/working there. My favorite belongs to James Tottis, the Club's current president. It looks like a fabulous mid-century modern lounge, complete with couch pillows shaped like olives. Shaken and stirred, indeed.

Photo credits: Steve Savich

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  • 1

    Great post! The Scarab Club is a wonderful and extremely inspirational place.

  • 2

    Very cool that the Scarab Club is freshening up and looking for younger members! I've always wondered what that building was...

    That being said, after the Cobo fiasco last year referring to any building/property/whatever in Detroit as a "jewel" always makes me groan and think about Mon-Con and council members randomly breaking into song. Ugh.

  • 3

    I love the Scarab Club. More people should check this place out. Once you walk through the doors, you're in another world; it's an escape from reality for a few hours.

  • 4

    I moved into the Scarab Club in the late 70's after building the Center for Creative Studies "Tinker Toy" building and was the first person to live there in 40 or so years and stayed there for some 6 years.

    There was a conversation about demolishing the Club so I quickly put it on the Registers because I feared that some of those who saw themselves as the ultimate arbiters of the art world disdain the wonderful building and long history.

    It was fun living there and there is where I worked on the Restoration of the David Mackenzie House for the fledgling Preservation Wayne.

    It was there that I met the wonderful Edgar Yaeger and discover that we had mutual friends. Edgar was a master and his wonderful paintings are in many prominent homes of people who understood his impressionist and gently humorous and uplifting work.

    Edgar may be unknown to the New York crowd but that is just as well, otherwise they would have dirven the price of his wonderful work well out of reach.

    Joe Maniscalco, the prominend portraitist, questioned me if living there was OK and I said yes so he spent many nights in his studio as well. Pat Burnette had a studio next door and I remember her painting the governor.

    Pearl was our cook and would rapidly whip up luncheon for no matter how many showed up. One day Pat brought in a guest and she looked familiar. In the luncheon banter I teasingly commented that the place had gone to hell once they let the women it. That brought gales of laughter to Pat and her guest... Gloria Steinem.

    I talked other prominent artists into moving in as well. The head of WSU's Art School and Aris Koutroulis who headed up the CCS Fine Arts Department. We were friends from the 60's.

    And I revived the Beam Signing Ceremony as a black tie affair, having held Ceremonies for Gordon Buehrig (the first Auto Designer to have ever had a show of his work in an art institution and gallery) and Harry Booth where he told us about how Cranbrook came into being... (He was studying Architecture at Michigan and as remains the tradition, he decided to design an Art School and educational complex.) It was Harry's idea and I'm sure that when he brought in the site survey, Eliel who was his professor said "Hmmm. I'd like to meet your Father".

    At the end of the evening Marshall Fredericks broke down and started Crying saying that nothing had been done for him like that and I had to point out that he had already signed the beams. He had forgotten.

    So Antal Dorati, Senator Jack Faxon , Aldo Ceccato, Alex Karras and others started showing up on the beams and the tradition was revived. The Coleman Young certificate that I presented Jack that evening was so laden with perceptive, ironic humor that I could barely read it for laughing so heartily. Coleman WAS sharp!

    I wanted so much to have Bob Gregorie sign a beam as well (the designer of the 30's Fords and the great masterpiece Continental) but the chief Designer at Ford missed his cue.

    It was there that I romanced my wonderful Black wife but some of the board members were very upset by that, yet I now hear that the prejudiced era has passed and that is wonderful news.

    The chimney breast needs to be touched up properly and there was a tradition that the members would sign boards in the side dining room if they were elected that needs to be revived. The main banquet hall was reserved for those who had contributed to the art world in some special way.

    When I left and moved to Grosse Ile to take care of my aging Mother, I talked with the Island historian and as we sat there I noticed this large green stone scarab beetle on the side table and asked and Isabella said that was her father's and that there was a painting of him at the Scara Club. What a pleasant surprise! I had admired that handsome painting many times as I ran up and down the stairs. Jim was a rare lawyer who appreciated the arts and knew what to do. So Swan Island off of Grosse Ile was named for the family as well.

    The Scarab Club brings home the wonderful values of the Arts and Crafts period.

    So too does the Pewabic pottery. And when we were working on the David Mackenzie house we needed to recreate a medallion for the ariel bay window on the second floor above the porch. I found the wonderful young artist Dave Ellison and he worked out of the Pewabic Pottery so I went over to work with him to get it right according to the rubbing and while we worked Dave pointed out the table where Mary Chase Stratton made her tiles. I said wow, clean it off and get it going there is a huge market for beautiful clay tiles. Dave did that and got them making tiles again. He deserves huge credit.


  • 5

    Thank you observr26

    Well, I will be published in altenergy.mag and AECBytes.mag next month and be on a Construction Specifications Institue webinar next week.

    Here is a continuation...

    Louis Cook was a great writer for the Free Press. Louis cared about the history of Detroit and he was very clever in the way that he wrote. Joe Stroud commented as he retired that he didnt get how Louis could write essentiall nothing (in his estimation) and make things happen.

    Louis supported Beulah Groehn and the wonderful things that she accomplished with Canfield, the Old Detroit Stove and trying to save the Civil War Era buildings.

    And he supported Alex Pollack and his many attempts to make Detroit more intesting. (Have to admit that I didn't care for all of them but he was a creative architect and great cycleman and had a wonderful band).

    So I invited Louis Cook to one of Pearl's lunches and told him about working on the Restoration of Independence Hall with Lee Nelson and Charles Peterson who started the great Architectural restoration movement across America.

    We had a great time chatting and Louis mentioned that he had to rush off to meet some students at WSU and asked me to come along.

    The fledgling Preservation Wayne. They were deeply concerned about saving the David Mackenzie House, the founding President of the University. So I met Bill Colburn, Allen, and Marilyn Florek.

    The house was in sad shape with holes in the roof and rotting carpentry and they front had been painted black and it had been used as a resale shop and was quite abused and did look unsightly.

    They mentioned excitedly that they were told that it had to come down because a sewer line had to go in there. I told them to get ahold of the sewer drawings from the city and we would meet. The call came and we met and looked at the drawings and I said well here is the existing line... look how much space is devoted to it.. if they want to bend the line how much space will they need? It was obvious that they were being lied to.

    So the long story of the Restoration and Preservation Wayne began and probably belongs in another thread.

    But another preservation effort did emerge at the club and that was called People for Downtown Hudsons. We met many times in the evening in the banquet hall and fretted about the effort to demolish that building and we did gather enough steam and interest that Coleman decided not to push for the demolition. Coleman was smart enough to understand the importance of historic linkages even though it was not directly his.

    We prevailed until Dennis Archer got elected and tore down Hudsons and gave to the Illich's what they wanted and earned the undying animosity of the rest of Detroit so he knew that he could not get re-elected.

    The Scarab Club was a great place to meet.

    Still is.


  • 6

    [...] Reviving Detroit’s Hidden Jewel, January 12, 2010 [...]

  • 7

    [...] Barbara does photography and other medias. Philip Lauri showed us his mural. And I loved the Scarab Club with its artists in residence. And who could forget the Ice House Detroit [...]

  • 8

    The Chimney Breast needs touching up, it actually is a masterpiece.


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