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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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