Two years before fire gutted the once-glamorous University Club this weekend, Detroit City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta boastfully told preservationists that he supported leveling the architecturally significant building because “blacks probably couldn’t” be members.
Although Kenyatta was wrong – even former Mayor Coleman A. Young was a member – he and his colleagues rejected a proposal to protect the building with a historic designation. That allowed the owner, Albert Ammori, who also owns a liquor store across the street, to move forward with plans to demolish the three-story Collegiate Gothic building at 1411 E. Jefferson Ave. and replace it with a larger liquor store or fast food joint.
But that wouldn’t happen. Ammori neglected the building since buying it for $600,000 in April 2010, leaving it open to scrappers, vandals and extreme weather. Stained glass windows were shattered; graffiti covered the red-brick facade; and the roof was caving in.
And then at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, a two-alarm blaze gutted the three-story building, ending any hope of preserving it. Arson is suspected.
Preservationists were hoping to avoid such a mishap when they approached council members last year about the historic designation. But the discussion would devolve into a discussion of slave institution and the Holocaust.
“I don’t have the same nostalgia that most folks have about some of these buildings; most of them were built many years ago when certain folks couldn’t be let in,” Kenyatta said in September 2012. “You’ve got slave institutions that were designed by great architects and some of them still stand.”
Then Kenyatta glanced at preservationist Debbie Goldstein, who has a popular Jewish last name and is a member of the Historic Designation Advisory Board, and said, “I’m sure folks would not be for preserving any elements of the Holocaust as well.”
Goldberg responded: “Mr. Kenyatta, we do preserve monuments of the Holocaust. We need to remember that.”
Kenyatta sniveled: “They can have the ones that belong to slavery; I don’t want them.”
In 1931, the club, which served as a social institution for college graduates, moved to the Jefferson Ave. building, designed by celebrated architect William Kapp, who also designed Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts. The club went bankrupt in 1992, and the YWCA took over the building until 2008, when maintenance costs became unsustainable.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.