DETROIT: The Colony Club

7 Apr

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They say, “you can’t judge a book by its cover”, they’re right! There are so many beautiful building interiors in Detroit hiding behind ordinary facades. Today we are visiting The Colony Club on Park Avenue. Let me set the stage. It was the Roaring 20’s, the United States was experiencing economic prosperity never seen before; electricity, automobiles, radios and telephones were attainable by the average working man. Charles Lindbergh made his first solo, non-stop, Trans-Atlantic flight from NY to Paris, Duesenberg’s Model J was unveiled, Jazz music blossomed, movie stars and sports heroes graced magazine covers. Women joined the work force and were given the right to vote. Here in Detroit, women were keeping pace with the changing times; four women’s clubs opened within four blocks of each other providing a place for women’s functions, recreation and socializing. The Colony Club opened in 1928.

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Kris and I haven’t been in this building for almost two decades, we have arranged a special tour with Director of Sales and Marketing, Nicole. The red brick, Georgian-style building was designed by the Smith, Hinchman and Grylls architectural firm (think Buhl, Penobscot & Guardian Buildings). At seven stories tall the exterior is simple, limestone and iron grill-work add a touch of elegance. The lobby is stunning! An artist by the name of Victor is responsible for the gorgeous restoration paint work. The lovely peacock pattern is not original but fits the time period perfectly; gold and silver dance off delicate lacy designs. The black and white marble floor gleams, years of being covered with carpet protected the finish.When the building opened in the 20’s, three small shops were located on the ground floor, today, these are used as reception areas. We ascend marble stairs to the third floor, the ballroom.

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Done up in Louis XVI style, lavish, opulent, resplendent and grand are just a few of the words I would use to describe this space. Decorated in Versailles cream and gold gilt with a splash of bronze, Victor has done his magic once again! Original crystal chandeliers sparkle in the sunlight, plaster details are impressive, huge arch-shaped mirrors make the room feel so open and airy. Delicate wall sconces are also original, pale blue inserts appear to be Wedgwood, iron grill-work creates faux balconies. It’s easy to imagine Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly gliding across the dance floor. Speaking of the floor, it’s unique in the sense that it’s wood and not carpet, re-laid about a month ago, it too is splendid. Twin stairways lead to the next level, I’d guess many a bride has stood on these steps for photos. From here we have a panoramic view of the breath-taking ballroom. The 4th floor was the original dining room, a commercial kitchen resides in the same place as the first kitchen. The dining room itself has been transformed into another rental space for smaller gatherings; today it is set up for a wedding ceremony. Soft yellow, peach and more dazzling gold cover the walls and plaster details, quite stunning. Chandeliers and sconces are brand new, made special for the space. 

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Back in the day men were not allowed above the ballroom level, it was a women’s club after all. There were 16 sleeping rooms on the 6th floor, card rooms, salons, squash and badminton courts on the 5th, even a solarium on the roof (currently being restored). The Depression brought economic hardship, the building fell into foreclosure and the women of the club disbanded. Occupied by several businesses, the UAW purchased the building for its Detroit headquarters in the 60’s, after that, Wayne County Community College had it for a while. Preservationist Charles Forbes bought the building in 1984, thank goodness! It was leased to the Detroit Police Department to be used as its Police Academy (this is the time period we were here). With Superbowl XL on the horizon, Forbes management began an extensive restoration of the club, ESPN used the building for Superbowl functions. Today Colony Club has become a popular venue for weddings, dinners and special events.

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Moving forward in time to 1936, we are having lunch at Elwood Bar & Grill, another of Chuck Forbes buildings, it seems a natural choice. If you’ve lived in the metro Detroit area for a while, you may recall in 1997 the Elwood was relocated, as was the Gem/Century Theatre which moved 1,850 feet to make room for Comerica Park and holds the Guinness World Record as the heaviest building (2,700 tons) ever moved on wheels. Today the cream and blue enameled steel Art Deco diner resides on Adams Ave behind the Detroit Tiger’s left field. The swanky interior has been completely restored. Today the whole area is bustling with activity in preparation for opening day.

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Sitting in a booth window-side we take in the details of the diner, walls are painted green in a textured technique, narrow chrome strips orbit white globe lights , two-toned wood  makes up the bar. The most unique feature is the mural street map of Detroit that fills the circular recess in the ceiling, it details the path of movement the Gem and Elwood took to their new permanent locations. A large plate of food is set on the table, we are sharing the Blackened Chicken Melt: Cajun-spiced chicken breast grilled and topped with pepper jack cheese, tomato, Dijon and mayo served on egg-dipped grilled sourdough bread–delicious! Alongside the sandwich is a side of tasty cole slaw and a pile of fresh hand-cut fries, yum! Detroit is filled with treasures such as these. These days it seems more and more buildings are being restored and re-purposed,  that’s good news for all of us!

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