“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
If you seek a Great Gatsby experience you need to go no further than Belle Isle to find one of the oldest yacht clubs in the United States, with perhaps the largest clubhouse in the world — the magnificent Detroit Yacht Club.
The DYC is considered among the most beautiful yacht clubs ever built, with stunning views, Pewabic-tiled fountains, two ballrooms, museum quality artwork throughout, and enough racing trophies to merit a trophy room. But you don’t need to own a yacht (or even a boat) to join.
Nothing represents Detroit’s Golden Years in the 1920s more than the DYC. While membership is down from its peak of 3,000 members when the building was completed, Jim Neumann, the enthusiastic director of membership and marketing, notes that the Detroit Yacht Club is enjoying a resurgence of members, particularly young people working and living downtown.
A few guys with sail boats start up the DYC
The DYC was organized by Detroit sailing enthusiasts soon after the Civil War ended, in 1868. Neumann explained, “They had boats and a dock. They formed a ‘syndicate’ or official organization to join in yacht races. Since yacht races invariably conclude with drinks, they needed a building.”
Neumann added, “The DYC has always been known for having a good time.”
The club was officially established in 1878, and from the very beginning it was all about boat racing. This description is from the club’s second official yacht race in July 1879:
“Bang! Went the cannon on the Scotia. The sailing masters took a rapid last minute look over their boats to make sure everything was trim and taut. Ten minutes later another flash, another report that made the heart over every man in the fleet beat high with expectation, and the yachts one after another, crossed the line, the Amy being the first.
“Every stitch of canvas that could be carried under the stiff and freshening breeze was spread and the yachts keeled over until their rails were nearly buried under the water, flying through the lake like huge birds freed from a prison cage.” - Detroit Free Press, July 6, 1879
The Detroit Yacht Club was not Detroit’s first organization on the river. Their neighbor on Belle Isle, the Detroit Boat Club, was founded in 1839 but has been out of business since the early 1990s.
The current building is the yacht club’s fourth home. The first buildings, small clubhouses and boatsheds were constructed in the late 1870s and 1880s at the foot of McDougall Street, south of Jefferson Avenue. The club moved to Belle Isle to take over the defunct Michigan Yacht Club in 1895. This was before there was a bridge from Detroit to Belle Isle; members rode horse and buggies down Jefferson Avenue then took the club shuttle boat to the club. (A DYC shuttle holds 30 people and is still used to this day.)
The first Belle Isle club burned in 1904, and in one year members erected a new clubhouse in 1905.
That time was the dawn of the power boat. Some of the earliest versions were produced by Ransom E. Olds and David Dunbar Buick, who produced early marine engines before turning to autos. They called them “automobile boats,” equipped with six-cylinder engines that could make about 100 horsepower and 30 miles an hour.
The club was attracting the smart set of Detroit, including Sen. and former Mayor James Couzens, the Horace Dodge family, the Fisher brothers (Fisher Body and the Fisher Building), Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, GM’s Charles Kettering and the brilliant entrepreneur, boat builder, and power boat racer Garfield Wood.
Detroit's Golden Age: The '20s
"Detroit is the greatest prosperity center in the United States." - Detroit City Directory, 1924-1925
As the 1920s began, Detroit was flush with money. The city’s population had grown by 113 percent in a decade, businesses were flourishing and new buildings were going up everywhere. The number of Detroit Yacht Club members soared from 500 in 1915 to 3,000 in about five years.
“Trim yachts and cabin cruisers at anchor in new moorings off the Detroit Yacht Club are vivid in their white and gold and polished wood against the blue of the river,” the Detroit Free Press reported on Aug. 28, 1921. “The long dock of the club has become a sort of nautical peacock alley where the owners of visiting ships and their Detroit friends stroll about or go calling on the deck of the Silverheels II, Whitecap II, or the saucy Cigarette.”
Several of the wealthiest members competed to own the largest, most imposing and ostentatious yacht on the river. Robert Oakman set the record in 1927 with the 101-foot Mamie-O. Then Charles Sorensen ordered his 105-footer Helene. Charles Kettering raised the stakes with his 170-foot Olive K II, but Frederick Fisher closed the door with a 236 colossus he called Nakhoa.
The yacht club figured it was time for a new, more befitting clubhouse that could accommodate 5,000 potential members and reflect the status of Detroit’s wealth.
In 1923 the present-day clubhouse, the fourth structure, was dedicated. Its construction had cost more than $1 million, the work of architect George Mason, who also designed Detroit’s Masonic Temple, the Gem Theatre and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Perhaps only Albert Kahn, whom Mason hired in 1884 and mentored, is a better-known Detroit architect.
The club is technically not on Belle Isle, since it sits on its own 11-acre, manmade island, with an address of One Riverbank Road. The club leased a rectangle of water next to Belle Isle as a cheaper alternative to building on the island itself. The little island is tucked into the north side of Belle Isle in a small cove called Miss Detroit Bay.
Two thousand 45-foot wood pilings were driven into the river bed and then capped with concrete to prevent rot. A “cofferdam” was built — a watertight enclosure pumped dry to permit construction work below the waterline. Perhaps, appropriately, the foundation of the DYC was built from the fill dirt that came from the construction of Detroit’s classic skyscrapers downtown — buildings that reflected the prosperity of the 1920s generation. Since Gar Wood, DYC’s most famous member and commodore, patented the hydraulic dump truck, he volunteered to haul away the fill dirt and dump it among the pylons to build up the island.
The cornerstone for the club was also ceremoniously set by Gar Wood in 1922, while 500 members cheered. The Spanish Mediterranean “villa” clad in beautiful terra cotta and white stucco was a spacious 96,000 square feet, with four floors.
Inside the club
Today the grand entrance has the original revolving doors, now nearly 100 years old. Originally, it was designed as a men’s club; women were restricted to certain areas of the building, such as a lounge area called “Peacock Alley.”
Locker rooms are extensive and the fourth floor has racquetball courts and an indoor pistol firing range, which is no longer used. The building once had a billiards room and several gymnasiums; boxing matches among members were held every Wednesday on the third floor, which is also equipped with a projection room. Movies were regularly shown Sunday evenings on a full-sized theater-quality screen.
On the second main floor is an indoor swimming pool adorned with Pewabic tiles depicting bathing beauties, swans, lobsters, and, of course, yachts. Silver screen legend and Olympic gold medal winner Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the 1930s and ’40s, swam laps in the DYC indoor pool when he was in Detroit. Since then the yacht club has added men’s and women’s saunas, four tennis courts, an outdoor Olympic-sized swimming pool, bocce ball, sand volley ball courts, an outdoor whirlpool, fitness room and more. Men’s and women’s locker rooms are on the main floor.
There’s more to the club than exercise rooms. Two ballrooms are on the second floor, along with a kitchen that can serve 1,000 dinners a night. The DYC had 500 reservations for this past Mother’s Day. In the original main dining room is a restored fountain, again lined entirely with Pewabic tile. After you dine you can step outside onto a wide terrace that runs the length of the building with beautiful views of downtown, the Manoogian Mansion, home of Detroit’s mayor, and Kid Rock’s mansion on the river. Kid Rock has been known to ride his paddle boat across the river from this home to the DYC Grille to pick up a beer, Neumann said.
The second floor also has a large section called the library. This is the building’s most impressive area, with that quintessential private club aura: classic leather furniture, soaring beamed ceiling all hand stenciled, and gigantic chandeliers. This is not a room for flip-flops and wet bathing suits. Everywhere are museum grade paintings and Italian bronze sculpture, mostly collected by former members and donated to the club.
And what’s a yacht club without yachting trophies? They’re everywhere. These historic trophies are stunning, many more than 100 years old; the Milton O. Cross Memorial Trophy came from Tiffany’s and is claimed to have been carved from a solid block of sterling silver.
Members love to party
Boating and sports were not the only pursuits at the club. An Aug. 28, 1921 schedule included dancing on Monday evening; the Gold Cup banquet Tuesday evening; dancing Thursday evening; an entertainment with motion pictures Friday evening; and more dancing Saturday.
When Prohibition began in Michigan in 1918, the DYC board of directors had already abolished alcohol on the premises; however, unofficially the club didn’t miss a beat, with liquor readily available in Canada and every member equipped with a boat. The “Peche Island Yacht Club” was born, located on a Canadian sandbar less than a half mile from the DYC docks. It soon became a well-known supply depot. Further downriver, Amhertsburg, Ontario, held the International Yacht and Country Club, founded by members of the Detroit and Toledo yacht clubs, to service the clubs with spirits and keep the parties going.
Venetian Week, one of the most popular events at the DYC, began in 1926 and continues to this day; this year’s theme is “T.V. Land.” Members dress up as their favorite television character from the past and all boats are lit up on the docks in the evenings. At least once a year members get to dress in evening gowns and tuxedos for the annual Officer’s Ball, sometimes called the Commodore’s Ball. (The Commodore is the elected officer of the Yacht Club.)
There are also charitable events such as the Crawford Armstrong Outing. For this “Fun Day in the Sun” more than 1,000 mentally and physically disabled people from the Detroit area are assisted by hundreds of volunteers to spend a day on boat rides on the Detroit River followed by a picnic and party.
DYC's racing champion, Gar Wood
Many of the trophies at the club were won by the Detroit Yacht Club’s most famous member and past commodore, Gar Wood. Wood earned worldwide fame and established the DYC as a center for hydroplane boat racing that continues to this day.
Garfield A. Wood was born in 1880 in Maplewood, Iowa, where his father was a ferry boat operator. As a young man, Wood invented a hydraulic lift that was used to load coal onto rail cars. Later he established the Wood Hoist Co. in Detroit, eventually changing the company name to GarWood Industries, which built racing boats and truck bodies. It made him a very wealthy man.
In 1916, Wood purchased his first motorboat for racing and named it Miss Detroit. In four years he set a new world record speed for a boat (74.9 mph) on the Detroit River, using a new boat called Miss America. He was very innovative in boat hull design, which he considered critical as larger, more powerful engines appeared year after year. Wood used airplane engines in his boats to attain extraordinary speeds. In the following 12 years, Wood built nine more Miss Americas and broke the record five times, raising it to 124.860 mph in 1932 on the St. Clair River.
He was the first person to surpass the 100 miles per hour mark in a boat. As well as being a record breaker, Wood won five straight powerboat Gold Cup races between 1917 and 1921. Wood also won Great Britain’s prestigious Harmsworth Trophy nine times (1920–21, 1926, 1928–30, 1932–33).
A floating home
The Great Depression and demographic changes in the city forced change on the DYC but it not only survived but also continues to be regarded as one of the major private boat clubs in the U.S.
Today, more than 200 employees keep the clubhouse going. Where in the past it may have been the home of exclusivity and privilege, it is described by Neumann and members as “a very friendly place, especially fun for kids.”
Neumann gave an example, “The members loved the Orion Festival! Many sat outside and watched Metallica like everybody else.”
There are 350 slips for boats at the club. While some people live at the DYC on their boats during the summer then move to warmer digs in the off-season, Chuck Knowles and his wife Margie Scheidner live on their boat docked at the club all year long. They have been living on their own sail boats for 18 years.
“It’s very quiet in the winter,” said Knowles. “My favorite thing to do is come home from work, go to my club locker, get on my swim suit, and sit in the outdoor hot tub in January.”
Knowles, 53, and his wife are both from southeast Michigan and joined the DYC in 2000. Prior to that they had been living on the boat for five years, and then took a year to do what sailors call “The Great Loop,” a yearlong sail around the world. But they were happy to find the DYC, since there are not many places in the U.S. where you can dock and live year-round.
Their boat is a Victory 35 sailing catamaran. The boat is named “V Twin” after the Harley motorcycle engine (Margie used to ride Harleys).
Knowles continued, “Winters are very quiet. We see wildlife such as swans, ducks, foxes — even beavers, which are an indication the river quality is coming back. We know this because we see many more frogs, crayfish and snakes than we used to.”
Knowles and his wife are also avid scuba divers, but Knowles did not grow up on sailboats. “I got into it pretty late really. I was 37. My wife had been sailing for years and sailed up alone from Florida. She taught me how to sail.”
“We love the DYC,” he explained. “When our friends from Europe come to visit they cannot get over our beautiful clubhouse.”
The couple loves the activities, barbecues, parties, and of course the sailing. “It’s a very friendly place, tons of families and kids.”
He describes living at the DYC as a little 11-acre village where everybody knows each other and are kind and friendly.
Living on the boat might seem cramped but Knowles says it’s comfortable. His wife works at DTE and he works for a local sail manufacturer, Doyle Detroit.
“The DYC is open 24 hours a day all year so whenever we want we can walk in that beautiful palace and swim, workout, or get something to eat.”
Since they are the only ones that live at the DYC all year, they have become “gatekeepers.” “Occasionally, someone wants to sign up for a yearlong slip. The DYC asks me to talk to them about the pros and cons of living on board a boat. When storms hit in winter, you do not sleep. They keep you up at night. It’s rough.”
The couple plans to stay three more years, and then head to the Caribbean. “By the time I hit 56 I’ll be done dealing with winter on the river, but until then we love this place. This is my home.”
Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and the forthcoming book “Detroit Food” to be released in early 2014.