Detroit Athletic Club keeps up with times

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The Detroit Club, the downtown club for the 19th-century elite, went ignominiously to the auction block last summer. The University Club of Detroit, sold off to a liquor store owner, burned at 5 a.m. on June 15, 2013 and was then demolished. The Renaissance Club is closed.

But the Detroit Athletic Club — glittering and dressed for the holidays — is not only surviving but thriving as its members prepare to celebrate the centennial of the Albert Kahn-designed building in April. With almost $50 million invested in restoration and construction over the past 15 years, and a new $20 million commitment ahead, the DAC has restored and enhanced its building, and now readies a rooftop restaurant and an atrium-enclosed entrance at the door once known, disparagingly, as the "women's entrance."

A rule that forbade women in the main lobby, lounge and grill was lifted — temporarily — for the club's 40th anniversary party. But despite a history that can be marked by publicly observed gender tension, including a 1924 debate over allowing women to smoke in the club, no such temporary reprieves are required. Smokers aren't allowed. About 15 percent of the members are women.

It took a century for the DAC to finesse a changing landscape of social distinctions to land in its current, enviable position as an elegant club that draws downtown decision-makers and suburbanites alike, maintaining its position as a center for power-brokers but shedding a reputation for old-boys-club provincialism. "We are a very welcoming place," says DAC president Tom Fabbri, in his holiday plaid bow-tie.

On Friday, you could spot women huddled in a corner of the Grill Room bar, a spot that used to be famously off-limits to women, and in every dining room and corner.

The main lobby Christmas tree, with its ornate decorations, brushes the 20-foot high ceiling. In one corner, a bride in white gown is readying for her evening wedding, surrounded by a retinue of little girls in elaborate party dress, each holding a white fur muff.

If you look at the membership, or you walk into the DAC, you see Detroit's leadership from every sphere: business, political, legal, nonprofit, everything, says Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain's Detroit Business and a past-president of the DAC. "A hundred years ago, the club reflected the leadership of that time. Today's DAC powerfully reflects the current leadership."

Kramer, the first and only female president of the DAC thus far, remembers hosting clients after joining in 1992 and finding a red rose on her plate. "I called the server over and said, "Get that goddamn flower off my plate," she says. Then she complained to the then-executive manager, trying to explain that women members did not want to be singled out for their femininity while they were trying to do business.

(She also says she had a source — "a mole" — who would fill her in on conversations in the men's steam room.) All the dining rooms are open to women, and so are the lunches of the men's swimming club, the Beavers, at which the swimmers wear yellow bathrobes over their suits. (Lunch attendees who don't swim are known as "land Beavers.")

In the mid-'90s, Kramer took the Crain's Detroit Business list of most influential women and invited them to a cocktail party/slumber party at the DAC, followed by a break on the cost of membership, as a way to reach out and make up for "years of perceived neglect." It was a true recruiting effort and, she says, it worked.

It's clear that the DAC is humming right now. Its membership is rising rapidly, benefiting from converging forces: Its location, adjacent to Ford Field and Comerica Park, have made it a tailgate party destination — that, combined with parking, encourages membership from suburbanites. A burgeoning population of young professionals has created a year-long waiting list for "intermediate memberships" open to ages 33 and under; it's now at a maximum of 400 members.

It's a combination of quirky traditions (the Beavers, the bowling, the card game in 518) and history, of social connection and aspiration, and the ability to change, adapt and professionalize operations under executive manager Ted Gillary that has enabled the DAC to prepare for its centennial. The DAC has its secrets — ask any member — and its stories, including the time John Philip Sousa marched a 300-piece band from the clubhouse steps to the Detroit River.

In 2000, after the club was restored, resident memberships peaked at 3,000. "Today, we are at 2,780 members and on an upward trajectory," says Katherine Levin, the membership director.

Membership is $2,500, plus $331 a month, until year's end; it goes up to $3,500 and $337 a month next year.

In April, the DAC's nonprofit foundation will unveil four 9-foot statues, each representing an athlete, to create a new presence on Madison Avenue. The glass-enclosed side entrance will enable the club to keep the integrity of Kahn's building, while opening the space as a formal entrance.

Over the past 10 years, the club has been refurbished from its basement bowling alleys to the rooftop restaurant now under construction. Among the additions are a spa, newly designed overnight rooms, a fitness club overlooking Comerica Park, and the meticulous restoration of Kahn's original designs for the dining and entertainment areas. Women can be served food in the ladies locker room — just as the men always have been in their locker room.

DAC President Tom Fabbri joined the club 29 years ago with friends who played handball. He was a first-generation member, intimidated by the club's history and membership. Now, he is part of the club establishment. "Our mission is not to be a hoity toity kind of place," says Fabbri, the second-generation owner of a building maintenance firm, who loves the ballroom dancing group at the club. "It's a place for building relationships."

That is what it's always been, of course. The Beavers remain an all-male swim club — and perhaps that's a battle best left for the 22nd century. Says Kramer: "No woman in her right mind would want to swim with those guys."