Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Women's City Club

This building was once home to the largest women's club in the world.

The importance of women's clubs

The Women's City Club was one of four women's clubs constructed just north of Grand Circus Park in the early 20th century; the others were the Women's Exchange at 47 E. Adams (1915), the Twentieth Century Club on East Columbia, and the Colony Club (1928).

Michigan Women magazine wrote in February 1928 that these clubs for women had an important connection to women's suffrage, saying: "The earlier women's clubs, which were cultural in character, preceded suffrage, higher education for women and what is frequently referred to as 'that new freedom.' Today, women have the same opportunities for cultural and professional education as have men, and therefore the up-to-date club of the present has taken on an entirely different character than those of our grandmothers when women were knocking in vain at the doors of colleges and universities. With the advent of the 20th century, the American woman, feeling a new independence, began seriously to participate outside her home. To her social and domestic undertakings she added various activities, which necessitated a center, such as a club provides, from which to work. From that time until now, society women in the larger cities, leaders of all manner of social endeavors, were no longer willing to depend for club privileges upon the courtesy of their husbands and fathers. To satisfy their need for town houses where they could live as they now felt it necessary, they incorporated women's clubs, and erected adequate buildings."

The Women's City Club of Detroit was founded in 1919 by nine civic-minded women as a downtown club for women. Its aims, as laid out in Article II of the club's bylaws, were "to promote a broad acquaintance among women through their common interest in the welfare of the city of Detroit, and the state of Michigan; to maintain an open forum where leaders in matters of public important civic interest may be heard frequently, and to provide a club house where its members may meet informally."

The club initially was headquartered in the Bigsby Building at 141 Bagley Ave., but with Detroit thriving, and its number of wealthy families growing, the organization soon outgrew its rented digs. In 1922, just three years after its founding, the women organized a building committee to set out to erect a new, much larger home - and they were quick about it. Notably, the chairwoman of the committee was Mary Perry Chase Stratton, founder of Pewabic Pottery and wife of the building's lead architect, William "Buck" Stratton.

The club's new clubhouse

The 75,000-square-foot Women's City Club building was designed by the firm Stratton & Snyder.

With Chase Stratton leading the building committee and her husband serving as architect, the couple would have a profound impact on the building's appearance. It is no surprise that Pewabic would contribute a number of design elements to the Women's City Club's new headquarters. The historic district's National Historic Register nomination form notes the Women's City Club's "highly distinctive architectural character" as one of the building's most redeeming attributes.

Ground was broken on the six-story structure in 1923, and progressed quickly. The contractor for the project was Walbridge-Aldinger Co.

The Strattons selected exterior brick from a kiln in Ohio specifically for its handmade quality and "the way in which its subtle coloration picked up the rich western sunlight," the Park Avenue Historic District nomination form notes. "Handcrafted, wrought iron light fixtures and brilliant Pewabic tiles were used sparingly throughout, as with the unique Pewabic swimming pool and Pewabic tiles of the auditorium stairway, dining room and cafeteria window sills, drinking fountains and enframement of the main entrance."

The building was formally opened on April 22, 1924. The board of directors served as hostesses, and members conducted tours for guests. The pool opened with a swimming championship held May 7, 1924.

The club offered a number of amenities for its members. Beyond the beautiful Pewabic-tiled swimming pool, there were a library, cafe and outdoor patio, as well as short-term lodging. In the 1930s, the club grew to a membership of more than 8,000, making it the largest women's club in the world.

Over the years, a number of lectures, concerts, art exhibitions and other social events were held in the club. Nationally prominent women visited the building and its members to enlist help for their causes. Lillian Russell spoke about registering women voters, and Jane Addams arrived and pleaded for help in feeding the starving children of Europe through the Herbert Hoover Fund.

According to its National Register nomination form, "The Club served as a focal point for the activities of women in other organizations. Among those groups meeting regularly in the building were: Altrusa, D.A.R., League of Women voters, School of Government, Board of the Women's Association of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Pro Musica, Musicians League, Native Detroiters, Pan-Hellenic, Detroit Women Writers Association, Women=s National Farm and Garden Club and Zontas. The City Club worked with various civic enterprises, including ethnic programs, the United Foundation, Keep Detroit Beautiful, the Red Cross and Women's Suffrage. For its members and residents there was a wide variety of classes, programs, dinners, swimming, library, etc., using the Club's incomparable facilities."

The club maintained a professionally produced monthly magazine and sponsored civic affairs forums with local civic leaders.

Perhaps because of the size of its membership, the club was able to weather tough economic conditions, including the Great Depression, far better than its contemporaries. Yet, it would not be able to hang on forever, due in large part to the advancements for women that it advocated.

Troubled times and changing hands

With changing times and more equality among the genders and women being invited to join more historically male clubs, the Women's City Club saw its membership rolls drop significantly. By the 1970s, its membership was down to 950 members - a far cry from the 8,000 four decades earlier - who underutilized their large building. There were days where the building was said to see only one member, making it not feasible to pay maintenance and labor costs on a structure that was going relatively unused. The club announced in late February 1975 that it would be putting their building up for sale at a price of $375,000. They were discussing at the time moving into a new space in the Renaissance Center, which was then under construction. In early November, the club announced that it would cease all operations at the clubhouse following the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and the next month, the Women's City Club vacated its longtime home.

Leading up to the closure of the clubhouse, many members of the club came back for one last look at their building. One longtime member was quoted as saying, “Where have they been for the past five years when we needed them?”

The Women's City Club moved into the Detroit Boat Club, where a room on the third-floor was created for them. Initially, the move to the boat club was meant to be a temporary one, as they still hoped to land a space in the Renaissance Center. The women brought with them a crystal chandelier from their old building, which was hung in the ballroom of the boathouse.

The club's old home was sold the following year to the Feminist Economic Network for $200,000, and used as a social, cultural and residential facility. The structure joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was placed on the State Register the following year.

The building was bought by developer Charles (Chuck) Forbes in 1984 and leased to the Detroit Police Department for administrative offices and its academy. DPD was still using the building as recently as 1996, but the building was vacant for at least 20 years.

The Women's City Club was part of the Park Avenue Historic District designated as a Michigan State Historic Site in 1996, as well as a national historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. The building also is part of the local Park Avenue Historic District approved in 2017.

In December 2015, Downtown Detroit Partnership CEO Eric Larson bought the Women's City Club for $4.6 million from Forbes. Larson was also CEO of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Larson Realty Group.

A little more than two years later, in January 2017, the Ilitch family's Olympia Development of Michigan purchased the Women's City Club for $5.85 million Larson's DETWCC LLC.

Almost three years after that, in December 2019, Olympia Development announced the building would undergo a $25 million renovation.

ODM said at the time that Spaces, a global co-working company akin to WeWork and Bamboo Detroit, would lease approximately 47,000 square feet. The building will also have 10,000 square feet of ground floor retail.

Women's City Club is expected to reopen in December 2020, with renovation work slowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last updated 24/11/2020