With demolition possible, ‘so goes the Excelsior Club, so goes the black side of town’

Written by Jim Morrill

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Charlotte’s historic Excelsior Club, a touchstone for generations of African-Americans, could be a step closer to demolition.

The owner of the Beatties Ford Road club has filed papers with the Historic Landmarks Commission that could lead to the demolition of the 74-year-old building as soon as next year.

Owner Carla Cunningham, a Democratic state representative, said Tuesday that’s not her intent. But by filing the papers, she keeps her options open to do just that.

The development is the latest in a string of troubles for the club that once hosted performers such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong and politicians including Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Last year, Cunningham, who inherited the club from her husband, foreclosed on James Ferguson, a prominent civil rights attorney who had bought the club. The year before, the club faced nearly $13,000 in fines for code violations.

Cunningham said she wanted to restore the club as an event venue, but the filing with the Landmarks Commission suggests that hasn’t worked out. She deferred questions to Dan Morrill, the commission’s executive director.

Because the building is a registered landmark, the commission can delay any demolition for a year. Morrill said that’s what the commission will likely do at its June 11 meeting.

“Demolition is a real possibility; it’s not a certainty,” he said Tuesday. “And it’s not the preference of the owner.”

The commission has options. It could buy the building itself or find new uses that would make it attractive to another buyer. Or it could salvage part of the building such as the facade.

“I think it will be extremely challenging financially for someone to preserve that entire building,” Morrill said. “Now could the memory of that building be somehow incorporated into a new structure? I think it could be. That’s a matter of design.”

The Excelsior is clearly important to Charlotte history.

The Excelsior opened in 1944 when Jimmie McKee bought a seven-room, two-story house in Washington Heights and transformed it into a private club. At a time when African-Americans had little access to other social clubs, the Excelsior became a magnet.

Cole and Armstrong played there. Dozens of other politicians campaigned there. Over the years, it hosted wedding receptions, voter rallies and Tuesday Night Fish Fries. It’s where excited patrons gathered in November 2008 to celebrate the election of America’s first black president.

“It’s most important,” said Mecklenburg Commissioner Vilma Leake, who represents the area. “So goes the Excelsior Club, so goes the black side of town.”

Ken Koontz, a former owner who won landmark status for the club, said demolition “would be the ultimate disappointment.”

“History has no real place in Charlotte except on paper,” he said.

This story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com.

Featured photo: Courtesy of Charlotte Observer files

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