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Charlotte City Council panel to meet on Excelsior Club preservation
Site on Economic Development Committee agenda
 
Published Wednesday, June 26, 2019 10:24 am
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

COURTESY DAN MORRILL
Charlotte City Council's Economic Development Committee will meet June 27 to discuss potential actions to preserve the historic Excelsior Club.

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A Charlotte City Council panel wants to explore how – or what it can to do – to preserve the Excelsior Club.


Council’s Economic Development Committee meets Thursday to discuss the former nightclub, which is under contract to be sold to an unidentified investor from California. Council member James Mitchell, a former council representative of the district where the Excelsior is located, chairs the committee.


The meeting is at the Government Center, Room CH 14 at 11 a.m.


“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” Mitchell said. “I’d like to see the city explore how we can participate. I think this is typical in business when someone does their due diligence.”


The Excelsior Club, which closed in 2016 and has fallen into disrepair, once counted black Charlotte’s elite among its members. The site has been placed on a list of 11 sites “at risk of destruction or irreparable damage” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


“I’ve lived in Charlotte 40 years, so I knew the history of the club and how important it was to the African American community,” said Mary Newsom, board chair of the Charlotte Museum of History at a press conference last month announcing the designation.


Newsom nominated the Excelsior for the designation, a first for a North Carolina location, according to Dan Morrill, director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. The designation “puts a lot of pressure on Charlotte” to preserve the site, especially as a national treasure, Morrill said of the designation. “It can be a good thing, or a bad thing.”


Mitchell said local government can play a role in preserving the historic building though partnerships with nonprofits and community organizations. He cited conversations with Mecklenburg County as well as Foundation for the Carolinas to weigh their interest in putting together plans to make an offer on the site.
“When it’s in government’s hands, people feel better because their voices will be heard,” he said.


Since 1988, the National Trust has used its list to raise awareness about threatened sites, with more than 300 to date, according to the group’s website, with “only a handful of sites” lost. The goal is to locate a buyer for the Excelsior who will restore the building.


Local efforts to save the Excelsior, located in the Washington Heights community, have met with mixed results. The landmarks commission, which tried to find a buyer, initiated a moratorium to buy time before a demolition that ended on June 11. Mecklenburg  commissioners voted down a proposed deal between Cunningham and the landmarks commission that would give the commission a year to locate a buyer or purchase the property outright. The Excelsior’s owner, N.C. Rep. Carla Cunningham, told The Post last year refurbishing the building would require at least $400,000. The property was listed for $1.5 million as of April. Cunningham rejected previous bids to buy the property that were short of the list price.


“I’m taking it as not a done deal until Carla says it’s a done deal,” Mitchell said.


The Excelsior, which entrepreneur Jimmie McKee opened on Beatties Ford Road in 1944, was a longtime hub of African American social and political activity, but has fallen into disrepair and was closed in 2016. “Losing this property, with the history and uniqueness that it has—it would be noticed,” said Michael Sullivan, a Charlotte Realtor and co-founder of Preserve Mecklenburg. “We’ve lost so many relics of our past, and I think the African American community in particular [has suffered].”


McKee, The Post’s “Man of the Year” in 1957, opened the Excelsior to bring a social space to black Charlotte. He bought the two-story house built in the late 1910s for $3,510 and initiated 25 men as the first members.


Soon, the Excelsior became one of the largest black social clubs on the East Coast, and McKee expanded the building in 1952 into an Art Moderne structure – a rarity in modern Charlotte. In the Jim Crow South, it was an entertainment hub where Nat “King” Cole, Louis Armstrong and James Brown performed in the 1950s and ‘60s. Even pop legend Prince partied at the club in the 1980s.


The club was also central to local politics and civil rights. Candidates for public office, starting in 1946 with Mecklenburg County sheriff candidate Clyde Hunter to 1992 presidential hopeful Bill Clinton rallied there. Victory parties celebrated historic electoral wins by Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor to Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.


“I hope we’ll be able to preserve and restore the building,” political activist  Aisha Dew said last month. “From a historical perspective, it was one of the earliest African American establishments at the time, so it’s really, really powerful.”

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