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Darrel Williams' task: Build the Excelsior Club’s future, nod to past
Architect takes challenge of saving iconic property
 
Published Wednesday, August 26, 2020 6:30 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

PHOTO | TROY HULL
Charlotte architect Darrel Williams, founder of Neighboring Concepts, is consulting Excelsior Club owner Darius Anderson on a path forward for the historic building in west Charlotte as well as development of a boutique hotel on the site. “I think the Excelsior Club is an opportunity to take and promote that culture and history that we have lost so much of,” Williams said.

Black Charlotte built the Excelsior Club, and it’ll have a major role in its revitalization.


The club, which was the hub of entertainment and political life for the African American community for nearly 80 years, sits abandoned on Beatties Ford Road, surrounded by fencing, slowly crumbling since it closed in 2016. The disrepair is so pronounced the site was placed on the list of most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Bringing the Excelsior back with a new purpose in addition to a planned boutique hotel, is Charlotte architect Darrel Williams, a consultant to the property’s new owner, Sonoma, California-based Kenwood Investments CEO Darius Anderson. Since buying the property in January, Anderson has put out a call to action for a “dream team” of Black professionals to revitalize the site. In noting that while the nation’s attention is focused on removing racist monuments, Black cultural and historic sites – especially those in danger of disappearing through neglect, decay or demolition – are worth preserving.


“We must do more than preserve and protect them,” Anderson said last month. “We need to restore them to their places of prominence. That’s what we intend to do with the Excelsior Club.”


Said Williams, founder of Neighboring Concepts, one of the Southeast’s largest Black-owned architecture firms: “I guess there’s probably not too much history left in Charlotte, and then when you think about African American history, it’s probably even worse. I think the Excelsior Club is an opportunity to take and promote that culture and history that we have lost so much of.”


Standing the test of time
It’s Williams’ job to create a future for the Excelsior, which opened in 1944 as a nightclub that attracted Black professionals and politicians as members. He’s familiar with working on historic links to Black Charlotte as part of the team that refurbished the Second Ward High School gym in the old Brooklyn neighborhood wiped out in the 1960s as part of the city’s urban renewal initiative.


“The county tore down everything else in Brooklyn, almost,” he said. “They tore down Second Ward High School, but they kept the gym. I can’t help but remember the opening of that project when all the Second Ward alumni came. There were a couple of people in wheelchairs, canes, and they’re up in age now but the celebration that existed in that space was just amazing, to see people who went to school in that building and see that building restored to be used by the community and alumni.

“We work on a lot of projects, but nothing is more significant to me personally than something that has stood the test of time and allow people to have those memories from the past. …We try to look at those memories and celebrate that we've come a long way as a people.”

The Excelsior, located in Historic West End, was established by Jimmie McKee, who oversaw remodeling and expansion in 1952 that created the current exterior and ballrooms that could accommodate 300 people. At the height of its popularity, the club hosted entertainers like Louis Armstrong, James Brown, and Nat “King” Cole. It was also a must-do on the campaign trail for local, state and national candidates, including former President Bill Clinton, who made a campaign stop in 1992.

“Jimmie McKee was an early visionary in protecting and providing equal opportunities for African Americans,” Anderson said. “For more than 70 years, it was the place to be for Black professionals, artists, and politicians thinking about running for office. I fell in love with its amazing history and look forward to restoring this for the people of Charlotte and our nation.”

Blending with changing West End
That commitment to preservation is what makes the Excelsior appealing, especially as Historic West End is grappling with gentrification brought on by relatively inexpensive land and new amenities like the Gold Line streetcar, which is scheduled to open later this year.


“When we start drawing up and designing, we try to understand the culture of a community where the project is located,” Williams said, “because we want to know if there is there something historical that could inspire. Even if you look at Mosaic Village [near Historic West End neighbor Johnson C. Smith University], the Excelsior Club and the history of music along the Beatties Ford Road Corridor, really is what inspired the design of Mosaic Village. If you stand back and look at Mosaic Village, you can see the porticos, the symmetry and the elements going up in different colors and you can relate it to musical notes going up and down.”


The Excelsior redevelopment leans in part on the Green Book concept based on a travel guide for Blacks navigating the South during the height of state-sanctioned segregation. Back then, Black-owned sites like the Excelsior were sought as a safe space during an era when crossing the color line in lodging, entertainment or eating could prove fatal.

“I think we have the opportunity to be able to take a project like the Excelsior Club and design it in a way to help promote and bring memories from the past,” Williams said. “I think the concept that Darius wants to highlight and promote is … a place where people can come, they’re comfortable, they can entertain, they can enjoy the arts, they can eat, and they can have somewhere to sleep.”

How much can be saved?
The club is a converted 1910s-era, two-story house designed in the Art Moderne style – now a rarity in Charlotte. The decision to either save as much of it as possible or rebuild is a balance between cost-effectiveness and historic significance.

“You have to always look at it comprehensively,” Williams said, “and try to figure out what’s the best and most effective way to bring this project back. No decision has been made yet regarding how to do that and whether it can be done.

“That is going to be a challenge to try to take things in that building in the condition that it’s in today, but we haven’t lost hope. I think that it needs to be looked at very carefully to see if there’s any way to save most, if not at least the minimum, of the Excelsior. The worst-case scenario is that it is going to be cost prohibitive to keep any portion of the existing building.”

As an architect, Williams said he appreciates Anderson’s conscientious effort to bring Black professionals in on a project that means so much to African Americans. Although Blacks make up 13% of the nation’s population, they account for 2% of architects.

Architects and designers can apply for consideration to work on the project, with the top candidates selected based on how their backgrounds can be used on the project, vision for preserving history and how their concept for the new hotel would complement the Excelsior.

“It says a lot about [Anderson] that he's sensitive to the issue,” Williams said. “He respects what was there and he understands that there's a difference, something that means so much to the Black community designed by Blacks.”

Comments

Please acknowledge our history correctly ... The Excelsior Club, located in Historic Washington Heights, est.1910. As you know, Historic West End, A rich legacy and history to build upon, was a branding created with the Northwest Corridor CDC.
Posted on August 28, 2020
 
Excellent article and reminded me to subscribe and support our local, African-American journalists. Thank you!
Posted on August 28, 2020
 

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