Charlotte’s historic Excelsior Club, an African-American community landmark that’s been closed for nearly a year, could reopen by the end of the year.
Owner Carla Cunningham said she plans to restore the club as an event venue.
“I would like to … walk in there and say, ‘Wow, look at this place!’” said Cunningham, a Democratic state lawmaker.
The club on Beatties Ford Road has been a touchstone for generations of African-Americans. Earlier this year, Cunningham began foreclosure proceedings on James Ferguson, a prominent civil rights attorney who bought the club from her husband Pete in 2006.
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The club closed last June, ostensibly for renovations. But there already were signs of financial problems.
Cunningham has said that in 2014 she reduced monthly mortgage payments to Ferguson’s corporate entity, HKL, from around $6,000 a month to $4,000 and even then payments were sometimes late. In the last year the building had fallen into disrepair.
In February 2016, city inspectors found an extensive list of code violations, including a falling ceiling, unsafe wiring and structural problems. Earlier this year the club faced civil penalties of $12,800.
HKL still faces federal tax obligations of more than $166,000, according to Cunningham’s attorney.
Restoration would bring back a landmark.
The Excelsior opened in 1944 when Jimmie McKee had 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.
Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong played there. Presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore, like 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 has special significance because of its association with African-American history as a reflection of what the dynamics of social interaction was in the 1940s,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director of the Historic Landmarks Commission.
The Excelsior, which is also in the National Register of Historic Places, was declared a local landmark in the mid-1980s when it was under the ownership of Ken Koontz and a partner. The landmarks commission called it “perhaps the finest example of the Art Moderne style in Mecklenburg County.”
Koontz said he’s happy the building will be preserved.
“I think restoration and reopening is just phenomenal,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always hoped would happen.”