Back to square one for Excelsior, as deal to save the African-American landmark fails

The Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road.
The Excelsior Club on Beatties Ford Road. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

A plan to save one of Charlotte’s most significant African-American landmarks fell through this week after Mecklenburg County commissioners passed on approving a deal to buy the historic Excelsior Club.

Dan Morrill, executive director of the Historic Landmarks Commission, had called the plan “the last hope” for saving the building on Beatties Ford Road, which was long a pillar in the city’s black community.

This week county commissioners rejected a proposed deal between the landmarks commission and the club’s owner, state Rep. Carla Cunningham. It would have given the commission a year to find a buyer or buy the Excelsior Club itself, by spending $4,000 on an exclusive option to buy the building.

Republican Commissioner Bill James said the board found the would-be purchase price — $350,000 — too steep when combined with the estimated $5252,000 needed to repair the structure. The purchase price was more than three times the appraised value, James said. The decision was made in closed session during the board’s meeting Tuesday.

Cunningham said she’ll figure out what to do after the November election.

Rep. Carla Cunningham .

“I may just sit and wait . . . and then probably sell it,” she said Thursday. “I’ll take some time to weigh my options.”

In May she filed papers with the Landmarks Commission that could lead to the demolition of the 74-year-old building as soon as next year. Cunningham has said while that’s not her intent, the filing keeps her options open to do just that.

The Excelsior opened in 1944 when its first owner, Jimmie McKee, bought a 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 for the community, drawing luminaries for decades.

Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong played there. Dozens of politicians, including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, campaigned there. It has hosted wedding receptions, voter rallies and Tuesday Night Fish Fries. It’s where excited patrons gathered on a November night in 2008 to celebrate the election of America’s first black president.

The building needs extensive renovations, including new floors, interior walls, HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems, and repairs for water damage to the roof, according to a report on the Excelsior’s condition.

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Morrill said the club’s fate is now entirely in Cunningham’s hands.

“If she wants to decide that her best interests are served by preserving the building, she can do it,” he said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041