Politics & Government

New deal may represent ‘the last hope’ to save the venerable Excelsior Club

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

In what one preservationist calls “the last hope” to save Charlotte’s historic Excelsior Club, the Historic Landmarks Commission has signed a deal for an option to buy the property, long a touchstone of the city’s African-American community.

The commission signed the deal Tuesday with the club’s owner, state Rep. Carla Cunningham. It would give the commission a year to find a buyer or buy the building itself.

The deal needs approval from the county commissioners, who are scheduled to consider it Oct. 2.

“This is the last hope for the Excelsior Club,” said Dan Morrill, the commission’s executive director. “If we are not able to find a preservation solution during this one-year period, the property would be sold and I expect it would be demolished.”

Morrill said the deal would allow the commission to acquire an option on the property for $4,000. After a year it could buy the property for $350,000, or find another buyer who could. During that year the commission would study whether it’s feasible to restore the property and, if so, in what fashion.

The club on Beatties Ford Road, closed for more than two years, has fallen into disrepair. Morrill said estimates put the cost of just bringing it up to code at nearly $400,000.

“It might not be economically feasible to preserve the entire building,” he said. “The building is in rough shape.”

It’s a far cry from what it was in its glory days.

The Excelsior opened in 1944 when its first owner, 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.

Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong played there. Presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore and dozens of other politicians campaigned there. Over the years it hosted wedding receptions, voter rallies and Tuesday Night Fish Fries. It’s where enthusiastic patrons gathered in November 2008 to celebrate the election of America’s first black president.

Rep. Carla Cunningham .

Over 73 years the club has survived economic downturns, racial upheaval and changing ownership. Now it faces its most serious challenge.

“People want it saved,” Cunningham said Wednesday. “So I think it’s a good option for the community.”

County Commissioner Pat Cotham said she’ll support the deal.

“It’s a historical place,” she said. “When I went in there I knew I was in someplace special.”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill