Scarab Club

Scarab Club

217 Farnsworth in Detroit's Cultural Center close to the Detroit Institute of Art,
the new Science Museum, the Center for Creative Studies and
the Wright Museum of African-American History

This attractive and interesting building is home to one of Michigan's oldest arts organization. Around the turn of the 20th Century, an arts and crafts movement spread throughout the larger cities of the United States, a movement that emphasized the artistic contributions of individual artists, often without formal training. As a result of that arts and crafts movement, Detroit artists organized themselves to promote the arts. When founded in 1907, this organization was called the Hopkin Club after the famous Detroit marine painter, Robert Hopkin, who was one of the organizers, perhaps the leader in the formation of the club.

Just six years after the club was founded and four years after the death of Robert Hopkin, the name was changed to the Scarab Club.  James Swan was president of the organization at that time and had the hobby of collecting Egyptian scarabs.  The African beetle known as the scarab is, in Egyptian iconography, the symbol of resurrection. This beetle lays its eggs in camel dung so the larvae and, eventfully, the new scarabs emerge from the dung.  The symbol of the scarab was frequently incorporated into classical Egyptian jewelry.  James Swan, I presume, collected that jewelry, not the actual dung beetles.  In 1913, he changed the club’s name to Scarab Club, representing the club's commitment to the renewal of arts in Detroit.  I do not know if they meant to suggest that arts could emerge in a city that was, at that time, a very dirty place since soft coal was burned by industries and used to heat most homes.  And, of course, horses were the major means of local transport, implying that Detroit’s street received tons of horse dung every day.

Detroit architect, Lancelot Sukert, designed the present building, one that opened in 1928 when the city's economy and population were booming. It is a rectangular, three-story building done in red brick. On the first level, there is a recessed entryway with ornamental brickwork. On the first floor exterior, you will find nine grilled panels. On the second and third floors, there are leaded glass windows augmented with terra cotta tile. There are two striking and distinguishing features of Sukert's building.  One is the large image of a scarab executed in Detroit's Pewabic tile. And then there is an unusually attractive complex use of brickwork augmented with Pewabic tile. We seldom see the use of artistic brickwork to grace the exterior of a building. The Scarab Club offers studios, galleries and classrooms for the arts, including the performing arts. Many famous artists have signed their names on the interior beams, including Diego Rivera and Norman Rockwell.

Robert Hopkin played a role in the creation of this organization.  Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1837, Robert Hopkin emigrated with his family to Detroit in 1843 and remained a resident of the city until his death.  He became, arguably, Detroit’s most accomplished painter of the late Nineteenth Century.  He specialized in depicting Great Lakes marine scenes.  He opened a studio in Detroit in 1853 and painted many pictures of ships and sea scenes.  In all, he produced at least 390 watercolors and oils.  While he specialized in water scenes, he also painted landscapes linked to his travels in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Scotland and Ireland.  Hopkin won commissions to paint scenes for quite a few significant buildings in the late Nineteen Century, including the Detroit Opera House that was completed in 1869 and the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans that was erected in 1883.  Hopkin helped to establish what we now know as the Scarab Club in 1907, but died on March 21, 1909.

The architect, Lancelot Sukert, studied at the University of California in Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.  In addition to the building you see pictured above, he designed the Serbian Orthodox Church that once housed the most prosperous Serbian Orthodox congregation in the nation and stood on Outer Drive.

Architect: Lancelot Sukert
Michigan Historical register: P4487 Listed July 26, 1974
Michigan Historical marker: Erected December 14, 1998. This is clearly visible close to the Farnsworth Street entrance.
Michigan Local Historic District: Established July 18, 1979
National Historical Register: Listed: November 20, 1979
Use in 2010: Identical to its use in 1928—a center for artists and for musical performances of small groups
Photo: Gail Farley, October 2002
Description updated: April, 2010


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