Published on September 1, 2019.

Club Blaze

Detroit's deadly Study Club fire of 1929


On September 20, 1929, a popular nightclub in Detroit’s downtown district, The Study Club, was in full swing. It was Prohibition, and the club offered visitors bootleg liquor and matches printed with the slogan “Dance for Your Health.” One of these matches may have sparked a deadly fire.

At some point in the evening, a small fire started in the club, igniting drapery near the foot of a stairway that led to a second-floor dance hall. As one patron was preparing to leave, he remarked to the coatroom attendant, “Did you know there is a fire back there, girlie?” The attendant tried to extinguish the fire, but the flames had spread to highly combustible interior decorations. A member of the club’s kitchen staff began to alert patrons, but as the fire grew and raced up the stairs toward the dance hall, both employees fled the building.

A patrolling police officer spotted the fire and ran to the nearest fire alarm box. When he returned minutes later, it was a scene of chaos and desperation. The fire had trapped scores of people in the second-floor dance hall, and some hung from windows, screaming for help as they attempted to escape the growing flames. “The place had [become] a madhouse,” the officer told the Detroit Free Press. When it was over, 22 people were dead. At least 45 were injured, but many who escaped were unwilling to admit their injuries and whereabouts to authorities, according to a 1929 NFPA Quarterly article.

Alterations to the building and decorations in the nightclub were blamed for the loss of life. Originally designed as a high-end residential occupancy, the exits were not intended for large numbers of patrons. A fire escape mandated by the building department lay unassembled outside the building during the evacuation. In search of a second exit, dozens of occupants fled through a door at the rear of the dance hall and found themselves wedged into a small dressing room, pictured above. Some escaped the room by jumping to a brick alleyway, while others remained trapped beneath unconscious patrons. Many people died in the space.

The Mayor of Detroit ordered the reinspection of all nightclubs to remove any flammable decorations similar to those found in The Study Club. These inspections followed a conference held to ensure collaboration between the city’s fire, police, recreation, and building departments. This meeting led to a new process requiring Detroit’s Fire Prevention Bureau to complete a separate inspection before the recreation department could issue any license for nightclubs, cabarets, or similar premises, according to a Fire Engineering article published later that year.

MATTHEW FOLEY is junior applied researcher at NFPA. Top photograph: NFPA Archives