Private Social Clubs Try to Delay Their Doom

The masters of the universe aren't coming, so the clubs are lowering standards.
Private Social Clubs Try to Delay Their Doom
Still from film "Trading Places" via Netflix.

On a summer evening two years ago, the Washington Club threw a going-away party for itself at Patterson House, its ornate white-marble sugar cake of a mansion on Dupont Circle. Guests sipped cocktails in the massive ballroom before filing into the dining room to eat beef and salmon served on the club’s signature pink-and-white china. “Everybody was dressed to the nines and very happy,” says Priscilla Baker, former president of the women’s club.

In the months that followed, the china was sold off to members who wanted a keepsake. Baker worked with Sloans & Kenyon, the Chevy Chase auction house, to sell off the most valuable antiques—a Qing Dynasty celadon jade vase went for $16,000, and two gilt-framed mirrors got $10,000, according to the Washington Post. Many of the office’s file cabinets and desks were donated to political campaigns gearing up for the 2014 elections. Last June, Baker handed over the keys to SB-Urban, which had bought the mansion for a reported $20 million, with plans to convert it into luxury “micro-apartments.”

“The club started in 1891,” says club historian Edith Walter. “It was unique in its time, but time has moved on.”

Our times don’t favor the private clubs that once defined elite society in the nation’s capital: the Cosmos, the Metropolitan, the Army and Navy, the Alibi, the George Town, the University, the National Press Club, the American News Women’s Club, the Economic Club, and others—like the F Street Club, which closed in 1999, and the Federal City Club, shuttered in 2006—that are no more. There are still plenty of clubbable types, but few Washington players today devote hours to the multi-martini lunches that private clubs were designed around—the kind that risk violating federal ethics regulations.

Home and work hold more sway over us than they did in the clubs’ midcentury heyday. Those who can leave their desks at the end of the day rush home to spend time with the kids. When we do go out, there’s more cachet in dining at Le Diplomate or the Red Hen.

Amid all this busyness, much of our socializing has moved online or revolves around team activities such as adult kickball leagues that spring up every year in Adams Morgan. Media-versus-Congress softball games can be more useful than stopping by a members-only club.

“Our generation preferred meeting face to face,” says James Robinson, a former Office of Management and Budget employee who belonged to the Federal City Club.

The Washington Club suffered all these problems, but its demise may have had less to do with changing times than competition—chiefly from the Sulgrave, another women’s club across P Street—and mismanagement. The Washington Club’s volunteer board, according to Baker, was never sufficiently diligent about running a tricky combination of nonprofit organization, events venue, and historic-preservation trust. “We had a maid who used to curl up on Charles Lindbergh’s bed”—so called because the aviator had slept there when Calvin Coolidge occupied the mansion—“and take a nap,” says Baker.

Washington’s social clubs have survived periods of crisis before, namely the 1960s, when they struggled over whether to admit African-Americans—attorney general Robert F. Kennedy once boycotted the then whites-only Metropolitan Club—and the ’80s, when male bastions like the Cosmos and the Metropolitan faced the apparently more staggering question of whether to admit women. It may be too early, in other words, to say the game is up for Washington’s private clubs. Facing today’s existential challenges, they’re evolving in ways that would have been unimaginable to their founders.

• • •

Originally housed in the old Corcoran Building at 15th and F streets, the Cosmos Club now resides in the Beaux Arts-style Townsend Mansion on Massachusetts Avenue. Since its founding in 1878 by John Wesley Powell and other early members of the National Geographic Society, the Cosmos has prided itself on its intellectual firepower. Members are expected to have published significantly in their field. Walter Lippmann composed a memo to President Woodrow Wilson in the old library, urging him to enter World War I. Novelist Herman Wouk wrote part of War and Remembrance in an upstairs bedroom while his Georgetown house was being remodeled. As more than one person told me, the Cosmos is for people with brains, the Metropolitan is for people with money, and the University—or, sometimes, the Army-Navy—is for people with neither.

Black-and-white photograph of Cosmos Club by Library of Congress.

This august tradition has helped insulate the Cosmos from the slumping numbers that have befallen other clubs. A wall near the lobby displays postage stamps commemorating members; other walls are dedicated to Nobel and Pulitzer winners. “At the Cosmos, it’s like, wow, there’s them and then there’s me,” a member told me, his face alight with reflected glory.

The Cosmos stays true to its founding mission of feeding the mind, with regular expert-led panels on topics such as the politics and economics of the late New Deal, clubs for specialized interests like birding and the Civil War, and art exhibits. “It’s quaint, in its way,” another member says, “unlike the other clubs in DC, which are more about who do you know and that kind of thing.”

For their annual dues of about $2,000, the clubs also offer bygone pleasures: the coat-check girl and doorman know you by name (but “not in any obsequious way,” as one Metropolitan Club member puts it).

The Cosmos has a wood-paneled library, with deep armchairs you can imagine Bertie Wooster sinking into with a cigar and a glitzy gold-and-glass ballroom where it actually holds balls. Members are encouraged to help offset the $12 million in annual operating costs by renting the common areas for special events or staying overnight in small, well-appointed rooms overlooking the rooftops of Embassy Row.

Inside the Cosmos Club. Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For all that, the Cosmos was hardly bustling when I visited on a Tuesday for a covert tour. (Like many DC social clubs, the Cosmos, which did not respond to calls and e-mails for this story, discourages members from speaking about the place to the press. It’s like Fight Club.) On the two lower floors, a dining room—leather chairs, white tablecloths—resembled a very nice but somewhat antiseptic hotel restaurant. Up a grand staircase were the ballroom, the library, and several large rooms where coffee urns stood sentry. As my guide and I reached the rambling back halls of the third floor, we were overcome by mischievous glee—in part at the building’s campy seriousness: the “limit five persons” inscription in the elevator, rendered in Latin; another noting the availability of “wireless fidelity” internet.

In the billiards room on the third floor—with old-fashioned wooden bead scorekeepers suspended over the green baize tables—was an artsy nude painting, a relic of the Cosmos’s decades as one of DC’s fanciest man caves. (Women were admitted in 1988.) As my guide and I passed the card room across the hall, talking a bit too loudly, a group of white-haired ladies looked up from their hands at once, as if their game hadn’t been disturbed in years.

• • •

Age, as a factor in the decline of private clubs, is a matter of controversy. Clubs have always skewed old. And why not? Retired people have both disposable income and time to volunteer on committees and attend events often held during work hours. The clubs can survive, one side argues, as long as people keep turning 60.

But lately, membership is verging on the Methuselan. When I lunched at the Cosmos on another day, the guests nearest in age had me by easily 20 years. One man who has gone there his entire life told me it was “very stuffy—seriously geriatric” and that it “smells like mothballs.” As the average age rises, of course, the rolls will naturally be depleted faster. Unreplenished membership was a major factor in the closing of the F Street and Federal City clubs as well as the Washington Club. These days, most clubs give reduced rates or initiation fees to applicants who are under 35 or even 45.

Mingling before a February 2013 luncheon in the waning days of the Washington Club. Photograph by Matt McClain/Washington Post/Getty Images.

The elderly are also, by and large, less influential in Washington than middle-aged senior staffers, who once lured their juniors interested in networking—the reason women and minorities wanted access to “old boys” clubs in the first place.

Ashley Taylor Bronczek is just the sort of woman who might have powered a private club a generation ago. The granddaughter of Kennedy-era power couple Lloyd and Ann Hand, Bronczek runs her own charity and is a fixture at the philanthropic galas that constitute Washington social life today. Private clubs offer little to her ilk. “I don’t see a lot of younger under-35s going to the Sulgrave,” she says.

Says Robinson: “Only clubs that cater to what people want—which is country clubs and job networking—are flourishing.”

To fight their growing irrelevancy, some clubs now offer events aimed at forty-to-fiftysomethings to promote networking—as opposed to allowing it simply to flow in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. The City Tavern Club in Georgetown holds a foreign-policy evening designed, says former president Jeffrey Kimbell, “to help younger members expand their social networks.”

Other clubs are focusing on creating a country-club experience. A $4.4-million renovation at the University Club included a new spa-and-fitness area. Until recently, the Metropolitan employed former George Washington University squash star Omar Sobhy as its pro.

At the Cosmos, the concessions have included not only a one-room “fitness center” but also a relaxation, in summer, of the jacket-and-tie dress code. A room off the entryway is being turned into a casual sitting area where people can check their digital devices without disturbing the inner sanctum.

The changes have reportedly brought stress to some senior members: If you start altering the dress code, they worry, where does the anarchy end? But most have reconciled themselves for the good of the club.

“Anytime you make change, there’s anxiety,” said one of my unofficial guides. “But I would say that the Cosmos Club getting more members has been very welcome.”

• • •

The club that’s done the most in recent years to bring in younger members is the George Town Club. Despite its quaintly bifurcated name and its origins in an 18th-century rowhouse on Wisconsin Avenue, it’s a relative newcomer, dreamed up in the mid-1960s by Korean businessman Tongsun Park to attract influential—and influenceable—Washingtonians. In 1976, Park was accused of funneling cash from South Korea’s intelligence agency to dozens of members of Congress. More recently, the George Town Club suffered another scandal, in which its accountant embezzled more than $300,000.

In 2012, desperate to save the club, the board brought in Bo Blair, a restaurateur best known for the nearby yuppie-bro haven Smith Point. Blair, working for free, oversaw a full-scale renovation. He updated the menu and dress code and freshened the waiters’ uniforms, removing their old-school white gloves. Lowering dues, he actively campaigned among Georgetown’s thirty- and fortysomethings.

At first, Blair says, the process was “like getting people to buy into a sinking ship.” But since the renovations began, says club president Sharon Casey, 160 new members have come on and the club is receiving ten applications a month.

The challenge is to balance fresh blood with selectivity. Liza Tanner, who is director of the annual-giving fund at Bethesda’s Landon School and in her thirties, has belonged to the George Town since 2013. She says some members worried that younger members would turn the George Town into a Friday-night bar scene—“Smith Point after dark,” as she puts it.

As it turned out, a weekly half-price-beer-and-burger night in the George Town’s new grill room has been well behaved, and the age range is testament to the club’s new vibrancy. “The truth is that the longtime members love that it’s busy,” Casey says.

The place can become more exclusive, Blair notes, “once the foundation’s set and we feel like the club’s healthy.”

It’s hard to imagine the Cosmos handing out half-price burgers to the masses, much less peddling the George Town’s talk on the evolution of kitchen and bathroom design, by an executive from a bathroom-fixtures chain, as an intellectual activity. But its uneasy commingling of tradition and survivalism may be a model for all private clubs.

Washington’s most conservative social guardians may even surprise us. Recently, Ashley Bronczek, the new-fashioned socialite, brought her grandparents to family bingo night at the George Town, where they’ve belonged for years. Says Bronczek: “They’ve been like, wow, this is a hip place.”

Contributing editor Britt Peterson is a culture and ideas writer in DC.

This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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