Celebrating a Century
In 1896, 21 of San Diego’s “educated elite” established the College Graduate Club “to bring together persons with academic degrees to discuss, at regular monthly meetings, current topics of the day.” Membership was limited to graduates of selected colleges and universities—Harvard, Vassar, Princeton and so on. Stanford and Berkeley were the only western universities considered. Membership was not limited to men. Indeed, in the beginning, more than half the members were women.
For a while. A dozen years, actually.
In 1908, sexual equality took a hit. Female members were dropped from the rolls, and the renamed University Club became an all-male bastion. Women’s names would not reappear on the membership roster until the mid-1970s. Why women were barred, or how, is unknown. No one lives to tell the story.
The University Club’s first home was in a mansion on the northwest corner of Fourth and A, downtown. Today, the club sits atop Symphony Towers, with a spectacular view from downtown to Balboa Park to La Jolla. There have been other homes in between.
It has been a club in transition since its founding. In 1916, it relocated to a new four-story building on the corner of 7th and A, moving out temporarily during a $1 million three-story rebuilding completed in 1970. In 1989, the club moved across the street to its present location.
“The University Club’s move to Symphony Towers relates to the financial problems that the club has always had—as all private clubs do—making ends meet,” says attorney Edgar Luce, a member for half a century and great-grandchild of one of the original founders, Judge Moses Luce.
The financial picture worsened in the 1980s, which led to an agreement with Club Corporation of America—the new management team—to waive initiation fees for current members who wished to move to the new University Club. There was a group in charge of winding up the old club’s affairs, and assets from the liquidation were put into a holding account. What should be done with that money now, seven years later, is still a point of controversy.
Some say the club is not the same, that it belongs to a new generation. But younger members, like many of their predecessors, still see the club as a great place for networking.
“In the old history of clubs, it was about social connections,” says one of the younger members. “In the new history of clubs, it’s business connections.”
“Everything changes,” says Luce. “I think the club’s maintained a lot of its old flavor, but not all of it. It seems to be a modern version of what a club should be like.”
Early sexual politics aside, membership requirements have been liberalized over the years. In 1911, according to local historian Sylvia K. Flanigan, the club rules stated that visits of ladies to the clubhouse, except on stated occasions, were discouraged, but “if the visits happened to be unavoidable, the ladies should be shown to the correspondence room.” (Oh, and dogs were not to be kept on the premises, either.) Today, four of the club’s board members are women, and next year’s president will be Ann Beard, chief of protocol in the mayor’s office.
The club is open to graduates of any bona-fide university and to community leaders—college graduate or no. “It’s still a private club, and membership is by invitation only,” says a current member. “I mean, Bill Gates is not a college graduate. We wouldn’t turn him down.”
Members don’t talk about it much now, but a generation ago there was rivalry between the University Club and the Cuyamaca Club, once the oldest club in San Diego (it’s now defunct). At one time, in fact, University Club members accused the Cuyamaca of raiding its membership.
And stag parties ended years ago. “It was embarrassing,” says Mary Wayne, social director for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s—and the first woman to be named to the post in the club’s history. “I had to make sure the waiters were doing their jobs properly. Then I’d leave when the show started, because I didn’t want to be there.”
Wayne was instrumental in reinstating women as members, but she also credits Will Hippin, club president at that time, because he “backed me all the way.” In the years just before the readmission of women, they were permitted in the club for lunch but were confined to a corner of the dining room sectioned off by couches and tables. The men had the remaining three-quarters of the dining room for themselves.
Some say women were allowed to rejoin the club because it needed money. Wayne disagrees. “It was a women’s rights issue,” she says.
SEASONED MEMBERS have fond memories. “When I first became a member, and for many years thereafter, there was the round table,” says Luce. “This was a large table in the dining room at which members who didn’t have a particular luncheon group or planned business lunch could just pull up a chair. My dad used to enjoy that very much in the ’40s and ’50s, and he would take me with him. Those people at the round table were the movers and shakers, and they had lively discussions about affairs of the community and the world.”
Some things never change.
“It still has the same old group of guys who got together and formed the ‘Old Porch Gang’ years ago,” says new member Rob Akins. “It was a group of guys who would strip down to their shorts and sit on the rooftop of the old club and play cards at lunch and get a suntan.” (Today, card games take place indoors, with players fully dressed.)
Through the years, the movers and shakers at the University Club have included Helen Copley, C. Arnholt Smith, Kate Sessions and William Black. High-profile guests have included former Presidents Reagan and Bush, Newt Gingrich and Steve Forbes. During the Republican convention in August, the club drew former President Ford, Henry Kissinger and Governor Pete Wilson.
But big names are not the main attraction. Club manager Randy Cocke says people want a place to initiate and wrap up business deals. But they want to be recognized, too. “It’s the extra things,” he says. “We’re kind of a one-stop, everything-you-need kind of place, with meeting rooms, audiovisuals and Xerox machines. We can coordinate a business meeting and serve an elegant meal.”
“I like to take out-of-town guests to the University Club,” says Reint Reinders, president of San Diego’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Because of the view, you practically have the whole region at your fingertips.”
For the club that has changed with the times and outlived its best-known neighbor, the San Diego Symphony, the music hasn’t stopped. The centennial celebration begins with an event October 12 to raise money for the San Diego Performing Arts League. Club members will celebrate for a variety of reasons. For some, it will be a celebration of the arts. For others, it will be a personal appreciation for what the club has added to their lives.
And for others, like Jim Bowers, longtime member and chairman of the centennial celebration, it will simply be historical. “In San Diego,” he says, “not many institutions are 100 years old. We are such a young city. How often do we get to celebrate a centennial of anything?