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Exclusive Becomes Inclusive

The Balboa Bay Club's members-only era partly crumbles with a new hotel

May 14, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

This is what makes a hotel owner nervous.

Beverly Ray has been shepherding construction of an upscale 132-room hotel next to Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Club for more than a decade. Tonight up to 3,000 club members will tour the hotel, and the rooms will be filled by the paying public, including one high-roller who has reserved the $3,500-per-night Presidential Suite.

But at the beginning of the week, no one could find the suite's bedcovers, selected months ago by Ray, a onetime interior decorator and current chairwoman of International Bay Clubs Inc., which owns the 55-year-old Balboa Bay Club.

Ray assessed the coverless four-poster bed and sighed with a soft Texas drawl: "What are you going to do?"

Indeed. For a private club that exults in its own history -- flamboyant, celebrity-heavy parties in the '50s and '60s and stays by presidents past and future -- the Balboa Bay Club this week enters a very public future.

For the first time, the average Joe will be able to walk past the East Coast Highway gatehouse and recently replaced clubhouse to stroll along the bayside boardwalk, where million-dollar boats bob gently in their berths. Those who can afford $225 a night and up can stay on grounds formerly reserved for members and guests, in spacious rooms decorated largely with original artworks.

And if you fancy a shot of Conmemorativo tequila, a favorite of member John Wayne, you'll able to walk into the new Duke's Bar and sip away the sunset.

While club members for the most part say they're embracing the change, more than a few are looking to the past as well.

"I think it's going to be the best of both worlds," said Peggy Goldwater Clay, who has belonged to the Balboa Bay Club since she was a teenager and whose father -- politician Barry Goldwater -- and husband both served as club board members. "I'm quite anxious to see it."

The Balboa Bay Club began in 1948 as a hamburger stand and six overnight cabanas across Newport Bay from the booming Balboa Peninsula beaches. It quickly evolved into a weekend getaway for wealthy Angelenos, Pasadenans and other out-of-towners.

By the '50s and '60s, the club was a playground for actors and other entertainers who could sneak away for some R&R but be close enough for quick returns to Hollywood. The names are plucked from the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. In more recent years: Jerry Seinfeld, John Travolta and Mary Hart.

The club, dominated by wealthy Republicans, has been host to five presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, according to a list maintained by the club. Notably absent are the Democratic presidents since the '50s: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

In its heyday the club wielded a certain clout. It was not overtly political, but many of its members were, and the bar was steeped in the self-confidence of successful men accustomed to making things go their way.

But time, and a changing world, have melted that away.

"Some of the old-timers would say we're not as important as we used to be," said Jim de Boom, a member since 1988 and a former Newport-Mesa school trustee. "And the membership has become younger."

A New Society

These days, the gym is as likely to be as crowded as the bar. You can still get a martini and light up a cigar on the patio, but the ambience has changed.

"A lot of the old guard are no longer members," Clay said. "That's an era gone by. I remember old guys sitting at the bar, and a couple of them even had plaques on the back of their chairs so when they came to the bar, that was their chair.... That no longer exists."

Change, though, is good, Clay said.

"At first I didn't want to see the old club go because it was such a comfortable place," she said. "It did need to be refurbished. It was quite run-down, and they really made the right move ... tearing it down and starting all over again."

Public-Private Swap

The new hotel reflects a compromise between the Bay Club, which is a private, for-profit company, and the city of Newport Beach, which owns the 15 acres the club stands on. It's a relationship that has weathered a few storms since the initial 50-year lease was signed in 1948.

In the mid-'60s the club wanted to build a 12-story apartment building, but the project shrank to five floors after neighbors on a landward bluff objected to losing their view. Other dreams over the years met similar resistance, and the new hotel is a scaled-back version of the 300-room complex the club proposed around 1989 and opposed by adjoining homeowners.

The current project, approved in 1995, includes a 50-year lease with the city that began with hotel construction in 2000, said International Bay Clubs President David C. Wooten.

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