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Don't Even Think About Joining This Club

Valley Hunt is low key, old money and very, very exclusive. 'It's prototypical Pasadena.'

September 18, 2004|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

Barber-neat hedges buffer the Valley Hunt Club from the world hurrying by on Orange Grove Boulevard, the busy Pasadena street known as Millionaire's Row before condos began displacing its deep-lawn mansions.

No signs bordering the Valley Hunt grounds identify it by name. But staked beneath the hedges are discreet markers that label the property private.

And few places are as private as Valley Hunt, a 116-year-old social club that is rooted in old money, irresistible to new money and so hard to gain admission to that it puts the "exclude" in exclusive.

A throwback to the wealth and manners of a bygone Los Angeles, Valley Hunt is an invitation-only sanctuary of bluish bloodlines and faintly English airs that clings to its traditions as the city changes around it.

Outside attention is shunned, apart from quiet nods to the club's role as the 19th century founder of the Tournament of Roses. Valley Hunt does not advertise its existence, and its officers avoid interviews.

The 1,000 or so members are treated to a refuge from today's dressed-down, egalitarian metropolis, where show-business lucre can buy status and T-shirts are dinner attire.

"Ladies can wear pantsuits, though," said Ann Longyear, a member who held her wedding reception at Valley Hunt 52 years ago. She conducted a tour of the California Impressionist paintings that brighten the walls of the 1908 Colonial clubhouse designed by famed architect Myron Hunt.

In the slightly musty living room, Longyear sat on an English-style sofa before an empty fireplace and gazed out sun-filled windows toward the boulevard.

"It's like a freeway now," she said, with wistful eyes. "It's sad."

But the encroaching bustle has not diminished the club's cachet. Prospective members abide a waiting list of two to three years, and a vetting regimen worthy of spy agencies.

The initiation fee is something between $15,000 and just under $20,000, and monthly dues are in the $250 range, members say.

Country and golfing clubs can cost much more, but the Valley Hunt is not strictly a country club, has no links and no longer stages rabbit-shooting outings in the Arroyo Seco and the foothills of the San Gabriels.

The club offers tennis, swimming, bridge and fine dining, but its main raison d'etre is to provide a cloistered gathering spot for "good" families -- "wonderful, longtime Pasadena families," said member Barbara Bishop, an art historian.

Gloria Lothrop, a Pasadena resident and retired professor of California history, characterized the institution this way: "The Valley Hunt has preserved the status quo and realm of privilege, and the people who occupy that realm of privilege maintain a stability.

"These are people who are to the manner born for several generations," Lothrop said.

Applicants must be proposed by a member and solicit letters of recommendation from many more. They also are required to entertain members at home, to ensure that everyone would be comfortable with one another.

Hoss MacVaugh, a commercial real estate broker and Valley Hunt member, says the club is "not a place that you can just buy your way into.... Basically, you've got to wait for someone to quit or die."

Once you're admitted, he said, you don't brag about it.

"You don't want to rub it in people's noses that they're not in," he said. "It's tacky."

Massachusetts-born zoology professor Charles Holder was Valley Hunt's principal founder in 1888. Two years later, the club sponsored the first Rose Parade to promote Pasadena as a warm-weather destination.

The Tournament of Roses, whose Wrigley Mansion headquarters is just up the boulevard from Valley Hunt, became a separate association in 1895, but informal ties to the club endure. Association President David Davis is a member. He said he was taken by Valley Hunt's "very traditional building and the atmosphere."

"It kind of has the feel of one of those English clubs," Davis said. "It's prototypical Pasadena."

Harry Montgomery, a Valley Hunt member for three decades, also likes the English touches.

"I suppose to some people, joining is a sign of upward mobility," Montgomery said as he strolled by the sparkling pool and terrace, with children splashing in the water.

The printing company owner had just finished lunch in the Hunt Room, whose dark paneled walls bear illustrations of fox-hunting parties.

"Probably a high percentage of the membership is in the L.A. Blue Book or the National Social Register, but that is not in any way a criterion of membership," he said.

He showed a visitor the men's dining room, where a card game was underway, and the library and bar. A collection of old Tournament of Roses programs filled a glass display case, and photographs of smiling debutantes lined a hallway.

Montgomery's two daughters had their debut in the Main Ballroom. Daughter Brynne was married at Valley Hunt.

"It's not the exclusivity as much as the familiarity of the people you're sitting with," Montgomery said of the club's allure. "It's a home away from home."

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