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Changing tradition

Amid tough times, downtown L.A.'s private clubs reach out

March 20, 2011|Abby Sewell

The marble walkway leading into the California Club echoes with the ghostly footsteps of land barons, railroad tycoons and political kingmakers.

So does the ostentatious front lobby of the Jonathan Club nearby.

Private business clubs once were centers of power in downtown Los Angeles. You might have found rail magnate Henry E. Huntington playing dominoes and plotting his next expansion beneath the high, oak-paneled walls. Or William May Garland, the real estate developer, scheming to bring the 1932 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles. Or an early-1960s meeting of the Committee of 25, a group of powerful businessmen that was considered a shadow city government at the time.

As late as the mid-1980s, you would not find a single black or female member at some of these exclusive clubs.

Yvonne Burke, California's first African American congresswoman, who later served five terms on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, recalls going to civic meetings at the clubs where "they would take me around the back or to the side door to let me in."

Today the clubs have a more diverse membership. But it's also been decades since they served as the backrooms for city politics. And unlike many mayors of earlier days, Antonio Villaraigosa is not a member of any of them -- and some wonder whether these clubs even have a future.

Easing the rules

Just last month, the Regency Club in Westwood, owned by billionaire David Murdock, announced that it would close its doors April 30, citing high costs and declining membership.

Hoping to avoid the same fate, the elite private clubs that remain downtown -- the California Club, the Jonathan Club and Los Angeles Athletic Club, all formed in the late 19th century, and the much younger City Club on Bunker Hill -- have gradually eased their clubby rules to ensure that their facilities remain in use.

These days you're more likely to find business lunches, political and social fundraising events and meetings of the Rotary Club or groups of attorneys and corporate directors. Or a giggling gaggle of bridesmaids, tipsy after a wedding.

"What are you going to do -- are you going to have the tradition or are you going to change? This is a real problem for clubs," said Crystal Thomas, executive director of the California State Club Assn.

The institutions have reached out to the younger generation (with varying degrees of success) through sliding membership-fee scales, mentoring arrangements and social events designed to appeal to the under-35 set -- such as a recent tequila-tasting night at the California Club. They have even made the concession to modernity of allowing business-casual dress on the premises.

But their membership base still tends to be slanted heavily to the 55-and-up crowd.

The Athletic Club has most aggressively targeted the young loft-dwelling entrepreneurs who populate the revitalized downtown. It seems to be gaining traction with up-and-comers attracted by the combination of gym facilities and "Mad Men"-style retro chic at a relatively affordable price tag.

Josh Gray-Emmer, 32, is a downtown resident who owns marketing and branding firm AP Consulting and is preparing to open a vodka bar in the Haas Building at 217 W. 7th St. He belongs to the Athletic Club but never considered the pricier and more buttoned-up California and Jonathan clubs.

"I'm not the son of incredibly wealthy parents who has a societal need to join these things," Gray-Emmer said.

But the clubs don't survive on membership alone. Increasingly, they also depend on income from renting out their facilities for events such as weddings, awards ceremonies and business conventions -- even as film sets, in the case of the Athletic Club.

Some are more stringent than others in requiring events to be member-sponsored. But in all cases, the functions have become a major source of revenue, and one that took a nasty hit in the recession.

In some cases, the clubs also serve as hotels. At the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the top three floors of the building used to serve as members-only apartments, housing early Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Now the newly remodeled rooms rent to the public for $170 and up a night. (The California and Jonathan clubs rent rooms as well, although only to members and their guests.)

All the clubs will eventually go this route to survive, said Christopher Leinberger, a redevelopment expert with the Brookings Institution who belonged to the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles for several years in the 1980s. "The problem when you have a franchise based on a memory is that people die," he said.

Power center

The clubs still hold their traditional niche with the old-school downtown business community of developers, attorneys, mortgage brokers and investment bankers.

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