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Tuesday, March 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Top clubs get 'inclusive': Seattle's exclusive clubs try to boost waning memberships

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

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The Seattle area's most elite private clubs, once the domain of the upper class, are battling slipping membership rosters by targeting a new generation of candidates whose qualifications don't necessarily include pedigree or portfolio.

A slumping economy, increased competition from health and golf clubs plus an influx of transplants unfamiliar with the old social clubs have contributed to the decline and spurred a new emphasis on recruitment.

"It's a war, a war of attrition," says Michael Troyer, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the venerable Rainier Club in downtown Seattle. "We're constantly trying to replace members we lose."

• The Rainier Club, perhaps the most prominent of the area's social clubs, has seen its membership shrink to a recent low of 1,025 members. It is trying to recruit 175 new members.

• Seattle's Columbia Tower Club is down to 1,795 members after a decade ranging from 2,200-2,500. The club just ended a gift-certificate promotion that covered the $1,500 initiation fee.

• The College Club of Seattle, where membership dropped to 700 last fall from a high of 1,200 a dozen years ago, has waived initiation fees and launched an unprecedented downtown campaign to recruit new members.

• The Washington Athletic Club in downtown Seattle, whose enrollment has slumped in recent years, recently gave some members half-price initiation certificates to give to friends.

Setting the standard

Historically, club membership was a marker of social status. And locally, the Rainier Club was considered the most elite.

Its brick building on Fourth Avenue is listed on the state historical register and features one room with a fireplace large enough to park a Mercedes in. Tall ceilings, handcrafted woodwork and an extensive art collection add to the plush appearance. The art includes rare photographs from Native-American chronicler/photographer Edward Curtis, who sometimes paid his bill with his pictures.

The club was founded in 1888 by Seattle leaders who wanted a place to meet and conduct business meetings and a good restaurant. Local legend claims more business was accomplished over the club's dining-room tables than in any office.

The College Club opened in 1910 and originally catered to lawyers and less wealthy businessmen.

Four years later, the Women's University Club was founded as a female answer to those all-male clubs. Seattle's only woman mayor, Bertha K. Landes, became an active member.

Several other clubs were founded through the years, including the 22-story Washington Athletic Club and the Harbor Club, started by Norton Clapp, the late Seattle businessman and philanthropist.

In 1987, developer Martin Selig created the Columbia Tower Club when, according to newspaper accounts, some businessmen blackballed his applications to join existing clubs. It commands one of Seattle's best views from the 75th and 76th floors of the city's tallest skyscraper.

"The clubs represented a consolidation of Seattle's professional and managerial classes such as lawyers, doctors, businessmen and engineers who sought each others' companionship for mutual benefit," said Walt Crowley, a Seattle historian.

Even today, many clubs feel like a cross between an elegant hotel and an old-money mansion. Staffers take pride in learning not only members' names — and their membership numbers — but their favorite food, drinks and tables.

Social change reduces lure

But many clubs have struggled recently to recruit new members, despite the economic boom of the past decade, which created unparalleled wealth in the Seattle area.

The business and social connections that once lured the most prominent figures of the day no longer are enough to attract a more casual, tech-oriented generation more interested in family activities or perfecting their golf swings.

Indeed, the Bellevue Club is one of the few major clubs that didn't report a drop in membership. Manager Beth Curtis attributes that to the growth on the Eastside.

The cost of membership, which once weeded out all but the comfortable middle and upper classes, has stayed relatively flat and a few clubs have reduced initiation fees.

The College Club's initiation fee has been $250 for decades. In 1987, the Rainier Club cost $2,000 to join — today, the top fee is $1,500. When the Columbia Tower Club opened 16 years ago, initiation was $2,000 — today it is $1,500, slightly more if members add on golf and gym privileges at other clubs.

Potential recruits who don't have a friend on the inside will find membership directors eager to give tours and help arrange for sponsors. (The exceptions are the University Club for men and Sunset Club for women, both so private that members won't talk on the record about the organizations except to confirm membership is by invitation only.)

And nowadays, clubs depend upon business-meeting rentals as much as social events and party rentals to bring in revenue.

Women, minorities excluded

Institutions such as the Rainier Club once catered only to Washington's founding fathers — founding mothers and minorities weren't even eligible. Some discrimination was more subtle.

In the early 1900s, when the College Club, University Club and Women's University Club were established, the requirement of a college education for membership was beyond most working-class experience and budgets. Things began changing in the late 1960s and 1970s, when both blacks and women were recruited.

In 1968, the College Club was the first all-white social club in Washington to welcome an African American. According to HistoryLink.org, a local history Web site, the first Asians were admitted to the club the same year.

Luther Carr, a prominent Seattle contractor, was the first black admitted to the Rainier Club. He joined in July 1978, 90 years after the club was founded. One month after Carr joined, federal Judge Betty Fletcher became the first female member.

None of the clubs offered breakdowns of their current membership by race and ethnicity. Among the major clubs, the University Club is the only remaining all-male organization. The Sunset Club and Women's University Club remain all-female.

While men still dominate the rolls at most clubs, women are welcomed at most. The College Club, for example, is waiving initiation to bring in more females.

"The odds are good for women. Only 10 percent of our members are female," said Peter Sparling, manager of the College Club.

Catching up with the times

Clubs have tried to keep up with the times by adding workout facilities while maintaining the old perks such as an atmosphere of camaraderie, elegant settings and reciprocity with clubs in other cities and countries.

But the key benefit of belonging to the right club is still the chance to rub shoulders with Northwest company executives, social leaders and old guard — just as it was a century ago.

"There's an old-world feel when you walk in the door, but you still feel at home," said Priscilla Cole, a 25-year-old financial planner who moved to Seattle two years ago. She joined the Women's University Club a few months ago. "It is a way to make connections without e-mail and cellphones."

What has changed is the accessibility. Today, clubs are eager to recruit new members.

"Frankly, we need new people to survive," said the College Club's Sparling. "All clubs need to do more than keep up with attrition, or we won't be here."

Sherry Grindeland can be reached at 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com.

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