University Club grows younger as it reaches 100 years
Innovative events, social networking build new appeal
By Christy Scannell
If beer kegs in the bathroom are any sign, San Diego’s University Club, perched high atop Symphony Towers, isn’t showing its age — even at 100.
“It’s such a fine dance to keep true to our traditions and history but make sure we keep up to date,” says Tommy Trause, the club’s general manager. “We want to uphold the integrity of the club but we don’t want it to be snooty or stuffy.”
One way to do that is to combine the “unexpected,” he says, such as the recent event featuring libations in the loo — the women’s restroom offered Champagne — with a little whimsy – the dress code for the club’s Oct. 9 centennial celebration is black tie and blue jeans.
Dr. James Bowers, a 25-year patron and 15-year board member of the club, says this need to appeal to a younger generation became apparent to him a few years ago. “I was concerned that the average age of members was 60 to 70,” he says. “This troubled me.”
Bowers and fellow members engaged in a campaign that has resulted in 250 new members under age 35 in the last three years. “It’s been a wonderful thing to see younger people here again,” he says. He also sought to renew the club’s relationship with San Diego’s military, adding 70 naval officers as part of the club’s 1,600 members.
But the numbers weren’t always that high. When the University Club incorporated in 1909 to “promote literature, art and general culture among members,” just 92 people met in a rented mansion at Fourth and A Streets (“university” was included in the name to emphasize the members’ interest in promoting higher education). By 1916, the group had its own “clubhouse” on Seventh Avenue. When that building began to deteriorate in 1970, it was demolished in favor of a new facility that included a gym. A final move to the 34th floor of Symphony Towers came in 1989.
“That (relocation) wasn’t pleasant for some people,” Bowers says. “We had to give up parking, although now we have valet, and the gym. But we gained so much. The biggest thing that happened was the quality of the food. It was mediocre before the move. I generally don’t eat much, but I clean my plate when I’m at the club now.”
While Trause emphasizes that the private, members-only University Club is not a restaurant per se, he does acknowledge the facility’s dining options — breakfast, lunch and dinner are available daily — are a major draw.
“The food and beverage program is the backbone and the reason people join,” he says. “The ‘power lunch’ is a huge component of what we offer – you can feel the energy crackling in the room. But even more than that it is a place where like-minded people can come and converse, an extension of their offices, homes and personalities.”
Bowers, a semi-retired Scripps Foundation executive and philanthropy consultant, recognizes the business aspect of the club’s appeal – he supports an expansion plan that would include basic office facilities for members – but says he prefers to focus on the personal relationships.
“I stopped there every night for a glass of wine when I worked downtown,” he says. He still gets to the club three to four times a week from his La Jolla Shores home. “Some of those people are now my closest friends. I wouldn’t give up my membership for anything. It’s my home away from home.”
Trause says his job is to make sure that “home” is sweet for everyone, whether that is managing the club’s commitment to education through its Lamp of Learning scholarship program, arranging exclusive wine dinners or hosting kid-friendly cooking classes.
“This club is like a town hall where decisions are made and personal and professional relationships are formed,” he says. “Even though we’ve grown in size, I think people come into the club today and talk about are the same root issues as years ago – business, family and the economy. Understanding that foundation is important but so is remaining relevant. We are thinking not only about today but about 10 and 100 years from now.”
And 80 years behind, too. Trause’s latest event idea? A speakeasy-style fight night with live boxing in the dining room.
There’s just one hitch, he says: “I’d probably have to change out the chandeliers.z