Boston's old private clubs press on in the 21st Century

The august Somerset Ciub, at 42-43 Beacon St., Boston.

The august Somerset Ciub, at 42-43 Beacon St., Boston.

This piece first ran in The Boston Guardian as Robert Whitcomb's March "Boston Diary'' entry.

That members of the Algonquin Club have voted to sell the  old Back Bay institution, at 217 Commonwealth Ave.,  to a developer that will turn it into a for-profit (shocking!) club, focused my attention on Boston’s old clubs. I’ve been in most of them, as a guest, over the past half century. To me, they’re still museums of class, but with  some new human exhibits.

The Algonquin, founded in 1886, was one of what had been men’s clubs (they’re gender-integrated now) founded in the mid to late 19th Century as meeting places for Boston’s elite, made rich by international trade and the Industrial Revolution. The Somerset, Union, Tavern, Algonquin and the St. Botolph clubs remain the most famous; the University and Harvard clubs  are a different species. Then there’s the Chilton Club,  founded very late, in 1910, for ladies but now admitting men.

They each had their special reputations. For example, the old story goes, the Somerset had the old-money types, the Algonquin those still trying to make a pile, the Union the money managers (lawyers, trust officers, etc.)  and the St. Botolph’s the arty and literary types.

These are “third places’’ --– not home, but with homelike aspects not found in restaurants and hotels, and certainly not work places, although  many members would be likely to run into colleagues there.

Such “mansions away from mansions,’’ as Sam Hornblower called them in  The Harvard Crimson in 2000, were/are very appealing both for their  creature comforts and how they are seen  as validating high social status.  Further, until recent decades, Boston was not famed for its restaurants and its hotels (the old Ritz Carlton a famous exception). The clubs helped fill the service gap for real and wanna-be Brahmins.\

But the Hub has become much more like Manhattan, and now abounds with great restaurants and hotels. And even rich lawyers, businesspeople, academics and physicians are much more likely in these frantic days to eat at their desks or restaurants than at  old clubs, which  tend to be run in  elegantly unhurried ways.  Meanwhile, the ethnic coherence of these places as refuges for the old WASP aristocracy has long been crumbling in  an increasingly globalized, multi-ethnic and meritocratic Boston. Mix up membership or die!

(I’m increasingly struck by how much downtown Boston has come to look like Manhattan. As you walk east across the Common, with the skyscrapers in front of you, you’d think you were walking east in  southern Central Park.)

I think that most of the old clubs will survive, although their lunch business will continue to lag.  With good marketing, the aging of the population and the increasing density of very rich people in, especially, the Back Bay and on Beacon Hill, should be good for the institutions. They can draw growing numbers of wealthy retired and semi-retired people, especially if these clubs boost the number of special events, such as famous speakers.

Even as the Algonquin is turned into a for-profit for striving Millennials, the rest of the clubs will go on in pretty much the same way, except that  more of the criteria for membership will be relaxed.  (What will happen to the old “blackball’’ tradition?”)

One criterion for admission, however, that won’t change is the need to have lots of money, new or old.