Changing of the Old Guard : San Diego’s University Club on the Edge of Oblivion

Times Staff Writer

For 81 years, the University Club has attracted San Diego’s most influential citizens to its downtown confines, a private place where bankers and financiers--for most of those years, all men--sat at a large, round table cutting their business deals, right along with their roast beef.

In its heyday, only the Cuyamaca Club rivaled it in prominence. But that competition, or what was left of it, ended in 1987 when the ailing, 99-year-old Cuyamaca Club closed its doors for good.

But now it is the University Club that is tottering on the edge of oblivion: It is deeply in debt, the clubhouse property is for sale, membership is dwindling and club facilities are frayed and dowdy.

In an effort to save the institution and its traditions, a majority of members voted to join a new “club,” one that will be operated by a Texas-based conglomerate that manages a chain of private city clubs, country clubs, golf courses, athletic clubs and resorts.


The new club is being built across the street from the University Club, on the 34th--and top--floor of San Diego’s tallest building, Symphony Towers.

According to the agreement between the two clubs, the University Club will essentially cease to exist; will turn over use of its name to the new club, which will be formally called the University Club Atop Symphony Towers, and will pay $200,000 so that up to 450 members can join without paying the new club’s $1,000 initiation fee.

To the majority, it’s a good deal, the best way to keep the club and its traditions alive. The alternative, they argue, is to dissolve the club and bury its history.

But, to a membership minority, which wants to resurrect the University Club and restore it to its bygone luster, the decision is nothing short of treason.

‘Directors Sold Us Down the River’

“Basically, our own board of directors (has) sold us down the river,” said one of the dissidents, Raymond Contreras, a Chula Vista lawyer who has hinted that he and others opposing the move might seek legal action.

As a backdrop to this internal conflict is the question of whether today’s San Diego is really a private-club town, whether the booming city and its legions of transient executives need or will support an exclusive downtown club.

Such a debate would have seemed farfetched in 1908, when a group of men organized the University Club. The club moved to its current location, at 7th Avenue and A Street, 73 years ago.

Through the years, the University Club became a beacon for downtown’s business community, an all-male bastion whose members could share a meal and conduct business in a relaxed and cozy environment. There were private dining rooms, a library, a weight room in the basement and a fireplace in the cocktail lounge, as well a regular round of social events.

In 1970, the old and creaky clubhouse was demolished and replaced with a new one.

Despite the then-modern facility, membership soon began to dip and the club was eventually hit with its first economic crisis. An effort was made to sell the clubhouse. There were no buyers.

There was talk of moving to the beach as a way of adding pizazz and attracting more members. But it never went beyond talk.

Women Became Members

Not all was bad news, though. Women, for example, were finally accepted as members.

Things seemed to turn around for a while in the ‘80s. Membership rose briefly to about 700. But, as downtown became more developed and more attractive restaurants were opened, the University Club felt the pressure and again began losing members in large numbers. Today its membership stands at about 430, and is dropping at the rate of 2% a month.

With the decrease came fewer dues: From about $39,000 a month in early 1986, to less than $26,000 a month now. Recently, dues were increased, from $60 to $80 a month. But it hasn’t stemmed the financial hemorrhage.

During six of the last nine years, the club has operated at a loss, including a net loss of $38,552 in fiscal year 1988. To stay afloat, the club has had to borrow money from banks, principally from San Diego Trust & Savings Bank.

Debt Piling Up

Debt has been piled upon debt, including the original loan to build the clubhouse in 1970. Depending on who is counting, the current debt is at least $700,000, and some members say that, because even more money has been borrowed to pay for joining the new Symphony Towers club, it may be more like $1.3 million.

“It’s been difficult for a number of years,” said Robert Scott, president of the University Club and owner of an engineering firm. “We’ve had to struggle to keep above the water. We’ve kept operations alive often by borrowing against our property. We’ve used it as collateral for loans to continue the club.”

In 1984, the club’s board of directors formed a committee to explore the possibility of moving the club. The committee contacted Charlton Raynd Development, a limited partnership that was planning to build the Symphony Towers, consisting of both a high-rise hotel and separate office tower over San Diego’s Symphony Hall.

It was Charlton Raynd’s plan to build a top-of-the-line, private dining and social club on the top floor of the building, which has sweeping views of downtown, the bay and the ocean. The firm chose as manager of the facility the Club Corp. of America, a huge company with more than 11,000 employees.

By December, 1987, negotiations to move the University Club to Symphony Towers were being held in earnest, with the club’s committee seeking, under orders of its board of directors, the best possible arrangement for the club and its members.

3-to-1 Vote Ratified Move

By March of last year, a tentative agreement was reached, calling for dissolving the University Club and paying to join the new Symphony Towers club. In early June, the board approved the tentative pact. At a special meeting June 28, the membership voted 156 to 58 to approve the agreement; a later vote reaffirmed the deal.

But, according to several dissident members, the negotiations with Club Corp. of America had been held in secret and little was known about the proposed agreement until shortly before the vote.

As a result, some members complained bitterly, accusing the board of directors of incompetence and charging that not enough had been done to see whether the club could be kept intact.

In an effort to derail the deal, a group of dissidents ran for positions on the board, but were defeated.

Responding to the complaints, the board of directors formed a new committee last summer and instructed it to evaluate the University Club’s physical condition and estimate the cost of upgrading the facility. The committee’s report, made in August, put the cost of extensive changes in the three-story, 45,000-square-foot building--from expanding the gym to modernizing the kitchen--at $870,000. The cost was considered by many to be prohibitive.

Still Resisting Move

The group of dissidents--called the Committee to Revitalize the Club--has continued to try to scuttle the move, with little luck. They say they represent 100 members or more, while the majority says the group represents just a handful of disgruntled people. A club document, identifying those who resigned last summer and fall, shows that 30% to 40% said they were leaving because of the move.

“We’ve tried to organize the old guard in an attempt to stop the move,” said Jim Hildreth, a real estate agent who has been a member for about 15 years, following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a member. He and other dissidents believe that the club’s financial plight has been exaggerated, pointing to 1986, when the club had an operating profit of nearly $80,000. “What we’ve needed is better financial management,” he said.

Others are more strident and emotional. They call the demise of the University Club a calculated move to get rid of the biggest competitor to the Symphony Towers club and they say a serious look at reorganizing and refinancing the club hasn’t been taken.

But those representing the majority say the club’s problems, financial and physical, are just too great to overcome. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make changes is no guarantee that the club will be successful, they say, even if the added financial burden is dismissed.

What’s changed, they say, is not the club or its problems, but the situation: The opportunity to join a new club without having to worry about the legal and financial responsibilities.

‘Viable Alternative’

“If you have a 20-year-old building like we have, you have two choices,” said William C. Conrad, former club vice president and senior vice president of San Diego Trust & Savings. “One, you either close or disband, or two, you look for a viable alternative . . . that keeps traditions of the club and the membership intact.

“You’re always going to have people who disagree with what the majority wants to do. . . . It comes down to an individual-type decision. If you don’t want to be involved, then you have the choice of not being associated with the club. Instead, (the dissidents are) trying to throw roadblocks at the feet of the majority.”

Some of the dissidents have implicitly suggested that it was San Diego Trust & Savings that pushed for the move, so that its loans could be paid back when the club building is sold. But Conrad says that was never a concern of either the bank or the board of directors.

The club has had so much trouble paying its debts that the bank has always had the option of foreclosure, even before the Symphony Towers club entered the picture, he said.

“We want the University Club to survive . . . and it wasn’t looking like it would,” Conrad said. “The benefit of (Symphony Towers) is that they will have professional managers. That was part of our problems--we’re not in the business of being club managers. We’re basically a group of business guys who get together once a month or so, and we basically don’t have the professional managers to run it on a day-to-day basis.

“What is comes down to is, can you continue to lose members and increase dues and survive in this new era we’re in? The answer is, no, you can’t.”

End of Private Clubs?

Just what kind of era is it? Apparently not a good one for private clubs in San Diego, unless they are close to the water, such as the San Diego Yacht Club or the Kona Kai Club.

Nancy MacHutchin-Case says a downtown private club faces several obstacles. She knows about this firsthand--two years ago she was hired to breathe life back into the Cuyamaca Club. Despite her efforts, the club, atop the Executive Hotel, closed for good last year.

“San Diego isn’t a private-club town at this time,” she said. “The problem is the private clubs haven’t kept in touch with the times. In their heyday, there were not many places to get a good meal downtown . . . so the clubs served as places where you, as a businessman, could eat and where you had to be to make deals.

“But the deals these days are being made at Dobson’s, the Pacific Grill, the Gran Tapa,” she said. “There’s no longer just one place to make a deal.

“It’s unfortunate that the tradition of the University Club is going away. It’s the last of its kind. But from an economic point of view, and I’ve been there, it’s probably a good deal.”

A spokesman for Club Corp. of America said that with downtown’s continued growth, the company is very optimistic about the new University Club Atop Symphony Towers, which is tentatively scheduled to open in April.

“We’re fortunate because we’ll have a tremendous tradition when we open. We want to perpetuate that,” the spokesman said. The new club’s board of governors will be the same as the University Club’s board of directors, and several of the old club’s amenities, such as the large round table and photographs, will be moved to the new club.

Despite the opposition from some University Club members, the Club Corporation of America spokesman said that 384, or 90% of all current members, have said they plan to join the new club.

Meanwhile, the University Club property is for sale. John Donovan of John Burnham & Co., which is handling the sale, said the asking price is $2.75 million for the property. He said two counteroffers are being evaluated. Most likely, he said, the building will be used for offices for a few years before being razed for a higher-density development.

Scott, the club president, said the club has lost so much of its pizazz that few members are even dropping by anymore for one last look.

“I guess,” he said, “the curtains have just gotten too faded.”