Barber-neat hedges buffer the Valley Hunt Club from the world hurrying by on Orange Grove Boulevard, the busy Pasadena street known as Millionaire’s Row before condos began displacing its deep-lawn mansions.
No signs bordering the Valley Hunt grounds identify it by name. But staked beneath the hedges are discreet markers that label the property private.
And few places are as private as Valley Hunt, a 116-year-old social club that is rooted in old money, irresistible to new money and so hard to gain admission to that it puts the “exclude” in exclusive.
A throwback to the wealth and manners of a bygone Los Angeles, Valley Hunt is an invitation-only sanctuary of bluish bloodlines and faintly English airs that clings to its traditions as the city changes around it.
Outside attention is shunned, apart from quiet nods to the club’s role as the 19th century founder of the Tournament of Roses. Valley Hunt does not advertise its existence, and its officers avoid interviews.
The 1,000 or so members are treated to a refuge from today’s dressed-down, egalitarian metropolis, where show-business lucre can buy status and T-shirts are dinner attire.
“Ladies can wear pantsuits, though,” said Ann Longyear, a member who held her wedding reception at Valley Hunt 52 years ago. She conducted a tour of the California Impressionist paintings that brighten the walls of the 1908 Colonial clubhouse designed by famed architect Myron Hunt.
In the slightly musty living room, Longyear sat on an English-style sofa before an empty fireplace and gazed out sun-filled windows toward the boulevard.
“It’s like a freeway now,” she said, with wistful eyes. “It’s sad.”
But the encroaching bustle has not diminished the club’s cachet. Prospective members abide a waiting list of two to three years, and a vetting regimen worthy of spy agencies.
The initiation fee is something between $15,000 and just under $20,000, and monthly dues are in the $250 range, members say.
Country and golfing clubs can cost much more, but the Valley Hunt is not strictly a country club, has no links and no longer stages rabbit-shooting outings in the Arroyo Seco and the foothills of the San Gabriels.
The club offers tennis, swimming, bridge and fine dining, but its main raison d’etre is to provide a cloistered gathering spot for “good” families -- “wonderful, longtime Pasadena families,” said member Barbara Bishop, an art historian.
Gloria Lothrop, a Pasadena resident and retired professor of California history, characterized the institution this way: “The Valley Hunt has preserved the status quo and realm of privilege, and the people who occupy that realm of privilege maintain a stability.
“These are people who are to the manner born for several generations,” Lothrop said.
Applicants must be proposed by a member and solicit letters of recommendation from many more. They also are required to entertain members at home, to ensure that everyone would be comfortable with one another.
Hoss MacVaugh, a commercial real estate broker and Valley Hunt member, says the club is “not a place that you can just buy your way into.... Basically, you’ve got to wait for someone to quit or die.”
Once you’re admitted, he said, you don’t brag about it.
“You don’t want to rub it in people’s noses that they’re not in,” he said. “It’s tacky.”
Massachusetts-born zoology professor Charles Holder was Valley Hunt’s principal founder in 1888. Two years later, the club sponsored the first Rose Parade to promote Pasadena as a warm-weather destination.
The Tournament of Roses, whose Wrigley Mansion headquarters is just up the boulevard from Valley Hunt, became a separate association in 1895, but informal ties to the club endure. Association President David Davis is a member. He said he was taken by Valley Hunt’s “very traditional building and the atmosphere.”
“It kind of has the feel of one of those English clubs,” Davis said. “It’s prototypical Pasadena.”
Harry Montgomery, a Valley Hunt member for three decades, also likes the English touches.
“I suppose to some people, joining is a sign of upward mobility,” Montgomery said as he strolled by the sparkling pool and terrace, with children splashing in the water.
The printing company owner had just finished lunch in the Hunt Room, whose dark paneled walls bear illustrations of fox-hunting parties.
“Probably a high percentage of the membership is in the L.A. Blue Book or the National Social Register, but that is not in any way a criterion of membership,” he said.
He showed a visitor the men’s dining room, where a card game was underway, and the library and bar. A collection of old Tournament of Roses programs filled a glass display case, and photographs of smiling debutantes lined a hallway.
Montgomery’s two daughters had their debut in the Main Ballroom. Daughter Brynne was married at Valley Hunt.
“It’s not the exclusivity as much as the familiarity of the people you’re sitting with,” Montgomery said of the club’s allure. “It’s a home away from home.”
An authorized Valley Hunt history, published for its centennial, described it as a “people organization” in which “ladies and gentlemen of similar persuasion could enjoy one another’s company.”
Over the years, the roster has boasted notables such as California Chief Justice Donald Wright, U.S. Atty. Gen. William French Smith and author Harriet Doerr, according to the history, written by Ann Scheid.
Peter Boyle, president of Pasadena-based Clifford Associates, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest investment counseling firm, followed his father and grandfather into Valley Hunt.
“It’s an extension of my backyard,” said Boyle. He and his wife, Janine, had their wedding reception there and now spend summer days by the pool with their three children.
He said Valley Hunt is less “stiff” than the downtown California Club, which caters to the business and professional crowd, or the Los Angeles Country Club.
“As much as people want to say it’s hoity-toity, it’s a fairly relaxed environment,” Boyle said of Valley Hunt. “It’s evolved.”
That evolution has produced some progress toward diversifying the club’s ranks, which hardly reflect the growing minority populations of the area. Members, who do not have to live in Pasadena, say there are increasing numbers of Asians, blacks and Latinos in the club, although they could not give a precise count.
“The basic reason I joined was to open the door for others,” said William Galloway, a semi-retired African American property investor who became a member with his wife about four years ago. He said they are the only blacks in the club.
Galloway said he had heard “all the time” that minorities weren’t welcomed at Valley Hunt, then discovered “there are two sides to every coin.”
He said fellow members have been “very normal” toward him and his wife, and that he was trying to recruit more African Americans, but costs are an obstacle.
“We’ve had a real good experience,” said Brenda Galloway, who enjoys the club’s occasional art exhibits and musical performances.
Valley Hunt neighbors vouch for the cordial nature of the members. But there are lingering suspicions and tensions.
“Are you kidding?” said Frank Sata, when asked if he belonged to the club. “I’m Asian, so that’s kind of a shocking question.”
His Palmetto Drive home is a few doors away from the club’s tennis courts. The Los Angeles-born Japanese American and his family have lived there since the early 1970s.
Sata and his wife, Marian, were interned as youngsters in Japanese relocation camps during World War II.
Frank Sata, an architect, spent many of his teen years living at the private Westridge School, a mainstay of upper-crust Pasadena families, where his father was the custodian and caretaker.
He said a tennis coach gave him lessons at Valley Hunt, but his exposure to the club went little further.
“I just know there used to be no Asians, blacks or other minorities,” Sata said. “Times have changed, but they’re still pretty stuffy.”
Marian Sata, a retired legal assistant, helped lead neighborhood opposition to the club’s plans to demolish or relocate a nearly century-old house on Palmetto, which it had bought to make room for a parking lot or garage.
The protests have caused the Valley Hunt leadership to reconsider.
“When I was growing up, I knew I could never be a part of it,” Marian Sata said of the club. “Now it doesn’t make a hoot of a difference to me.”
But it does to people who “like to associate with people of their own interests and position in life,” said Bob Hedges, a Portland, Ore., resident who does executive searches for clubs.
“There is a feeling that you have achieved in your community a success level that’s recognized,” he said. “A certain amount of snob appeal.”