Up in the Club: La Jolla resident pens book on San Diego’s storied University Club of San Diego

La Jolla resident pens book on San Diego’s storied University Club of San Diego

It is well-known that some of San Diego’s most significant business deals have been sealed over dinner and drinks at the University Club — a 105-year-old San Diego institution now located atop downtown San Diego’s Symphony Towers, in the 34th-floor penthouse.

The 360-degree views from this exclusive business networking and social club are spectacular — with members and invited guests treated to sweeping vistas of downtown, San Diego Bay, Point Loma, Coronado, and, on a clear day, Mexico. The food and wine are above reproach. Selections from the club’s art collection adorn walls and scholarly books line the shelves of the Sefton Library (known to members as the “War Room”).

New members are typically invited to join by current members. There is an initiation fee and monthly dues that start at around $200 per month.

So how does one otherwise finagle their way up in the club?

You might start by schmoozing media consultant and brand strategist Julie Walke of Bird Rock, current president of the 1909 University Club of San Diego, Inc. corporation and co-author of a newly released pictorial book on the club’s history. Richard Crawford, San Diego Public Library’s supervisor of special collections and a former San Diego Historical Society archives director, co-authored the book, penning bios of the club’s influential presidents.

The book chronicles University Club from the founding of its 1896 precursor group, the College Graduate Club (comprised of 21 women and men who met for intellectual discourse) through its present incarnation as two entities: the philanthropic-minded corporation Walke leads and the networking club and dining facility atop Symphony Towers managed by Dallas-based ClubCorp (which owns or operates 160 business, golf, sports and country clubs across the United States).

Like University Club’s current home, Symphony Towers opened in 1989, built around and above the historic Fox Theater (today’s Copley Symphony Hall). In 2011, ClubCorp invested $2.4 million into remodeling University Club, expanding into the remainder of the top floor formerly leased by a law firm.

Raising a glass, shattering a ceiling

In 1907, the College Graduate Club was reorganized by several of its male members as more of a fraternal organization and renamed University Club. From 1909-1977 women were excluded from becoming members, “except on stated occasions.”

Walke said she suspects lifting the prohibition on female members in the 1970s was both a sign of the times and a practical way to boost lagging membership to cover the mortgage on its former clubhouse at Seventh Avenue and A Street.

Former La Jollan Ann Beard, University Club’s first female board president (1996-’98), downplays the significance of that distinction because she said she was always made to feel like any other member and shown utmost respect by male club members.

“Back then it was a big deal, I guess, and I was extraordinarily honored … (but) I didn’t at the time think so much about being the first woman president,” she said. “I really felt that there was work to be done and I was the person that was in the forefront doing this particular work.”

As social director, Beard managed the speakers bureau — a return to the club’s founding focus of discussing arts, current events and scholarly topics — and oversaw its youth scholarship program. She first learned about the club while expanding her former Portland, Oregon-based framing and art business to San Diego, opening a store in Fashion Valley Mall where several University Club members were clients.

“I was invited a few times to come in for lunch or to meet people there or to give talks and I decided this was a wonderful place, so I joined,” Beard recalled.

Walke first joined University Club in the 1980s as an employee of now-defunct San Diego Trust and Savings Bank. In 1989, she served on the team that handled the transition from the organization’s third clubhouse at Seventh and A (which it sold to the San Diego County Bar Association) to its rented space atop the then brand new Symphony Towers.

Walke said she enjoys being downtown without battling the crowds and cacophony of the Gaslamp District.

“I like the idea of being able to pull my car into valet, come up, have a nice dinner and meet with people who I know are interested in business or doing interesting things,” she said. “We have lots of different types of members, but I think (it’s perfect) for people who are brand new to San Diego, especially those wanting to meet and network.”

To date, the club has about 2,900 individual members. La Jolla-based architect Jim Alcorn, who first joined University Club in 1973, and currently serves on the corporate board with Walke, said the board’s primary focus is to manage funds left over from the club when it sold its building at Seventh and A — when University Club was a more traditional men’s club with a roundtable for business lunches, private meeting rooms and a gymnasium, sauna, steam room and billiard room.

Alcorn said his favorite memory of University Club is being a member of its Men’s Glee Club in the 1980s and ’90s. Men’s Glee Club met once a week in University Club’s card room (adjacent the bar) to sing its favorite tunes, including “The Pope: He Leads a Jolly Life,” “Death is a Long, Long Sleep” and “Once in Our Lives Let Us Drink to Our Wives.”

Beard said she was the only woman allowed to perform with the male troupe, often accompanying them on piano during performances such as Coronado’s annual Fourth of July parade.

“I was a good piano player and I knew how to keep my mouth shut,” she recalled, with a laugh, adding there are some Glee Club anecdotes that are better left unsaid. “It was just a riot. … These men were noted attorneys, bankers and architects from all walks of life. They had sang all their lives and they were really good. One of our phrases was, ‘A good time was had by all.’ ”

The San Diego City Council will honor the University Club with a proclamation on Oct. 7.

“A Pictorial History of the University Club of San Diego” is available for purchase by calling (858) 729-9933. Proceeds benefit the University Club’s Lamp of Learning Scholarship Fund, which has awarded scholarships to more than 45 local students.