The History of The University Club of Cincinnati:
The University Club was founded in 1879, as a result of a generalized call through the daily newspapers for persons interested in forming a club to be composed of “college men”, meaning graduates and those who had spent at least two years in college. As a measure of the times, these same newspapers reported a rumor that Jesse James had been shot to death in the Oklahoma territory; he was in fact shot to death three years later in Missouri.
The Club’s organizational meeting in November, 1879 garnered about 50 attendees from the estimated 1,000 college graduates then in the city. According to the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, after “a spirited discussion”, the attendees adopted a Constitution stating the Club’s purpose as “to cultivate a spirit of fraternity among college men and to foster higher education by uniting persons who appreciate its importance from realizing a sense of its benefits, as well as to provide for our social enjoyment…”
The original University Club lasted from 1879 until1896. From the beginning there were “great differences of opinion”, especially on the matter of dues, and some fractiousness among the members. The minutes of the first twenty years of the Club contain one instance of a member accusing another of fudging his status as a college man, another instance of a member posting on the Club bulletin board a newspaper article derogating a fellow member, and many resolutions empowering the Treasurer to employ persons to collect unpaid dues. At one point, the Club went so far as to throw out two members for unpaid dues, and then to sue for the debt.
Apart from a certain degree of uproar in the membership, the Club appears to have been under some financial pressure. The Club’s initial Club House was at 122 West Seventh Street. It then moved to 165 West Seventh Street and then to the Northeast corner of Fourth and Broadway, known as the “Dexter House”.
These relocations were all necessitated by a perceived need for more room but each entailed an increasing financial obligation both in rent and in redecorating and refurnishing.
The minutes of the old Club after 1891 having been lost, the exact causes of the original Club’s demise in 1896 are unclear. Various later publications refer to “certain disagreements” within membership and “hard times”, which undoubtedly refers to the Panic of 1896 and the ensuing sharp depression. In any case, what later publications characterize as a “baleful influence” caused the old Club to disband in1896.
In 1905, the local alumni of Harvard, Yale and Princeton colleges held a joint outing. At this outing, the idea arose to re-establish a University Club. This idea led to a committee, which held an organizational meeting January 25, 1906. Although the organizational meeting yielded 106 men who adopted the constitution, that group’s Board of Managers elected at the meeting were only authorized to proceed to organize the club when 200 members had been obtained. As the membership of the old University Club fluctuated between about 120 and 140, this requirement probably indicates the perceived source of the old club’s financial problems.
On January 30, 1907 the Board of Managers elected officers and authorized a committee to search for an appropriate Club House. That committee decided that the William Wallace Seely house at the southeast corner of Fourth and Broadway streets would be the best location. Mrs. Seely was induced to grant the Club a five-year lease and moved from the house to East Walnut Hills. Probably not coincidentally, the club at that time also obtained the necessary membership numbers to organize the Club.
The Club formally opened April 27, 1907, with then Secretary of War, William Howard Taft (a former member of the old University Club presiding. The Club’s first president was Edward H. Ernst (Princeton 1882), who also was one of the three members of the committee that promoted the re-establishment of the Club. Mr. Ernst was re-elected each year until declining to run in 1912. He continued to serve on the Board of Governors until1920, when he was appointed as a Trustee of the University of Cincinnati, a job that apparently made the greater claim to his time. The fact that the Club exists and its tenor as a place of hospitality and congeniality is due in large part to Mr. Ernst’s efforts, leadership, and personality.
The membership of the Club was select. In 1910, nearly half of the Club’s members had attended either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Over the years the predominance of these institutions diminished, so that in 1945 their graduates were 35% of the membership, and presently about 20% of the members.
Between 1912 and 1929, the Club thrived. By 1929 the Club had attracted 569 members of whom 489 were resident members. (Any member was considered “non-resident” if he lived more than 20 miles from “the City” and had no office in “the city”: non-resident members are described as being from the village of Glendale and Avondale, among other neighborhoods now considered in general part of the City.) The Club had accrued a portfolio of securities worth about $83,000.00, which then was a very considerable sum (by way of measure, the Club charged $.70 for lunch in 1929). And through the generosity of Charles Phelps Taft, the Club acquired ownership of the present ClubHouse.
As it did with all things, the Great Depression created substantial difficulties and challenges for the Club. Between 1929 and the end of 1935 the Club lost over 200 members, some for other reasons but mostly because of financial reasons. As a result of the membership decrease, the Club’s income fell greatly. The Club considered merging with other Cincinnati Clubs, and even held some talks with the Queen City Club which apparently were somewhat serious. However in the end the Club found that it was in stronger financial condition than the other acceptable merger candidates were, therefore additional strength would not be gained from a merger. The merger idea was dropped.
This crisis passed as the ‘30’s closed. The Club staunched its membership losses and actually gained 18 members in 1936, 11 in 1937 and 15 over 1938 and 1939. With the increase in members came an increase in dues income (and, of course, initiation fees) that allowed the Club to get back to something close to solid footing.
Just then World War II brought on other crisis. As was the Club’s custom during W.W.I, the Club waived the dues of members serving in the armed forces during W.W.II. Since the Club sent 106 members to serve their country (nearly one-quarter of the Club’s resident members), this observance of Club custom brought on another income crisis. This situation required the club to sell off parts of its securities portfolio to make up its income shortfall, a step necessary despite repeated assessment of the members to combat the financial crisis.
The Club also faced war-created problems arising from rationing. Meat was rationed, as was butter and liquor. The Club’s ration points had to be allocated amongst the necessities required for operation, and this allocation required delicate balancing between undesirable trade-offs, such as doing without either butter or bourbon.
However, the Club responded to these challenges. Throughout 1943 and 1944 the Club initiated substantial numbers of new members whose dues payments mitigated the severity of the Club’s income shortfall. Further, the Club’s custom of extending Club usage privileges to armed forces officers posted around the Cincinnati area went a long way toward making up the Club usage revenue lost due to the absence of the Club members in the service.
Thus, the war’s end and the return of the Club’s members from service created a boom in the Club’s fortunes. Membership approached and then surpassed the high, set in the late 1920s. Finances reflected the new member’s initiation fees and steadily increasing revenues from dues and from extended usage of the Club.
Throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, the Club experienced a prolonged period of strength such as it had not known since the 1920's. Total membership hovered around 650, and the number of active members was very close to the 550 then allowed by the Club By-Laws. Finances were sound, so a number of renovations and improvements were undertaken to the Club House.
The 1980s opened with the membership at record levels, but membership dropped by more than ten percent over the middle of the decade. This decline, combined with a recognized aging of the membership, created a strong incentive to recruit new blood. In response, the Club launched a strong membership drive. Over the period 1987 through 1991 the Club increased its membership by 88, many of these being Junior and Intermediate members, and reached an all-time high membership of 741 in 1990. The increased membership, and the member’s increased use of Club House, especially the athletic facilities, created the need for changes to the Club House.
The Club House was acquired through the generosity of Charles Phelps Taft. In 1920, Mr. Taft, who had been President for many years of the old University Club and President of the revived Club from 1913 to 1929, purchased for $30,000.00 the Seely residence at the Southeast corner of Fourth and Broadway, which the Club had heretofore leased. In addition, Mr. Taft purchased for $18,000.00 the Snowden Smith residence on Broadway immediately south of the Seely residence, with which the Smith residence shared a party wall. (This party wall can be clearly seen in the fourth floor locker room.)
Mr. Taft offered these properties to the Club provided that the members raise “through subscription” $155,000.00 to merge these buildings and to alter and renovate them for their joint use as the Club House. “Subscription” appears to be that time’s expression for an assessment: each member was “asked” to subscribe for at least $200 and expected to resign if he did not subscribe. When the solicitation of the members appeared to fall $35,000.00 short of its goal, Mr. Taft underwrote that sum and later donated his underwriting to the Club. It should be noted that Mr. Taft’s generosity to the Club, while on a different plane than the other members, was not different in kind: a number of members subscribed for amounts considerably greater than $200.
The money having been successfully raised, the Club proceeded to renovate and alter the structures for use as a Club House. The buildings were extended east, apparently adding what is now the first floor dining room and all areas above it. Two squash courts were added to the fourth floor and a small locker room created. What is now the first floor room was once two rooms, separated along the present column line by Chinese screens into a “card and sniff room” (sniff is a kind of card game), which apparently was what is now the long table area, and a “billiard room”, which appears to have been what is now the dining room proper. Two bowling alleys were installed in the basement of the Smith House, where the business office and the manager’s office are now. The third floor was altered to create eleven sleeping rooms, some of which were occupied for many years (decades, in fact) by members who lived at the Club-House as a residence. In addition, there were two sleeping rooms on the fourth floor, one of which was the manager’s residence.
With all of that done, in 1929 the Club organized itself into a non-profit corporation so that it legally could hold property and thereby accept Mr. Taft’s gift, which had been held in trust for the club between Mr. Taft’s purchase of the Club House property and the Club’s organization as a corporation.
The increased membership and usage of the Club House following W.W.II led to pressure for alterations and improvements. In 1959 the Club House was air conditioned at substational expenses but with a resulting surge in its use, especially in August. (Prior to that time some parts of the Club House were air-conditioned and other parts were not.) In 1959 the Club renovated the first floor dining room, discarding use of the wall separating the dining room from the “Vulture Room” (as the card and sniff room had come to be called because of the numerous prints of birds that hung on the walls) and replacing the Seely House grand staircase with the present elevator. The Club-House windows were largely replaced to eliminate the leaking of cold air in the winter and soot throughout the year.
For many years the first and second floors of the Smith House (which is the southern half of the existing Club House) formed the ladies ‘ Department, women being banned from the remainder of the Club House at all times except one evening a week (Ladies’ Night). Women were required to use the Smith House entrance off Broadway. What is now the library was part of the Ladies’ lounge, and the second floor southern room was the Ladies’ Dining Room. In the late 1960s, changing social conventions led the Club to repel these prohibitions and restrictions on women.
Projects subsequent to the 1959 renovation made incremental improvements in the Club House. In 1974 the fourth floor was renovated. The two sleeping rooms on the fourth floor were taken out and the locker room (which was previously quite small) expanded into that space. The steam room was added and the showers redone. An undressed open area was altered to create a room for exercise bikes and a Universal gym, a forerunner of Nautilus machines. Finally, the squash courts were expanded from their original size to make them regulation size.
In response to growing membership and a heightened interest in physical fitness, the Club undertook an ambitious program of renovation and remodeling in 1988 through 1989. The construction was so extensive that the Club was forced to close in 1989 for the summer, which was possible due to the graciousness of the Queen City Club who permitted University Club members to use their clubhouse during renovation.
The second floor dining room was completely redecorated and refurnished. The third floor was extensively altered, with several of the sleeping rooms taken out to create the Taft room with its rear projection video screen and up-to-date sound system. A locker room for women was designed on the third floor out of one of the sleeping rooms. The other sleeping rooms were converted to other uses, such as private dining rooms and storage rooms.
Additional lockers were installed in the fourth floor locker room. New stair masters, a cross-country ski machine and some squash-related Nautilus machines were installed in the area outside the squash courts by reconfiguring the exercise room.
The first floor entry hall was redecorated and re-floored. The first floor dining room was, by the original design, to be left unchanged, pending a future time when funds for its renovation would be more readily available. However, fate decreed that it would be redone: the debris from the third floor alterations that had been thrown into a dumpster parked outside the first floor dining room picture window caught fire the night of the fireworks Labor Day weekend 1989. The heat from the fire shattered the picture windows at the east end of the dining room and allowed the fire’s smoke to boil into the room. The resulting smoke damage decreed that the first floor be completely redecorated and the furniture replaced, largely with insurance proceeds. The Club certainly ended up with the last laugh if the fire was, as suspected, started by a firebug rather than spontaneously.