By Diane Y. Welch
The University Club atop Symphony Towers is a harmonious blend of the old meeting the new. Elegantly appointed, with panoramic views of downtown, sitting on the 34th story of Symphony Towers in San Diego, the club’s decor may be ultra-modern, but its history runs deep.
Reminders of the club’s venerable past are most visible. Fine art pieces that have been the club’s assets for decades grace the walls, as do historical documents. The Founder’s Room has an ambiance of age-old hushed reverence, with the entire space devoted to photographic portraits of the club’s past presidents, all of them men, with the exception of two women’s head shots that stand out: those of Ann Beard and Julie Walke.
Walke, the club’s president, elected in 2008 and re-elected for subsequent terms, has written “A Pictorial History of the University Club of San Diego,” which provides a detailed timeline of the more-than-century-old institution from its earliest days, when it was founded in 1896. Then it was a meeting place for educated persons to discuss current events; today it is San Diego’s most successful and longest-surviving business and civic club.
Beard, a Solana Beach resident, was on the book committee that oversaw the project. She joined the club in 1986, then served as the inaugural female president in 1996 through 1998. She remains a board member along with Jim Alcorn, Rob Scott and Suzanne Swift, with Mike Bixler as vice president.
A La Jolla resident, Walke, a media consultant, collaborated on the book with San Diego historian Richard W. Crawford, who wrote each president’s biography, representing 105 years of local and national leadership.
Originally a co-ed club, it was made up of 13 women and eight men, said Walke during her book launch presentation at the club on Sept. 10. Two of the charter members were architect Hazel Waterman and botanist Kate Sessions. Then the club was known as the College Graduate Club. Members discussed political affairs of the day and met in each other’s homes.
“Then in 1909, a group of fraternity brothers wanted to organize the club more permanently, and that’s when it was incorporated,” Walke explained. That’s also when it became an all-male club, with women barred from membership. The inaugural president was Russell Allen, who later became director of the Buildings and Grounds Committee for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
The male members built a clubhouse that had apartments. As men returned from World War I, they were able to live there. “It was a good place for them to stay connected,” said Walke.
In 1977, the women’s movement was in full force; consequently, the club invited women back into the fold. “I think they probably had to increase their membership for financial reasons,” Walke said. “But they’ve never looked back since.”
The clubhouse, on Seventh Avenue, was sold in 1989 and about 400 members opted to stay in the club membership. At the same time, a Dallas-based professional club corporation took over its management when it relocated to the Symphony Towers. Instead of dispersing the funds from the sale among the members, it was decided to hold on to them. “In case the arrangement did not work out,” said Walke.
Club-related activities were removed from bylaws, and the club’s focus was centered on art preservation, its history and philanthropic work. “It was something that I had to explain a lot, and so that is partly why the book came about,” said Walke.
And with the 25-year anniversary of the clubhouse sale and the move into the new location, it was even more timely. “Clearly the relationship has worked out very well to everyone’s benefit. This is a beautiful place and our members are very proud of it.”
The San Diego City Council will be honoring the University Club with a proclamation at a City Council Meeting on Oct. 7. The book is available for $55. Send a check or money order made payable to “The 1909 University Club of San Diego, Inc.” to PO Box 195, La Jolla, CA 92038. Or call 858-729-9933.