University Club served as a historic who's who of Rochester
The club, which was open to men only, started in 1922 as a gathering space for university graduates.
On the mezzanine level of the Kahler Hotel, there is an inscription above the doors leading to the Regency Room. It reads, in Gothic lettering, “University Club.”
That sign is all that remains of one of Rochester’s most august organizations. The University Club was organized in 1922 primarily as a haven for Mayo Clinic physicians, scientists and administrators.
The list of charter members reads like a who’s who of early Mayo A-listers: Balfour, Berkman, Harwick, Helmholz, Judd, Walters, and C.H. and W.J. Mayo.
All of them, of course, were men. In fact, the club by-laws stated specifically that membership was limited to “eligible” college graduates and “other men not to exceed 10 percent” of the membership. College graduates living within 10 miles of the club could be admitted, provided of course that they were male. Honorary members would include “men of special distinction.”
In its first decades, the club occupied two rooms in the Kahler and was open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.. Amenities included pool and card tables, a library with current periodicals, and years later, a television for viewing special sports events. Wives were welcome as guests on Wednesday evenings.
The primary attraction, though, seems to have been the convivial luncheon tables, where members traded news and quips. Favorites on the menu were triple-decker club sandwiches and oyster stew.
The tradition of meeting fellow members for lunch extended to weekends at a time when the Clinic was open on Saturday mornings.
“In those days, a standard weekend for many Mayo Clinic doctors was Saturday lunch at the University Club, a round of golf, an evening of poker at the Starr Judd farm or Granger’s Camp at Genoa Woods, a Sunday morning round of golf and then home for family time by midday Sunday,” according to a 1987 club history written by George Waters.
Gradually, a new generation of members joined the club, including Dr. Chuck Mayo and future Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.
By 1960, though, the club appeared to be losing some of its luster. That year, the club reported a loss of $1,300 due to “a precipitous” drop in membership. It was estimated that cash reserves would be depleted within four years. A membership drive was launched. It took a while – and a major change in the by-laws – to bring in a significant number of new members.
That major change came in 1974 when eligibility for club membership was opened to “persons” rather than only men. Women were now welcomed as members. Within three years, membership in the University Club had climbed to 329, the highest ever to that point.
“Popularity of the club flourished,” Waters wrote. “Financial negatives turned to positives.”
In the year 2000, prospective members were told in an invitation letter that the club was “an ideal place to gather for a casual meal, meet with business acquaintances, or bring out of town guests.”
Gradually, though, the traditions of this, and many similar clubs, seemed to be falling out of step with the times. In 2009, the University Club voted to disband. Its 210 members that year represented only a slice of the growing professional and business class of Rochester.
Now, the University Club doorway leads only to the past.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.