May 3, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 7:06 pm

Hartford Club Reinventing Itself

When two amateur boxers recently squared off in The Hartford Club's ballroom, some spectators wondered if the club's legendary mystique had finally vanished.

"We were shaking our heads saying to each other 'Do you think the good old boys in the 1930s would have thought this was appropriate,'" said Hartford Club Past President Patrick Sheehan.

The boxing match was just one of the ways the club has tried to shed its stodgy image as a haven to central Connecticut's aging, privileged male elite and attract younger members of both sexes.

Sheehan insists The Hartford Club isn't about to disappear. Though membership is thin, he says the clubhouse continues to host activities vital to Hartford's business and social community. Weddings and events at the clubhouse have been booked through the summer.

"It's not dire,'' Sheehan said. "Yes, we need a stronger membership base, but we aren't playing beat the clock. We are optimistic about it. We have great relations with the business community and are making sure the club survives in the years to come.''

But some observers worry it may already be too late. Other private clubs in Connecticut and the U.S. have been forced to close doors in recent years, unable to replace members who defect or die off.

In the era of social and business networking via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, any exclusive club that proposes meeting face-to-face over a cigar and a cocktail faces an uphill climb, observers say.

To reinvent itself, The Hartford Club has eliminated its $1,500 initiation fee, brought in a new management team, fired the catering and kitchen chef and repriced the dining menu (the $12 lobster stew served since the 1930s remains) to be competitive with downtown eateries.

Even the austere portraits of past club presidents that lined the walls of the Georgian Revival were taken down, stuffed inside a closet.

"We want people from all walks of life to use the facility," said Sheehan, a longtime Hartford newscaster and now senior vice president for investments at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

But one private club industry consultant advised The Hartford Club to strike a balance between recruiting new members and protecting its exclusivity.

"There's that Grouch Marx saying 'I don't care to belong to a club that will accept me as a member,'" said Norm Spitzig, owner of the Florida-based Master Club Advisors and author of "Private Clubs in America and Around the Country." (Spitzig wrote under the pseudonym Clive Endive Ogive IV.)

The 137-year-old private club has been hemorrhaging members.

Enrollment is down to around 600, from over 800 a few years ago. The waiting list, around when Mark Twain joined the club in 1881, is gone.

Hartford is not alone. Nationwide, private and country clubs have seen their membership lists decline in the last few years, due in part to the economic downturn and members' mortality.

Private club membership around the country has fallen 7 percent in the last five years, according to PKF, a New York hospitality consulting firm that tracks the private-club industry.

Private clubs, which trace their roots in English society, have always attracted the privileged and powerful. But membership to the private enclaves begin to shrink in the 1970s when many excluded women and minorities from membership, said James M. Mayo, a University of Kansas professor and author of "The American Country Club: Its Origins and Development."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 ban on discrimination by private clubs, membership has continued to decline during the last two decades with people moving to the suburbs, corporate cutbacks, and the emergence of social networks on the Internet.

Mayo said there is hope for private clubs with the gentrification of city neighborhoods.

"The key is a vibrant downtown, a return to people living within the bounds of the city," he said.

Several private clubs in Connecticut have closed in the past two years. Those that remain are trying to redefine themselves.

The Waterbury Club and the Woodbridge Country Club closed last year.

Mory's, affiliated with Yale University, closed in 2008, citing a weak economy and competition from New Haven area restaurants. Since then, a board of directors has been appointed to save the venerable establishment. It has raised $2.5 million from thousands of Yale graduates to renovate the building, which dates to the War of 1812, according to its Web site.

The Waterbury Club wasn't so lucky. It closed last year after 127 years. Former vice president Jay Carlson said the club stayed afloat for years by upgrading its clubhouse, providing wireless Internet service, and relaxing the dress code. But when the economy tanked in 2008, 35 members defected in a week.

The club couldn't survive. A year later, it sold off its antiques and collectibles, and put its building up for sale.

"We tried all the tricks but it becomes a numbers game,'' Carlson said. "If you don't have enough members to keep a club open it will close.''

Hartford Club General Manager James Fisher said the club can no longer rely on its privileged image to attract members. The days when club membership was solely a networking necessity for businessmen and city leaders are gone.

"There wasn't a focus on membership for years because there was money and times were good," said Fisher, who was rehired last year after running the club during the 1990s.

Today, the club's membership committee is reaching out not only to businesses, but offering nonprofits and civic organizations free membership to use the facility to host their events.

"The goal is make the club more relevant to the community," said Fisher.

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