Richmond’s downtown social clubs once thrived for a very practical reason — they were one place members could legally settle in with a nice scotch-and-soda before dinner. Before 1968, prohibition laws restricted drinking in restaurants before the dinner hour, so the city’s elite joined private clubs, bringing their own booze.Three clubs continue to serve members today; once confined to mainly white men, memberships have become a bit more diverse in recent years. Personalized service has become important in recruiting and retaining members, the clubs say, in light of the population shift to the suburbs.
The Bull & Bear
At the top of the James Center sits The Bull & Bear, offering a magnificent view of the James River and downtown Richmond. Founded in 1966 and originally located in the Fidelity Bank Building at Eighth and Main streets, the club’s charter members included S. Buford Scott, chairman of Scott & Stringfellow, and Henry Valentine II, former chairman and CEO of Davenport & Co. Today’s membership roster includes Gov. Tim Kaine, state Sen. Walter Stosch, and prominent businessmen Beverley “Booty” Armstrong and William Goodwin.The club has more than 1,000 members and is fairly easy to join. Duront Walton, the Bull & Bear’s immediate past president, notes that prospective members need only a credit check, one sponsor and approval by the membership committee. Women were admitted in the 1970s, and Walton calls the club “diverse.” Members enjoy lunch or dinner service six days a week, social events and personalized service. On the third Wednesday night of each month the club is open to nonmembers.
The 2300 Club
Nicknamed “the jewel of Church Hill,” the 2300 Club was founded in 1964 at 2300 E. Broad St. as a community gathering place to encourage restoration and preservation of the area. In 1973, the club moved to the corner of 23rd and East Grace streets. Club founders included Dr. Bruce V. English, the club’s first president and head of Randolph-Macon College’s physics department, and his wife, Virginia, who also helped found the Richmond Symphony and the Hand Workshop, now the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. From the beginning, the club welcomed female members, even naming a woman one of the club’s first officers.Today’s membership of nearly 270, which includes Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene Trani and state Sen. Benjamin Lambert, enjoys much of the elegance created by its founders with modern conveniences such as wireless Internet access. The club serves lunch or dinner six days a week and Sunday brunch. Members need two sponsors to join and can store their own liquor and wine at the club.“We strive to create an atmosphere of the day gone by,” says Gary Edwards, general manager.
The Commonwealth Club
Living up to its somewhat mysterious reputation, the century-old Commonwealth Club on Franklin and Monroe streets is so private that repeated phone calls and e-mails to current and former staff and members went unreturned or received minimal response. John Phares, the club’s controller, says the club likes to be “under the radar,” and Patricia Calder, assistant manager from 1982 to 1988, replied by e-mail that “the Commonwealth Club is a very private club — and at least when I was there — was not interested in having articles written about it.” What we do know is that potential Commonwealth Club members must have six sponsors from the club’s membership of nearly 700 VIPs. A February 1990 article in Ebony magazine referenced the club’s invitation to then Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, after his 1985 election. Wilder declined to join.
The Forum Club, a group of 110 community leaders started years ago by former Richmond News Leader editor Douglas S. Freeman, continues to meet monthly at the club to hear speakers on current events, including such notables as historian and former Virginia Military Institute president Josiah Bunting and former Sen. George Allen. Members do not have to belong to the Commonwealth Club.
The Franklin Foursome
Four social organizations have restored 19th-century buildings on Franklin Street, as part of a significant effort to support the neighborhood.
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) was founded in 1889 and is America’s oldest statewide preservation organization. Headquartered in the Cole-Diggs House at 204 W. Franklin St., the APVA owns and manages 29 historic properties in Virginia including The John Marshall House, Scotchtown and Jamestown. The APVA’s mission is to preserve and promote the state’s historic structures, landscapes, collections, communities and archaeological sites.What began as an informal organization of local garden clubs in 1920, evolved into the statewide Garden Club of Virginia in 1929 with the creation of Historic Garden Week. Headquartered in the Kent-Valentine House at 12 E. Franklin St., the Garden Club of Virginia is composed of 47 regional clubs with more than 3,400 members. The annual springtime Garden Week is a popular open-house event; its profits are applied to statewide garden restoration projects and two graduate fellowships in landscape architecture.
Founded in 1926, the Junior League of Richmond is one of 293 Leagues around the world. Richmond’s 1,100 members provide 30,000 volunteer hours each year through regular volunteer service including the YMCA Bright Beginnings program and the League’s two Clothes Rack locations. Headquartered in the Mayo Carter House at 205 W. Franklin St., the League sponsors an annual Book & Author Dinner. Potential members must be at least 21 years old and volunteer regularly.
The Woman’s Club was founded in 1894 to provide educational opportunities to women. In 1900, the Woman’s Club purchased the Bolling Haxall House at 211 E. Franklin St., where it now serves a membership of 1,600. The club offers social and educational opportunities, including its annual members-only speaker series as well as theater and ballet performances. It also has funded annual scholarships since the 1920s. Potential members must be at least 23 years of age, have three club sponsors and have lived within 50 miles of Capitol Square for at least one year.
—ALISSA M. POOLE