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The New York Times

Luncheon Clubs: A Tradition Fades

By Tina Traster

August 2, 1992 -- Gone are the days when men gathered in smoke-filled libraries to scan the newspapers a half-hour before lunch. Gone are the days when power brokers washed down three-course midday meals with too many martinis. And gone are Newark's private luncheon clubs.

In late March, the last remaining and oldest of the luncheon clubs -- the 116-year-old Essex Club at 52 Park Place -- closed its doors. The nearby 744 Club on Broad Street closed last year, and the Downtown Club folded a few years earlier.

"Any time there is a downturn in the economy, clubs go under," said Richard G. Schoon, president of the Metro Newark Chamber of Commerce. "After the 1987 Wall Street crash, a number of clubs closed their doors, and many are struggling to survive."

Today, clubs like the Essex Club, with its deep red carpets, oak-paneled rooms and portraits of board members dating to the late 19th century, stand empty. But the demise of traditional men's clubs (some of which later admitted women) may give birth to a new genre.

In October, a new luncheon club will open on the 22d floor at Newark Center in the Gateway office complex. Many Essex Club members say the new club, with its marble and chrome, will lack the warmth and charm of their old haunt. But it will be Newark's only private dining room.
 
Many Reasons for Decline

Older clubs are dying for many reasons. Executives who once languished over long meals are more apt to grab sandwiches at their desks. Also, financial belt-tightening has scrapped many corporate perks like club memberships.

In recent years, the Essex Club relied on nearly $35,000 a year in rent for hospitality suites leased to local corporations like Mutual Benefit Life Insurance, Midlantic National Bank, First Fidelity Bank and the Public Service Electric and Gas Company. Only Public Service had been planning to renew its lease for 1993.

Added to a change of business mores is a healthier approach to eating and drinking. Cholesterol and calorie counters do not in good conscience consume a big sirloin steak for lunch, and alcohol consumption has dramatically dropped. Members of the Essex Club recall a time when the club sold its own brand of alcohol.

"The infamous three-hour martini lunch has gone the way of the dodo bird," said Ted Lippencott, a Newark lawyer and the club's most recent board president.

Clubs began having difficulties in the late 1960's -- for example, the longstanding Newark Athletic Club on Fulton Street closed in 1965. The demise of the Essex Club began in the late 1970's, when many of the major banks, legal firms and accounting companies fled the city for corporate parks in the suburbs. In the 1960's, club membership exceeded 1,000; in 1992, there are just 249 members.

"I, like others, feel extremely guilty that I didn't use it," said Roger Clapp, a Newark lawyer. If more members had used the club, he said, "it would still be alive."
 
'A Touch of Civility'

Mr. Clapp, who called the club "a touch of civility in downtown Newark," recalled how Thomas Del Virginia, the 66-year-old doorman and general caretaker, greeted him by name after Mr. Clapp had been absent from the club for 20 years.

Other members say the closing of the Essex Club has created a huge void in terms of corporate entertainment. The club, they say, was the place to dine with an important guest. Members say there was not a recent governor who did not lunch there.

"The Essex Club stood for a lot; it stood for New Jersey," said Samuel C. Miller, a former member, who was also director of the Newark Museum. "There was never a decision made in New Jersey that was not first discussed in the Essex Club."

Today, business pacts are more likely negotiated over a phone or through a fax machine. But Mr. Miller says the pendulum swings every 15 years.

"For now, in Newark, the luncheon club is dead," he said. "In 15 to 20 years, the private club will be all the rage again."
 
Situated on Top Floor

The Bellemead Development Corporation aims to lead the revival of clubs with its $2.5 million Newark Club. Situated on the top floor of One Newark Center, it was designed to feel like the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. The building also houses the Seton Hall Law School and numerous law firms.

Jim Servidea, vice president of marketing at Bellemead, said the Newark Club, which itself will operate at a loss, had been created to attract tenants. "If the market for office space was strong, we probably wouldn't create a club that has to be subsidized," he said. "But the Newark Club adds value. It offers a bigger package."

Bellemead runs the 60-year-old Roseland Eagle Rock Club in a corporate park in Roseland. Henry Sgrosso, executive director of both clubs, said, "If we just counted on lunch, which is about 30 percent of our business, we'd be out of business." The Eagle Rock Club is used for weddings, bar mitzvahs and Christmas parties.

The Newark Club will be a world apart from the older clubs like the Essex Club, which was established in 1876 and was considered the grandfather of social clubs in Newark.

Originally, the club was situated at 44 Park Place, where the Quality Inn/ Treet Hotel now stands. Club members bought the five-story Georgian-style town house facing Military Park in 1927. Built a century earlier, the club's building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

George William McCarter, a former member and Newark lawyer, said the Essex Club was "built like a man's club." The austere rooms with large fireplaces and grand silver-plated chandeliers gave the club an air of gentility.
 
Ballroom and Squash Courts

The two most frequently used rooms were the first-floor Grill Room, where buffets were served, and the second-floor ballroom, where formal lunches and special events were held. The building also had two squash courts and numerous bedrooms, which were once lived in year round by elder members.

The Essex Club and others of its era were known to be elitist men's clubs. Although the club's rules did not exclude anyone from membership, the club did not admit women until 1975 or blacks until 1978.

Mourning the club's demise, Mr. Miller said, "To let the club die in such a way says something about the city."

What it says is that the city's vitality and power base have shifted from Broad Street, once home to prestigious law firms and large department stores, to the Gateway complex, civic leaders say.

Over the last six years, said Joseph Freiser, project development officer at the Newark Economic Development Corporation, more than $6 billion in office construction has revitalized the Gateway complex. Buildings like Gateway One and Two, A.T.& T., the N. J. Transit headquarters and the Newark Legal and Communications Center are almost fully leased. The $200 million New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, which will be built on the site of the old Military Hotel, is slated to open in 1995.

Former members of the Essex Club, many of whose companies have moved to the Gateway, admit that the six- or seven-block walk to their club had become something of an effort. They say they have become accustomed to walking through linked steel-and-glass towers to find a salad or a sandwich for lunch.

Mr. Lippencott, whose law concern is in the N. J. Transit building, said that since the Essex Club's demise he has been experimenting with many of the Brazilian restaurants on Ferry Street in the Ironbound section. "I was glad I paid for feijoada before I knew what was in it," he said, referring to the stew that contains pig snout, jowls, black beans and rice. But now that he has learned about these ethnic specialties, he has begun taking clients to Brasilia, a plain restaurant that serves hearty fare. "It creates opportunity for local restaurateurs," he said.

While some of those who once patronized the clubs have ventured onto Newark's streets for lunch, many more stay locked up in the self-enclosed and self-sufficient worlds that office towers create.

Elizabeth Hull, a political science professor at Rutgers University, likens the throngs of workers in the sleek new office buildings to trailers that plug into local resources temporarily and then move on.

"People come and spend whole days within these complexes," she said. "There is little spillover into the community at large. There is no contact with the city. They don't even walk on the streets."

Like Newark, many urban centers contain abandoned areas once considered the grandest and most exclusive. Small town houses or older buildings that once housed the private clubs cannot compete with mammoth office complexes that offer their own restaurants.

Those who have been in Newark since the 1960's have watched the city transform from a riot-torn town to a rejuvenated business center. But they are painfully aware that the revitalization does not include old and revered institutions like the private eating clubs.

"Cities used to measure their values by keeping old establishments alive," said Clement Price, a Rutgers University history professor. "Tradition has been broken."

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