Perched among the mansions of elegant Summit Avenue, where Ramsey Street intersects the avenue at the top of what is rumored to be St. Paul’s steepest hill, the University Club poses a question: why a “University Club” when there’s no university nearby, much less adjacent?
Turns out the University Club is one of St. Paul’s oldest institutions, having celebrated its centennial in 2012. At the turn of the last century, such clubs were common. They were based on a model started in England and related to the venerable institutions Oxford and Cambridge. Essentially, they were alumni clubs.
What is now the Oxford and Cambridge Club was formed in March 1972 by merger of the United University Club and the Oxford and Cambridge University Club, according to the club’s website (www.oxfordandcambridgeclub.co.uk/history.php). The United University Club dates back to 1821, and it had a membership of 1,000 for more than a hundred years, but a few years after it started, the long waiting list to join engendered another club, the Oxford and Cambridge. That club was begun in 1830, with the purpose “for the association of gentlemen educated at those Universities, and for promoting and continuing a mutual interest and fellowship between them.”
In 1996 the club’s members voted “overwhelmingly” to admit women to full membership, and a year later the queen of Denmark became the group’s first “Honorary Lady Member.” The club now has over 3,500 members around the world, the website says, and offers automatic free reciprocal membership of 150 other similar clubs in 35 countries. St. Paul’s University Club is one of those, and steeped in the same tradition, though it started quite a bit later than the first two.
Most major cities in that era had three clubs: an athletic club, a business-and-government-oriented club, and a university club. Minneapolis had all three, as did St. Paul, but only two are still active in the Twin Cities — the Minneapolis Club and the University Club (the latter now is a “sister property” to the St. Paul Athletic Club, which dates to 1917). “They were the significant social institutions of the era,” said John Rupp of Commonwealth Properties, current proprietor of the Saint-Paul-based clubs.
A group of people started to form a university club in St. Paul around 1907. A few years later the group had a site on Western Avenue, but a fire there spurred the members to aspire to build a new clubhouse. A site at Dale Street and Summit Avenue was selected, but Louis Hill (son of James J. Hill) insisted that they should acquire another site, the one at Ramsey Street and Summit Avenue, which they eventually purchased from Carrie D. Lightner. Club records state, “Shortly after the annual meeting  Mr. L.W. Hill insisted it would be unwise to build at Dale Street and after mature deliberation, we decided on the triangular plot at the intersection of Ramsey Street and Summit Avenue [providing financial matters could be resolved]. Enthusiastic and substantial support was forthcoming which justified us in making the purchase.”
The building went up in 1913, though not without great efforts at fundraising and dealing with complaints from neighbors who did not want such a club in their vicinity. An aggressive membership campaign increased the number of members from 253 to 517; members were expected to contribute to the building fund, at least occasionally. Meanwhile, seven neighbors sent a letter stating, “… the undersigned homeowners in the immediate vicinity desire respectfully to enter protest against the building of a Club on the property… And we hereby offer, if you will locate the club elsewhere, to take over the property and relieve the club of any obligation…” The club respectfully declined the offer, but assured the complainants that “views of those residing in the neighborhood will be given every consideration.”
Early records of the club for the years 1911-1915–typewritten, pasted into a leather book, some pages loose and joined with straight pins rather than staples or paper clips–afford a fascinating glimpse into the founding of the club.
Early members included many prominent St. Paul citizens in addition to Hill: Lucius P. Ordway, Clarence H. Johnston, F.R. Bigelow, Frank B. Kellogg, Fredrick E. Weyerhauser, F.G. Ingersoll, J.D. Armstrong, J. Ohage Jr., W.R. Ramsey. At the time the process to become a member involved current members proposing names, then the prospective member being invited, completing an application (which required sponsorship of a member, two seconds and two letters of recommendation), being recommended by the Membership Committee, then being voted in by the Governing Board. Today the process is much simpler: complete an application form that includes showing the required affiliation with a college or university.
Most known today among the club’s denizens is St. Paul’s best-known writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wasn’t a member but had friends who were. In “F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit,” Dave Page and John Koblas mention Fitzgerald’s ties to the University Club several times. In 1913, shortly after the club opened, Fitzgerald “did manage to attend a few parties and socialize at the University Club” during his Christmas break from Princeton. In 1917, he invited two actresses from a road company to go dancing, and, “The next afternoon, the foursome lunched at the University Club, raising quite a few eyebrows.” When he and wife Zelda had their child Scottie, “Occasional breaks in the routine included dances at the University Club and visits to friends.” And in January 1922, he and Zelda organized a “bad luck ball” at the University Club, which they hung with black crepe, and passed out copies of the St. Paul Daily Dirge. The fete’s purpose was to bemoan the severity of Saint Paul winters.
The University Club building, at 420 Summit Avenue, is a Tudor style edifice built into a ravine: the back is seven stories, while the front shows only four. The architect was A. H. Stem, who, according to the club records, “has always been deeply interested in the club and the new building.” The plumbing contract was awarded to H.S. Krause for the amount of $4654, the heating contract went to George M. McGeary at $4473, and the electric work to Carl T. Nimis for $4189.
A few other intriguing details emerge from the early records, though most are filled with membership reports (numerous delinquencies in dues) and efforts at fundraising. For example, a Mr. E.A. Young offered his resignation, and club records show: “The matter of the resignation of Mr. E.A. Young Jr., from the Governing Board and from various committees was taken up and it was unanimously resolved by the Board that the resignation not be accepted. The secretary was instructed to so write Mr. Young and further inform him of the complimentary remarks passed by the Board and express to him also a certain measure of regret for that unfortunate situation known as the ‘Water Wagon.’” In spite of the members’ remonstrances, Mr. Young did eventually resign.
Much of the club’s interior furnishing apparently was financed by groups from universities, the records book says, “Various Universities have expressed a desire to contribute toward furniture and decorations of certain rooms: for example, Yale men will raise between $1500 and $2000 for the lounging room; Harvard men, $500 for fireplace in the dining room; Michigan men $600 for the grille room; Cornell men $300 to $400, and Princeton men are planning to do likewise…”
The club’s financial woes resurfaced in the 1980s, and the club was in bankruptcy when Rupp took over its management.
Currently the club’s facilities include workout facilities remodeled in 2017, a main dining room, a bar, a fireside room with comfortable chairs and small tables where members can gather and peruse current periodicals, a library, a terrace, and several other rooms available for meetings and events, plus a tennis court, a playground and a pool outside. The grill room downstairs features an old wooden bar carved with many names, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. The other names are those of the folks who funded the construction of the pool and earlier Depression-era members-contributors. The club offers numerous events and activities, such as book clubs, a business roundtable, an investment club, volunteer opportunities, a travel club, a garden club, ballroom dance classes, and croquet clubs. Numerous family-oriented and kids’ events are available as well–date nights (parents can drop kids off), a chess team, a youth service team, and “Dive-In” movies, for example.
While the club offers very contemporary activities, its architecture and interior reflect that it has never lost touch with its history as an early center for St. Paul. It still is governed by the original bylaws, which require graduation from an accredited college or university, and the crest on the letterhead is the same as when the club first started. Under the same logo, D.R. Cotton, chairman of the Building Committee, wrote in 1912:
“When this building proposition came up a year ago, we stated that if we made up our minds that we wanted to build, we could accomplish our objective…. I believe that there never was a club developed along similar lines. I hope… we will progress and become aggressively interested in civic matters, using the influences which we can exert and our energy to the taking on of new duties that will be a credit to the University Club of St. Paul.”
And thus the club continues its long and fine tradition.
May 2007, revised February 2019