COLUMN: Westminster Club's possible demise no surprise
The Westminster Club’s possible demise is no surprise.
The property’s being sold, and without ownership of that top-floor space in the Westminster Building, the club’s fate may be sealed.
For years it’s languished, a far cry from the heyday of city fathers gathering for cigars, whisky and a few carefree tugs on the levers of power.
If it goes, some will mourn the loss of a valuable piece of the city’s heritage—particularly those whose fathers, uncles and grandfathers were club members. Others will shrug and say oh well, its time has come.
At first, Gentlemen’s Clubs like the Westminster were peopled by white, upper-class men. In response to societal changes in recent decades, they opened their doors to women, non-whites and anyone who could afford the membership.
I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 1991 that the club first elected a woman to membership, a Fay Marley-Clarke. As appropriate as it was to expand the club’s scope to reflect the changed world, it also meant its core purpose—exclusivity—was compromised.
Dale and Archie Miller’s book on the Westminster Club, commissioned in 2003, includes a telling comment from Bill Lewis, a member since 1966. The Millers recount his fond memories of the club, and paraphrase him saying, “the Club is different from when he joined, not as private and not as much of a club atmosphere...”
Bill’s sentiment is probably shared by most long-time members. While some stayed on, drawn by the continued camaraderie of a few long-time friends, newcomers saw little reason to join.
Why gather in a dark, lonely club when the real action seems someplace else?
Loss of that exclusive nature hobbled the club, but it’s competition that may be the fatal blow.
In the early 1900s, a place to smoke, drink, play pool, read a good book in a private library and get a decent meal with friends was enticing. Today people don’t smoke (much), a second drink will get your car impounded, and pool and hardcovers have been supplanted by the infinite iPad.
The Westminster Club needed a big, new hook. It hasn’t found it, and it’s doubtful that in its current space it ever could.
There’s not much to that top floor of the Westminster Building.
Compare to the Union Club in Victoria, the province’s first (1879) and the Vancouver Club, founded the same year as the Westminster Club (1889). Both occupy their own buildings, and feature billiards tables, libraries, rooftop gardens, fitness facilities, restaurants. Victoria’s club includes a 22-room inn, and Vancouver’s has one of the best wine cellars in B.C.
Tempting. And both cities have the monied class for the fees.
The Westminster Club? Banquet and meeting rooms, and little else. Drab decor. Meantime, membership fees are comparable to Vancouver and Victoria.
So there’s the catch-22. While the best selling point the club can offer today is networking and socializing, no one’s there to network and shmooze with.
And there are much cheaper and dynamic alternatives in the events offered by the chamber of commerce and NEXT New West, the latter a newer group that targets networking for the under-40 crowd.
To survive, the Westminster Club needed lots more people like Adam Goss. At 25, he’s a rare young member and he’ll be sad to see it go. He says where else can you glean some of the hard-earned wisdom of people like club president Allen Domaas—once CEO of the Fraser River Port Authority?
Regardless of one’s perspective of the club’s fate, if it’s dissolved when the top-floor of the Westminster Building is sold, not only will an important city landmark be lost, but so too will a storied institution central to the formation of this city.
• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.