High Society Lowdown 

Can Oakland's elegant Bellevue Club adapt to life in this century?

Sarah Milne taps a deep well of memories when asked to talk about the Bellevue Club's importance to her and her family. Just a babe in arms when she first visited the Oakland social club, it was where she learned to swim, and where her own children would later learn. She and her husband celebrated their wedding there, and it's where they eat Easter and Thanksgiving dinner to this day.

The 48-year-old Milne, a Piedmont mother of two, is a third-generation member of one of the East Bay's oldest, most elite clubs. Milne's grandmother became a member in the early 1930s and her family has belonged ever since. She still vividly recalls happy Bellevue memories from childhood.

"We had an annual Aquacade," she said. "It was synchronized swimming. We had twenty or thirty kids ... and we put on a show once a year. We would wear matching swimsuits and we would have on fancy caps with flowers. I remember one piece that I was in called Red Roses for a Blue Lady and I swam the part of the blue lady. So I had a blue cap and a blue suit and everyone else had red with roses on their caps. ... The swimming pool deck was crammed with as many people as they could fit in, all the windows were open and the crowd was two or three deep. It was absolutely wonderful."

Clubs like the Bellevue abounded at the time. The Adelphian Club, conceived in 1893, featured theatrical performances, hosted political and social discourse, and raised funds for the indigent of Alameda. The Soroptimist club of Oakland, the first in a chain of three thousand international Soroptimist clubs, was founded in 1921 on a platform of achieving the best for women in every sphere of their lives. The Alta Mira Club began offering San Leandro ladies a philanthropic outlet in 1926.

These and other clubs served high society, and their membership rode shotgun with the area's prosperity. Between the 1920s and the end of World War II, Oakland and its surroundings boomed as the region became home to numerous industries, including metals, auto-making, and shipbuilding.

But women's clubs gradually became less central to the East Bay's social fabric. Drinking, dancing, and dressing up never went out of style, but with the spread of auto ownership and construction of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco became the venue for much East Bay socializing. Women also found themselves with more and more social options even as they had less and less time to socialize. And as Oakland's corporate presence shrunk, the fitness craze boomed, both of which put pressures on clubs that emphasized socializing over athletics.

"Oakland is not what it was in the '50s," observes Bellevue attorney Peter Smith. "It's more of a government center now so you just have a different kind of office. ... That's going to foster a different club activity than if you had 25 Fortune 500 companies."

Energy has begun returning to downtown Oakland in recent years as entrepreneurs invest big money in dress-code enforcing clubs catering to a young new urban clientele. Stylish, classy cocktails are served up to the money-to-burn crowd at downtown clubs such as Maxwell's, @Seventeenth, and Air. But well-established legacies of elegance, tradition, and sophistication have not been enough to sustain old-line clubs like the Bellevue.

The Bellevue's problems are not unique. Other social clubs are trying to cope with the same set of circumstances. Alameda's Adelphian clubhouse is currently for sale because of declining membership and rising maintenance fees. The Soroptimists launched an international campaign in 2004 to redefine their mission in a bid to generate new interest in the association. Thirty years ago the Alta Mira Club boasted two hundred members; today it serves only 75, opening its doors to nonmembers six days a week in an effort to stay alive.

Perhaps the grandest women's club of all survived the Great Depression, a handful of wars, its own checkered legacy of discrimination, even feminism. But now the eighty-year-old Bellevue is imperiled by a mountain of debt and a membership that has dwindled for decades. Although the club occupies one of the most scenic locations in all of Oakland, it costs more to maintain the facility than dues generate and the Bellevue is losing members to death or disinterest faster than it's gaining new ones.

"It's an anachronism," Smith said. "It's not just the concept of a club but it's the concept of a private club organized around social first and athletic second. Can it exist in a downtown arena where it looks like health is first and social sort of a distant thing you do back at your house?"

That is the question at the heart of the Bellevue's financial crisis and the leadership struggle it provoked. After the club's board of directors suggested in January that it was time to shutter the Bellevue, another group of members rose up to struggle for control of the facility — fearful that if it ever closed, it would never reopen.

The fight to save the Bellevue was on.

The Bellevue graces the shores of Lake Merritt on a gently curving street where even fifteen miles per hour seems too fast. Its muted opulence is discreetly heralded by a foot-long gold nameplate with scrolling script. Secluded terraces, balconies, and windows overlook some of the most serene, expansive views to be found anywhere in Oakland. Motivation for the name Bellevue — French for "beautiful view" — becomes obvious just by standing outside the club's entrance. The five-story clubhouse reminds its members who they are and what they value: comfort, security, friends, sophistication. It has been a place for members to compete in contract bridge tournaments, learn to play mah-jongg, grab a workout in the athletic center, or be led on scenic lakeside walks. Feel like attending a lecture series about the architecture of the new de Young Museum? Maybe your ear calls for classical music on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Perhaps you hunger for an informative talk about shoe design?

Entering the club itself is like taking a similar step back in time. Walking into the lobby, a visitor can't help but look up and spin around to take in the surrounding balcony. The halls and walls are festooned with original landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. The carpets are muted and clean, with quiet colors lining each space. Pale, faded pinks, mint greens, flower patterns: Everything here was once elegant. Floral patterns dot the upholstery throughout the clubhouse. Wooden and glass phone booths beneath the grand staircase offered privacy to the generations before cell phones. If Hollywood were to film a sequel to The Shining, the Bellevue would be a perfect stand-in for that movie's mountain retreat.

"It's a jewel," says insurance consultant and club publicist Jana Hardy. "She is old, but she has great bones."


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