19th century, 20th century, adventure, afternoon adventure, family, ohio

Afternoon Adventure: The Tavern Club

Happy December! I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip home to Cleveland for Thanksgiving, and it was wonderful to see family and take long walks and eat lots of delicious (modern) food. Around the holidays we often reflect on the past–not only our recent past and childhoods, but the “family past,” stories about my grandfather’s grandparents and early Cleveland. Occasionally trips downtown are involved. Yes, I come by my history obsession genetically.

This time around, my sister and I had the chance to visit the Tavern Club, a venerable men’s club in downtown Cleveland. Our grandfather is a long-standing member of the club (and he owns the striped tie to prove it!), and he escorted us to the club’s yearly Father-Daughter Tea the evening after Thanksgiving. This is the one time women are allowed in the club, and while we weren’t allowed to take documentary photos, I took careful mental notes to report back to you.

(Cleveland Area History, 1904)

Back in the 1890s, when Cleveland hadn’t yet experienced its troubles of the mid-twentieth century and was still home to millionaires like John D. Rockefeller, many well-to-do men belonged to clubs. As Warren Corning Wick, chronicler of Millionaires’ Row, noted,

“Membership in these clubs was carefully noted in code next to a man’s listing in the Blue Book, the Bible of high society.”

Just as in England (where Cleveland men most likely got the idea), a man’s club told a lot about him. And in the 1890s, the sons of prominent Cleveland families decided that none of the available clubs were quite right; they were too stuffy, too grown-up, with not enough emphasis on horse-racing and squash. So they got together and founded the Tavern Club in a humble house, though it quickly moved to its official, current building in 1904. The new building, “an adaptation of Elizabethian architecture,” included squash courts upstairs, lockers, and plenty of dark rooms for playing poker and smoking cigars. While the squash courts have been improved, the building still looks remarkably like it did in 1904.

Founder and first president Henry K. Devereux (Heritage Pursuit)

My grandfather gave us the grand tour, and we took our time poking around. Dark wood paneling and chinoiserie accents make you feel immediately like you’re in a turn-of-the-century club, and there’s a massive fireplace surrounded by comfy leather chairs in almost every room. The walls are covered with tasteful paintings of female nudes (it is a men’s club, after all), 1916-era photographs labeled with inside jokes, and portraits of club presidents and squash team champions. The bar on the first floor is plastered with old stock certificates, supposedly dating from the stock market crash in 1929–the certificates were worthless, so members papered the walls with them instead. Upstairs you can peek in the marble bathrooms, and in the basement wooden lockers remain from the days of Prohibition, where men could store a personal bottle of spirits away from home.

The whole building felt like such an old-boys’ club. As my grandfather put it, it’s the kind of place where “deserving young men” could get away from the rigors of business and relax with their closest friends in a congenial atmosphere. What’s even more fascinating is how the club has survived, because it’s such a hold-over from the days when men and women relaxed in segregated circles. I’m not sure you’d find any all-male clubs being founded in America today. More’s the pity: despite the exclusivity, the Tavern Club was a cozy place to while away a late November afternoon.

Works cited: My Recollections of Old Cleveland by Warren Corning Wick. Excerpt from Cleveland Town Topics, May 7, 1904.

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