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November 06, 2008

Out With the Old, In With the New

Eac_club Look's like Obama's not the only one shaking up the old order of things. From today's Burlington Free Press:

Champlain College is buying the Ethan Allen Club on College Street in Burlington, the college's second major acquisition in six months.

The home of the 151-year-old club would be redeveloped for student housing, according to a college news release. A purchase price was not disclosed; the closing date is Dec. 15. The property, 1.4 acres and a two-story brick veneer building totaling more than 15,000 square feet, is valued for tax purposes at $1,530,000.

This seems like a big deal to me.

The Ethan Allen Club is basically a symbol of Burlington's old-boy network. Over the past two decades, membership there has been steadily shrinking. The Free Press article notes that membership is down to just 125, from 400 members in the 1980s, though I was under the impression that the 1980s numbers were higher.

I toured the club in the summer of 2003, as part of a story I wrote on private clubs in Burlington. Incidentally, since I wrote that story, one of the clubs has closed — the Athena Club, which is now a private residence. The Eagles Club in Burlington also just saw their building bought by Champlain College. We could start betting now on which of the private clubs Champlain will buy next in its innovation-fueled expansion — the Klifa Club, the Champlain Club or the St. John's Club.

The St. John's Club definitely has the best view...

Here's my impression of the EAC back in 2003:

In many respects, the Ethan Allen Club is the opposite of the St. John's Club. For one thing, there's the dress code in the dining room: no shorts, jeans or sneakers. And the EAC advertises itself as exclusive. I thought they might want to keep me out. But when I call, a club employee hooks me up with treasurer Marcia DeRosia, who invites me to lunch.

A blast of air conditioning greets me in the carpeted foyer as I hurry past a print depicting the Vanderbilt townhouses and country estates. The foyer also houses the EAC's original horse-drawn fire engine, a symbol of its roots as a volunteer fire company established in 1857. The club proudly touts its association with fire fighters, though I can't imagine the blue-collar heroes of 9/11 stopping by after work for a brewski.

DeRosia owns a health-care software company. When I ask her age, she laughs and says, "I'm not telling you that." She wears a skirt and sports dangly earrings and makeup, but she's a biker babe at heart — her other car is a Harley. She meets me at the bar, smoking a Marlboro Light. I climb onto one of the leather barstools beside her. A few gray-haired men eat red meat while reading the Wall Street Journal or watching CNBC on the bar TV. Besides the young woman in a black skirt and sleeveless top behind the counter, DeRosia and I are the only females in the place.

The Ethan Allen Club began admitting women — under fierce political pressure — in 1991. DeRosia was the first. She wasn't making a statement; she knew members through business and they invited her in. Since the club went co-ed, membership has declined. In the '80s it had 500 or 600 members and a waiting list. Today the total is 250. DeRosia estimates that only 20 are women — down from 40 in the early 1990s. "It wasn't what they thought it would be," she tells me.

What they thought it would be was what most people think it is: a gathering place where Burlington's power elite make back-room business deals. DeRosia bluntly calls that "bullshit." "We don't have any secret little meetings or types of ceremonies or anything," she had informed me on the phone. But over a cheeseburger — sans bun — she reveals that membership does have its privileges. "When I've hit ups and downs with my business," she says, "there's always someone here to be a sounding board."

After lunch we tour the posh, red-walled dining room, the health club, the bowling lanes and the "pump room," where members park their kids for the night in front of a big-screen TV. Beyond the pump room there actually is a dimly lit "back room." A round wooden card table takes up most of the space. Members' personalized beer steins decorate the walls.

At the end of our tour, DeRosia encourages me to join. All I'd have to do is find a member to sponsor me. If no one raises any objections, the trustees will vote me in. Oh, yeah, and there is the matter of annual fees: Dues and maintenance costs for resident members under 37 total $800, and once you've crossed that age threshold, you can add another thou. All those perks ain't cheap.

These are interesting times we're living in. The old social networks that formed the foundation of our 20th Century society are crumbling. Which is not to say, as Robert Putnam always does, that social capital is disappearing. I think new networks are forming. They just don't have fancy, high-profile clubs like this.


So where are the new movers and shakers congregating?

This is a sad day for Vermont and America. The Ethan Allen Club is the oldest continuously running club in America and it used to attract Vermont's best and brightest. The reason membership has declined is because its no longer an honor to be asked to join. Now they offer memberships to anyone who goes to lunch there.

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