Center Club belies stuffy stereotype Parties are mixed with the power lunch.

July 08, 1991|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Evening Sun Staff

The Center Club is not just for power lunches anymore.

Perched on the 15th and 16th floor of the USF&G building on Pratt Street, the well-known business club is also for watching fireworks on July Fourth, celebrating New Year's Eve and sampling the creations of master chefs. "We're always looking for new things," said the club's president, Alvin S. Wolpoff.

Next year the club is likely to be the place for starting an evening with the Orioles because the new stadium is within walking distance. With free parking available to members at the USF&G building, Wolpoff said, the club's Grill Room will be an attractive pre-game dining spot. "You avoid the whole crunch," he said.

The main emphasis of the club is refinement of the membership experience, Wolpoff said. To enhance its appeal, the club sponsors special events, constantly upgrades its menu and even makes its own ice cream and sorbet.

The Center Club has never quite fit the stereotype of a private club with aging blue bloods sitting in their wing chairs enjoying cigars and brandy.

It certainly has its share of the corporate elite, with the chief executive officers from local banks, utilities and major corporations gracing its membership rolls and its board of directors.

But, unlike other business clubs, the Center Club was created to include people rather than exclude them. Founded in 1962, the club has always had an open policy toward Jews and blacks -- men that is. The club was not as progressive when it came to women. Although women could join, they were required to eat in a separate room until the mid-1970s.

Wolpoff said two blacks and three women currently are among the 21 directors and that a "good number" of the members are blacks and women. He said a specific breakdown is not available because the club does not keep track of race or gender on its roster.

Applicants must be sponsored by two current members, Wolpoff said. Beyond that, one of the few limitations to joining the club is the ability to pay the initiation fee of $1,250 and the yearly dues of $650 -- which is somewhat below the median for most private clubs, Wolpoff said.

"We don't blackball," he said about the club's membership policy. "You have to be pretty bad to be turned down."

jTC Of the 2,100 members, 1,700 live in the Baltimore area and 400 are either retired or reside outside the region. More than half of the memberships are paid for by corporations, Wolpoff said.

Despite the recession, the club is down only about 20 people from the membership peak that it reached last year, he said. Revenues during the first three months of the year were below budget, Wolpoff said. He attributed the drop to the recession and concerns generated by the Persian Gulf war. But in the second quarter, the customers came back and the club was ahead of revenue projections, he said.

Wolpoff is the managing partner of Wolpoff & Co., a certified public accounting and consulting firm. He is in his fifth year as the club's president, which is an unpaid position.

While the club is trying to expand evening activities, its primary attraction is still the power lunch, where Baltimore executives discuss business against a panoramic view of the Inner Harbor.

"I think they have the best crab cakes in town," said Charles W. Schaeffer Jr., senior vice president of the Baltimore office of Wheat First Securities, a stock brokerage firm in Richmond, Va.

He said he takes clients to the Center Club because of the location, the service and the ambience. "The personnel are excellent," he said. "They are helpful, they are cheerful and they are efficient."

The club's location in the heart of Baltimore's business district is probably within walking distance of the workplace of most of the members, Schaeffer said.

"The atmosphere is pleasant and comfortable and they do a very good job as far as the food and service," said another member, John F. Curley Jr., vice chairman of Legg Mason Inc.

Jon M. Files, vice president for management services for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., said the club is a pleasant place to have lunch and its convenience is enhanced by the parking that is provided in the building's garage. It is also one of the few places in Baltimore that is a hub of business activity, he said.

On the 15th floor is the club's main dining room, along with a collection of smaller meeting and banquet rooms that are used by members and companies for private functions. On the 16th floor is the club's Grill Room -- which features a more informal atmosphere -- the bar, and the Harbor Room, the second largest in the club besides the dining room.

The decor primarily consists of burgundy-colored carpeting, Italian marble and polished dark woods, with touches of modern design, such as the spiral staircase that connects the two floors.

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