Membership has its privileges
University clubs deliver exclusive views, ambiance for movers and shakers
A sturdy security guard blocks the route to the elevator at the State Street Bank building downtown, but a mention of the "UMass Club" earns an approving nod and a right-this-way wave through to the mirrored, deeply polished lift. Only those who belong, it appears, know where to go.
In seconds, a panoramic view of the city and beyond - from the Charles River to the Harbor Islands - unfolds from the curved, floor-to-ceiling windows of the 33d-floor private club. Members, dressed in well-pressed suits and power ties, dine on duck salad and coriander-crusted hanger steak. College chums catch up on old times, businessmen strike new deals, and checks are dispensed of with a wave of a Montblanc pen.
Within blocks of the UMass Club are its counterparts from Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard University, all similarly perched high above the financial district, a lofty crossroads for movers and shakers. With their commanding vistas and cultured ambience, the clubs are a world unto themselves, a members-only throwback to select social clubs of yore.
Two Globe reporters recently visited the four clubs for a glimpse inside the exclusive enclaves, which are little known outside Beacon Hill, State Street, and the halls of academia. Catering to well-heeled alumni and power brokers, the clubs are popular destinations for business lunches, meetings, and formal functions. They also instill alumni pride, strengthen school ties, and cultivate an image of attainment and status.
"It's about identifying the members of the Boston community who should belong," said Jada Emery, general manager of the 2,500-member Boston College Club. "It's really about networking, camaraderie, and pride of belonging."
The four facilities each have a distinctive flavor, details designed to evoke college nostalgia, clubby camaraderie, and a BlackBerry-and-business-card buzz of productivity. But all set a tone of exclusivity and privilege, an air of refinement reserved for corporate leaders and tweedy intellectuals.
"There's definitely a sophisticated, very urban and modern feel to the space," said Susan Verge, a spokeswoman for the Boston University Club, which opened three years ago and has several hundred members. "It's not total exclusivity, but based on our location it's not something anybody can walk into. It's very private."
Membership at the UMass and BC clubs is by invitation-only. At Harvard and BU, white tablecloths and flowers await, and bills are sent in the mail each month.
The dress code is generally business casual at the clubs, but jackets are required in the formal dining rooms. Most members are alumni, but the clubs wage a spirited competition for nongraduates.
At the same time, the clubs are far from stuffy, brandy-sniffing parlors. Many diners sling their jackets over their high-backed chairs and order sandwiches with potato chips. At the UMass and BC clubs, members choose their own table, adorned with plastic placemats with the school name instead of tablecloths.
At the Harvard and BU clubs, campus photos line the walls and drinks are served with bendy straws. Some members treat the clubs more like a favorite bar, a place to swing by after work.
"It has a formal feel to it, but I never feel like it's stiff," said Grace Fey, executive vice president at Frontier Capital Management Co. and a member of the UMass Club. "It's a great place to take clients and friends."
The UMass Club, which has 1,000 members as it nears its second anniversary, has sparked a surge of school spirit and given alumni a central gathering spot. More than 80 percent of members are alumni.
The Boston College Club, considered one of the country's most successful after just a decade, strikes a more rah-rah spirit, with recurring motifs of decorative eagles and pictures of the campus. Yet it also projects a classic look, complete with chandeliers, elegant curtains, and individualized wine lockers for members.
For business moguls who use the BC club as a second office, it's a worthwhile investment.
"A lot of deals are made here," Emery said. "You definitely pride yourself on having the movers and shakers in the club."
The Boston University Club also understands that many members are taking a working, or at least a networking, lunch. Its "silent service system" allows diners to write down their order on paper menus to avoid interruption.
About half of its club members did not attend BU, and one of the few traces of the college is a dining room photograph of a clock with Boston University written on it. Still, Verge said the club has boosted Terrier pride.
"Universities all want to cultivate their alumni base, and this is another way to do that," Verge said. "The more engaged they are, the more they take a vested interest in the school."
Harvard's club exudes school pride. It sports crimson-colored chairs, carpets, and walls, and a black-and-white print of the 1913 Harvard-Yale football game as large as a pool table.
Immaculate table settings include a green vase holding four carefully placed yellow flowers. A basket with four kinds of bread is placed on the table, joining a ramekin with rose-shaped butter.
The Harvard Club opened at the downtown location in 1976, complementing the group's main clubhouse on Commonwealth Avenue, which was built in 1913.
Lawrence S. DiCara, a lawyer and former Boston city councilor, joined the Harvard Club in 1971, just after graduation. His wedding reception was held at the downtown club, he partied there after graduating from law school, and he now plays squash with his children at the club in the Back Bay.
UMass officials said their club not only provides a central place for alumni of the system's five campuses to congregate, it also symbolizes the system's attainment and aspirations.
"It has brought influential people into the UMass orbit," said system spokesman Robert Connolly. "But it also makes a statement that UMass is claiming its rightful place as one of the big players in the state."