Jun 02 2010
Seeking new life at the Westminster Club
Taking the elevator to the top floor of the Westminster Building is like going back—or better yet, up—in time.
Since 1912, the year the Westminster Trust Company built the Royal City’s first “skyscraper” for the hefty price tag of $365,000, the Westminster Club has called its two uppermost floors, the sixth and the seventh, home.
Before taking residence in the fabled building at the corner of Columbia and Begbie streets, the club bounced around a bit.
In 1889, the year the club was founded, it operated out of the Douglas-Elliott Block, a large building on the corner of Sixth and Columbia streets. It would call that building home for just over a decade, until the Great Fire left it—and over 500 Royal City families—homeless.
The club remained strong after the blaze, rallying the support of its members and focusing its efforts on finding new, permanent quarters from which to operate. The Trapp building, a two-storey brick structure at 681 Columbia St., would house the club on its top floor from 1901 to 1910, until it moved to the Dean building at Church and Columbia streets in 1911. But within a year, the club solidified its permanent perch, high above the hustle and bustle of the Lower Mainland’s then-busiest city; primed to house some of New West’s most prominent bachelors and businessmen.
It’s just after 3 p.m. The little circle with the seven in the middle finally lights up, and the doors to the Westminster Club open. A soft piano ballad is coming through the speakers. Staff walk briskly past, clearing plates after the day’s lunch service—the club is now open for lunch to the public on weekdays for the first time in its nearly 112-year history. I’m shown to a leather armchair and instructed to wait for Marc Lotzer, the club’s managing consultant. I take a peek at the large guestbook just to the left of the elevators. Pages and pages of signatures from past decades fill the timeworn book. Even someone named Cary Grant, of 1180 Beverly Rd., Hollywood, stopped in for a bite in October 1978.
Lotzer’s been brought in by the club’s board of directors to oversee its re-branding. The last decade hasn’t been kind to the club. Declining membership—now less than 100 people belong to the group, down from the 270 members in 1999, according to Dwight Ross, who sat as the club’s president at that time—and a veritable rotating door of chefs, five in the last two months, has left them in some trouble.
Management before Lotzer was virtually non-existent, and with no one to navigate through some difficult terrain, the club has suffered. I try to imagine what the place felt like all those years ago, when cigar smoke filled the rooms, playing cards hit the tables and business deals were decided over glasses of whiskey.
Lotzer sums up the change over the years this way.
“There was no transition to the younger crowd. There was a shift in attitudes towards places like the (Westminster) Club. It was a tough time, a definite retreat and decline. I would suggest even technology helped change people’s perceptions.”
Lotzer concedes that social media has transformed the way people network, affecting the imperative to gather in person at traditional clubs.
While recent technology may represent a paradigm shift for communication, some of the club’s problems can trace its roots back to an earlier time. The movement away from Columbia Street in New Westminster, starting with Woodward’s department store settling Uptown in 1954, shifted the focus of Royal City residents from the town’s main street. City Hall had moved to Royal Avenue the year before, and in 1958, the library went as well. Foot traffic dropped, and people simply weren’t around.
In addition to opening its doors to the public for lunch, the club is promoting its business services as a new revenue stream. A brand new projector screen installed in the club’s main dining room—which seats 140 comfortably—makes it a good fit for business meetings.
A 20-seat boardroom on the sixth floor, a floor the club now leases after selling it—along with its parking—a few years ago, is also open for those who desire a little out-of-office work.
“We’re broadening our scope and people are finding us again,” said Lotzer. “We have created a path that is part renewal of the club, and a push for new membership.”
“A part of the fabric of New West would be gone if we didn’t get together to try and save her.”
A town hall of sorts
Ryan Carter, 35, is one of the club’s younger patrons, and has been a member for more than 10 years. He works for DEC Design, his father’s mechanical engineering firm, located just four floors below the club. He’s been taking clients for lunch on the seventh floor for years, and says the club helps “change the dynamic of the conversation” from the normally hectic world of business.
The future of the club, he adds, rests in its ability to help foster relationships.
“Business is still all about who you know. When you’re starting out in your career, the insight you can get by sitting around a table at the club is invaluable. You can learn lessons by taking the hard knocks, but to hear the experiences of the the guys in the club is awesome.”
Carter also envisions the club as a town hall of sorts, a place where those interested in city business can come and discuss the issues that affect and shape the Royal City.
He’d like to see key figures come into the club and discuss ongoing concerns and projects, and open up about the future of New Westminster.
Although the Westminster Club is not alone in struggling with declining membership and relevance over the years, Carter still believes it should have done more to keep up with the times.
“The club spent too much time chasing its own tail, looking to preserve its legacy and not work on its growth. Any day of the week, you should be able to come into the club and learn about your city. I’m still young and have a lot to learn and I want to do it here.”
© Copyright 2007 New Westminster News Leader