A new take on old Back Bay private clubs in a bid to attract younger members
It sounds like something from bygone times, when Boston’s Brahmin elite celebrated their standing from behind the doors of well-appointed members-only digs: A local philanthropist and developer wants to open a private social club called Haddon Hall in Back Bay that would feature gourmet dining, luxury overnight accommodations, and other amenities — including a gym and an outdoor terrace on the 11th floor.
But Sandy Edgerley said the establishment she’s planning for the corner of Berkeley Street and Commonwealth Avenue would be markedly different from such venerable enclaves as the Union, Somerset, Algonquin, and St. Botolph clubs. At those highly selective places, if you have to ask how much membership costs, you probably won’t be asked to join.
Edgerley said she envisions a setting where Boston’s old-money types can mix with rising young stars from the region’s tech, life sciences, health care, and arts scenes. It’s about “finding a way to bring [together] some of these creators, and thinkers, and entrepreneurs, and people who are really making a difference in Boston in a big way in their own lane,” she said. “It’s a modern take on an old concept of a private club.”
Edgerley, who chairs the Boston Foundation’s board and is a former leader of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, wants that new generation of movers and shakers “to make those connections with people who are already established,” likening it to the way mentors such as Hill Holliday agency cofounder Jack Connors and the late Myra Kraft helped her further her own career — including at Boston consulting firm Bain & Co. — as well as to champion various fund-raising efforts.
There may be interest in a club like Haddon Hall, said Len Albright, assistant professor of sociology and public policy at Northeastern University, but it has to strike the right balance. Young people are attracted to exclusivity, he said, but they also are keen on authenticity and individuality.
“Any whiff of phoniness and they’ll make a run for it,” Albright said. “Young folks are interested in paving their own paths. . . . At the same time, young people are anxious and hungry for guidance. So if this club can meet in the middle and create networking opportunities that still feel vital and vibrant and that the members are saying something about who they are, then it can be a real opportunity.”
The club aims to be more accessible and cheaper than some of Back Bay’s more hidebound private establishments — applicants would need to come up with about $3,000 or less annually to be part of it, and there would be no initiation fee. Also, distinctly unlike other leading Boston clubs, it would be a for-profit venture. Edgerley said none of the particulars are final, but she hopes to attract about 800 people with an emphasis on socializing in a relaxed setting (no formal dress code) and with programming such as a speakers’ series.
There would be plenty of space to accommodate them — the club could seat up to 356 people at a time. For about 90 years, the former Haddon Hall apartment hotel — once favored by visiting debutantes — has housed medical and professional offices. The building is zoned residential, but a private club would be considered an allowable use.
An offshoot of luxury residential development company Hexagon Properties, which Edgerley runs, paid $30 million in January to buy the building. Tenants in the building, which currently has an occupancy rate of about 75 percent, were given a year’s notice in March. Restoration of the approximately 120-year-old structure’s exterior and a gut interior renovation are estimated at more than $25 million, Edgerley said. Depending on the permitting process, she said, the club could open by late 2019.
Some neighbors are skeptical. They question the demand for another private club in Back Bay and worry about hundreds of members and their guests flocking to an already congested area where parking spaces are at a premium.
“The building has never been a problem,” said Vicki C. Smith, chairwoman of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, who has lived about a block and a half from Haddon Hall for about 40 years. “It’s largely closed on Saturdays and Sundays, the lights are off after 5 p.m. It’s an incredibly low-impact kind of a building.”
The association hasn’t yet taken a position on the project, but a group of abutters calling itself Preserve the Back Bay, led by Mary Lou LeSaffre, has formed in opposition. Among their concerns: traffic and noise, including from the proposed outdoor terrace.
A new club is “a nice idea,” but not in a quiet neighborhood already saturated with private clubs, LeSaffre said.
“I would like to fight it now because it’s going to be an ongoing battle of nuisances from here on in,” she said. “With 800 members and 356 bar and dining seats, the problems are going to escalate.”
Critics have started to make their views known through letters to the city’s neighborhood services office and Zoning Board of Appeals ahead of a scheduled Oct. 31 hearing. The project needs a zoning permit and approval for the exterior work from the Back Bay Architectural Commission.
Proponents of the club also have written to city agencies. They point to the track record of Edgerley and her husband, Paul, as philanthropists as an indication that they will be responsive and responsible developers.
Before purchasing the building, Edgerley said, she and other interested buyers were pondering the possibility of a condominium complex, but some neighbors were concerned that such a use would include underground parking, which could cause major disruptions. She eventually decided a club was a better idea.
“We’re making it a place where a lot of people can enjoy it, as opposed to condominiums where you might have nine or 10 condominiums here,” she said.
Edgerley said she is waiting for the results of a traffic study already commissioned, with another one set to get underway to examine post-summer driving patterns. Parking is expected to be valet, and, if the city approves, the club could claim six currently metered spots on Berkeley Street.
Boston’s private clubs, many more than a century old, have traditionally been gathering spots where generations of legacy members have hobnobbed and talked business in a genteel way over drinks and dinner. For decades, they were shrouded in secrecy and welcoming only to wealthy white men. Dress codes and membership guidelines were strict. Then in the late 1980s, the Boston Licensing Board threatened to revoke the liquor licenses of private clubs that used their facilities for commercial purposes unless they amended their rules to admit women and minority members.
Today, 38 establishments hold club licenses in Boston, ranging from the exclusive Algonquin Club to the Old Colony Yacht Club in Dorchester, according to city records.
Most recently, there has been some interest in social clubs that cater to the interests of millennials, such as the launch of Hall, a healthy-food dining club in Back Bay.
Edgerley said that she and her husband are investing with an eye not just on this property but on Boston’s future. Paul Edgerley is a well-known investor and former longtime Bain Capital executive. Together, they have helped to raise millions of dollars for local charities.
“We work here and we’re here for the long term; our kids, as they grow up, they’re staying here,” Sandy Edgerley said. “Who’s the next generation that’s coming, that is getting involved in these organizations, or in businesses, or in different companies, or in the arts? Who are they and how do we give them a chance to interact with the people who are currently so active and involved and leading?”