News & Community

A Common Ground

After 50 years, The Center Club celebrates its diversity.

Marc Broady, a young, dapper employee of the city school system, visited The Center Club for the first time in 2008 to support a friend participating in a Baltimore magazine “Top Singles” event. He was so impressed by the upscale club that he decided to join. He liked the idea of belonging to a private bar and restaurant, and the many opportunities to network with influential club members. As Broady took in the panoramic view from the club’s 16th floor that evening, he had little knowledge of The Center Club’s history—that the club’s founding members played a crucial role in creating a vibrant downtown and tourist attraction. Broady, now 32, also knew nothing of his own family’s pivotal role in making The Center Club the first private business club in Baltimore to accept African-Americans and Jews.

When Broady told his aunt about joining the club, she gave him some surprising news: “I think your grandfather was the first black member.”

And, indeed, Broady’s grandfather, the late Judge Robert B. Watts, was the first African-American to join The Center Club shortly after it opened 50 years ago in 1962. As one of the city’s first African-American judges, he had worked alongside Thurgood Marshall as a civil-rights lawyer. He was a universally well-liked man, making him an ideal candidate to integrate the new club.

It was a time when many Baltimore restaurants and movie theaters were still segregated and when the city’s venerable private men’s clubs, like the Merchant’s Club and the Maryland Club, banned Jews and permitted blacks only if they worked as waiters.

Today, The Center Club is preparing to celebrate its anniversary with a week of events, leading up to a gala on November 3, to thank its members “for 50 years of diversity.” And Marc Broady’s legacy will be part of it. He is one of The Center Club’s Young Members Committee, recruiting new members and finding ways to keep the club vibrant.

The story of The Center Club begins with a man named Clarence W. Miles. He had a dream for revitalizing the city long before Walter Sondheim became the dean of Baltimore civic leaders, before William Donald Schaefer became the four-term, do-it-now mayor, and before James W. Rouse was hailed an urban visionary.

Miles founded the law firm of Miles & Stockbridge and was the first president of the Baltimore Orioles after he brought the team to town in 1953. He was a tenacious civic leader who helped found the University of Baltimore and got the Civic Center built. He persuaded complacent business leaders to form the Greater Baltimore Committee in 1955 to begin reviving downtown’s Charles Center.

Then came the idea for a new private downtown business club, where Baltimore leaders in business, law, and government could meet on common ground, no matter their race or religion.

Up until then, African-Americans and Jews were shut out of the city’s power circles.

“People who ran the Maryland Club ran the city,” recalls Gilbert Sandler, a Center Club member and longtime Baltimore writer and historian. “That was where the power really was.”

Miles joined six other men to incorporate the new Center Club on May 10, 1962. “I was personally convinced that a certain amount of controversy would arise because it was so widely rumored in business circles that the club’s membership would be racially non-discriminatory,” Miles wrote in his memoir Eight Busy Decades: The Life & Times of Clarence W. Miles, co-edited by The Sun columnist Jacques Kelly in 1986.

In practice, the new club’s policy meant that Jews would be accepted immediately. (In fact, one of the seven founders was Joseph Meyerhoff, the real-estate developer and Jewish philanthropist.) When to invite African-Americans to the club, though, was a trickier decision.

The club needed an infusion of cash from as many new members as possible, but Miles knew that some people would drop out if they knew they would be dining with African-Americans.

Of the club’s founders, only one is still living. Truman Semans ran the investment-banking firm of Robert Garrett and Sons in 1962 and is now vice chairman of Brown Advisory.

“I don’t want to say we were great do-gooders or revolutionaries, but it was important,” he says. “The city was becoming less segregated.”

There was one particular member of the board of governors whose opinion held great weight: Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, president of The Johns Hopkins University and adviser to U.S. presidents (including his older brother, Dwight D. Eisenhower), who strongly urged the club’s board of governors to invite African-Americans to join, says Howard Miller, The Center Club’s current president.

Whether pressure from Eisenhower led to the first African-American’s application for membership by the spring of 1963 is not known, but Watts’s application was sent in April to Robert Weinberg, a member of the club’s board of governors and a partner of the Weinberg and Green law firm. After Weinberg’s death in 1995, the document was archived with his other files in The Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Once Watts was accepted, other prominent members of the African-American community began joining, including Martin Jenkins, president of Morgan State College; attorneys George L. Russell and Larry Gibson; Afro-American newspaper executive Kenneth O. Wilson; and Henry G. Parks Jr., chief executive officer of H.G. Parks and a member of the Baltimore City Council.

While the club’s leadership understood the importance of racial integration, their attitude did not necessarily extend toward women. As the founders discussed their non-discrimination policy, there was no talk about asking women to join, Semans says. But members’ wives and female guests were welcomed, with one caveat: At lunchtime, women were segregated in a separate dining room in the club’s first home at One Charles Center. The main dining room was considered sacred ground for men to conduct business and dine without female companionship. For dinner, however, the main dining room was open to women.

Meyerhoff, who was the club’s president from 1964-74, worried that most women would spend too much time at lunch and monopolize the tables. “Dad was concerned there wouldn’t be enough tables for the men,” says his son, Harvey (Bud) Meyerhoff.

This rule caught some members’ wives by surprise. Betty Lewison was taken aback when she was steered away from the main dining room. She and her husband, Dr. Edward Lewison, were charter members of the club. Dr. Lewison, who died in 2008, was an internationally known breast-cancer surgeon who founded The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s breast clinic.

They joined the club “because it was going to be open to everyone,” Betty Lewison says. “We approved of the idea. It was an honorific thing to belong to The Center Club at the beginning.”

When the couple went to the club for their first lunch, “It became apparent that we had to lunch at the informal dining room because I was a woman and was not allowed in the formal dining room . . . if someone tells me I’m no longer an equal person, I see red,” says Lewison, still miffed 50 years later.

She went home, cut up her membership card, and never went back for lunch until women were treated the same as the men at the club.

By 1971, the club was accepting individual women as members. Baltimore businesswoman Ruth Shaw, who was designing and manufacturing women’s tennis clothing from a one-room studio on Howard Street, needed a place to meet business associates for lunch, so she joined.

“I went in, and they said, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t allow women in the dining room.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I went to the bar and was told I was not allowed in the bar. I’m paying the same amount but have no use of all the facilities,” she says. “I was taken aback. I asked for my money back, and they refused.”

That April, Shaw filed suit against The Center Club with the help of local lawyer Elsbeth Levy Bothe. Judge Kenneth C. Proctor (a former Center Club member) ruled against them, noting that the case “is not a civil-rights or women’s-liberation case” because The Center Club was a private organization, according to an article in The Sun.

Shaw went on to operate the Ruth Shaw clothing boutique in the Village of Cross Keys for 35 years. Bothe would serve as a Baltimore Circuit Court judge for 18 years.

The ladies dining room was finally abolished in the mid-1970s after a Center Club officer visiting a similar club in Los Angeles discovered women eating in the main dining room at lunch with no apparent disruption to their male counterparts. It wouldn’t be long before the club banned women from wearing pantsuits. But that, too, would pass, as would the exclusively male leadership at the club.

Many Center Club charter members were also founding members of the Greater Baltimore Committee, considered in its time to be a progressive business group for spearheading the city’s downtown renewal. They were instrumental in building Baltimore’s first truly modern office tower, completed the same year The Center Club was founded, and designed by the internationally known architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

At 24 stories, the tower went up at the corner of North Charles and Lexington Streets. The sleek design attracted The Center Club’s leaders, who chose to locate the club on the top floor of what was called One Charles Center. In the club’s early years, The Center Club’s dining room was often teeming with businessmen at lunchtime. “In those days, there were six major banks, and almost every loan officer belonged to The Center Club. We might have had 20 members from Equitable, 35 members from Maryland National,” says Miller.

“If somebody wanted to borrow money, even if you lived in Towson, or on Liberty Road, you came downtown. If you came downtown at 11 in the morning, the loan officer would bring you to The Center Club for lunch. You could tell who was borrowing money by who was eating lunch at The Center Club.”

The Center Club soon became known for its restaurant and expertly prepared food. It’s still a place where diners can order a dish that’s not on the menu without fazing the chef and where signature dishes come from recipes that are decades old. The service is stellar, too. A charming maître d’ remembers your name and doesn’t seat you too close to your business competitors, or your boss. He never asks if you prefer plain water to Pellegrino. He remembers.

John Warnack, the club’s COO, calls this talent “the hospitality gene.” “We start over every day,” he says. “There is the pressure of sustained consistency—or a level of hospitality—from the food, the way we answer the phone, the way we have someone’s coat waiting for them.”

The current chef, Robert Bannon, upholds long-held culinary traditions as the keeper of many Center Club dishes, like the Maryland crab soup he’s been cooking for 15 years. He learned it from the previous chef, who made it for 30 years.

Likewise, the recipe for the club’s crab cakes (ordered by more than half the diners daily) never changes. Banquet chef Wolfgang Wolff has been making them consistently for 16 years with 15 pounds of jumbo-lump crabmeat each day.

Ethel Berney, whose late husband, Hamburger’s department store executive Robert Berney, was a charter member, fondly remembers the gourmet food she found nowhere else in Baltimore. The original menu included items like kangaroo-tail soup and baba au rhum.

“They always made you feel more welcome than they should have,” she says of the staff.

Today’s club, now located on Light Street with sweeping views of the Inner Harbor, has 2,000 members and has evolved from an exclusive men’s luncheon venue to a club with a variety of special “intraclubs” for members who want to brush up on their Spanish, hear guest speakers with expertise on Baltimore history or the evolution of women executives, or take tango lessons. There are also popular wine tastings, fashion shows, and happy hours.

In 2003, the club elected Phyllis Brotman its first woman president. Brotman, CEO of Image Dynamics, a public-relations firm, led an effort to transform the club—both physically and socially—with a $2.7 million renovation to the main 15th floor.

Now, The Center Club’s future is in the hands of young members like Broady, who has already brought in several new members from diverse backgrounds to join the club. He also hopes to recruit nonprofit leaders to network with business executives who have access to private donations for charitable causes.

But more than anything, he wants to focus on the original mission of The Center Club as a place where people of all backgrounds feel comfortable.

“I would like to continue that charge,” he says.

This article was adapted from a book by Joan Jacobson, commissioned by The Center Club for its 50th anniversary.