Membership includes access to all club events, a luxurious setting to host private parties, and the dining room, which is reserved for members and their guests. Club candidates must be sponsored by two members before their application can be considered.

"What's interesting to me is that the club has found a new niche of much smaller and more diverse companies," Perry says.

"More people are starting their own businesses now. And as the average age of our members has dropped, we've changed from being a club that was open just for lunch to a club that now has evening and family activities."

Despite Baltimore's shrinking population, the Center Club is holding its own. The number of paying members dropped to 1,564 in 2009, at the worst of the recession, Sloane says. But the club currently has 2,000 members — a decline of 15 percent from an all-time high of 2,300.

Partly, the recent surge can be attributed to a recent $3 million renovation that installed a new bar, marble floors, furniture and lighting. But partly, it's because from its earlier days, the Center Club has tempered a soothing familiarity with an infusion of fresh blood and new perspectives.

Clubs are by their very nature insular places, where members seek the company of others similar to themselves.

"A club creates an entire community where people can get out and families can spend time together without having to go someplace where they'll feel uncomfortable," says Jaclyn Abrams, communications manager of the National Club Association.

"We like to say that going to your club is like a retreat in your own backyard."

But if there's too much sameness, even the most luxurious environment can grow stale — a danger that Center Club officials takes pains to avoid.

As Perry put it: "The Center Club of today is like 'Cheers.' You walk in, and people know your name. You sit in the same place every night, and the staff takes very good care of you. Fifty percent of the people you already know, but 50 percent you don't. You can meet anybody here, and people are very glad to talk to you."

Denise Adah is an African-American woman and an adviser for the financial planning firm Ameriprise. She says her club membership has been ideal for supplying "the wow factor" when she entertains clients. In addition, she's made contacts that have enhanced her career.

Several years ago, she struck up a friendship with a female executive for a utility company whom she met through the Center Club. That meeting turned into a monthly get-together for cocktails and conversation with three other women — and it continued even after Adah's initial contact relocated outside Maryland.

Those Thursdays, in turn, eventually led to an invitation to join the board of the YWCA of Greater Baltimore. Adah recently was elected the board's vice president.

"Several years ago, when I was looking for a club to join, I looked at some actual country clubs," Adah says. "But it was too far for me to travel, and I don't live in a golf community.

"I chose the Center Club because I liked the idea that it was founded on diversity, and it's been a great experience that has helped me grow both professionally and personally."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Club data

Facts on members-only organizations in the U.S., provided by the National Club Association and the Club Managers Association of America:

3,000 to 4,000: Number of estimated private clubs in the U.S.

602: Average membership size of a private club, for a total estimated U.S. membership of between 1.8 and 2.4 million members.

58: Age of average U.S. club member

35: Percentage of clubs that ban jeans on club premises

$2,400: Median initiation fee for city clubs.

$250 million: Clubs' cumulative charitable contributions in 2010, down from $385 million in 2008

Types of clubs: 80 percent country clubs; 10 percent city clubs; 10 percent university clubs

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