Center Club officials like to joke that their kitchen staff has a better view of the Baltimore skyline than do most CEOs.
The panoramic vistas of the Inner Harbor and west side from the 15th and 16th floors of the club's headquarters at 100 Light Street provide a bird's-eye view of the city's past and its future.
The east windows gaze down at an Inner Harbor that has been re-envisioned during the past 50 years — in part by early members of the Greater Baltimore Committee who also were instrumental in founding the Center Club.
The group's 50th anniversary celebration this week will include a Founders lunch, cocktail party and gala dinner. At some point during the festivities, attendees doubtless will look out the west windows at the Bromo Seltzer Tower and cranes on the downtown's still-developing west side. They will see a Baltimore that is very much a work in progress.
The Center Club has been serving as a networking organization for Baltimore business leaders since 1962, and was the first private club in the city to admit African-American and Jewish members.
Today, over cocktails at the fancy new bar, incoming members might meet a diverse group including Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, business leaders and philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown, and Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, founder of the Baltimore investment firm Legg Mason.
"I was part of a social phenomenon in Baltimore and all over the country that was a great leveling process," says Gilbert Sandler, who is Jewish and who has been a member of the Center Club for nearly 45 years. "For people who aspired to move up in society, the fire walls were coming down and the roadblocks were being removed. There was a sense that no matter who you were or what your faith or ethnicity was, you had a crack at the brass ring.
"The Center Club was part of that. They didn't ask who your family was or what college you went to or whether your name ended in an 'o' or an 'i.' Meritocracy was taking the place of aristocracy."
Indeed, a year after the organization was chartered, the Center Club voted to admit its first two African-American members on July 21, 1963: Judge Robert B. Watts and Morgan State College President Martin Jenkins. They joined such memorable names as civic leader Walter Sondheim Jr., department store owner Albert D. Hutzler, Johns Hopkins University President Milton S. Eisenhower, and real estate developer Joseph Meyerhoff, who became the group's second president.
Photos depicting the dining room's patterned carpeting and archive menus that list weiner schnitzel aren't the only indicators that the club came into being in the "Mad Men" era. It wasn't until the mid-1970s that women were permitted inside the main dining room, where most business discussions were conducted. (To put that into perspective, the city's oldest private business association, the Maryland Club, still does not accept female members.)
Today, about 20 percent of the Center Club's 2,000 members are women, according to Nancy Sloane, the Center Club's director of membership and marketing, though she says it's harder to come up with comparable data for other minority groups. A photograph of the club's 2012 board of governors shows six women and three African-American men in the group of 24.
"Our membership," Sloane says, "is representative of the leadership of the business community of Baltimore."
That community encompasses representatives from banking, real estate, law, media, education, medicine, nonprofits and more. They've occasionally been joined by visitors including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Oprah Winfrey, according to a history commissioned for the 50th anniversary.
The National Club Association and its sister group, the Club Managers Association of America, estimate that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 members-only associations in the U.S. These include country clubs, university clubs and city clubs, such as the Center Club.
As city populations have declined, so too has the number of urban-centered business clubs. Just a handful remain in Baltimore, the largest of which are the Center Club, the Maryland Club, the Engineers Club and the Johns Hopkins Club.
"The role of clubs has had to evolve as the nature of the businesses downtown has changed," says Laura Perry, a Center Club member and the director of marketing and business for the law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.
"We used to have eight local banks, four to five brokerage firms, a utility company, insurance companies, our own railroad and our phone company. Now, all those companies are gone."
But Perry says the club is making up the loss, with startup firms able to pay a $1,250 initiation fee plus annual dues, which range from $225 for retirees to $1,100 for senior members. (Initiation has been cut to $500 during the anniversary year.)
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."