It was by mistake -- or, I should say, by ignorance -- that my wife and I wound up spending a vividly memorable night at the astonishing, lovely, and doomed Berkeley City Club. It's a gorgeous 1930 Gothic-Romanesque-Moorish pile not far from the university campus.
When it showed up as a listing on Orbitz, there was no way to distinguish it from a typical $250-a-night boutiquey hotel in an historic building. Its reviews averaged 4.1. People liked the "historic charm" and complained about an elevator not working and noise on the city view rooms. They liked the towels but thought the breakfast was ungenerous. The pictures looked interesting. It's on the historic registry.
Sure, sounds good. Click. Book. Boom.
I had no idea what curious joys we were in for.
A place for women?
The City Club was designed by California's first female architect, Julia Morgan, who among many other things designed Hearst Castle in San Simeon, the Brobigdanian fantasyland of William Randolph Hearst that, if America had a list of 20 Wonders, would surely make the list.
She designed over 700 buildings in her lifetime, sometimes also creating furnishings and china to complement the architecture.
The City Club opened in 1930 as the Berkeley Women's Club, as a way to provide women of a certain class the same kind of benefits some men enjoyed in their social clubs -- a place to gather for meals, conversation, and various civic engagements. It was financed entirely by women. At one point it had 4,000 members, all women.
A place for ... you?
As modernity crept forward, a women's social club of that sort lost its traction.
In 1963 the organization went co-ed and took its new Berkeley City Club name. It still functions as a social club today, with its main draws being a magnificent historic pool and decent dining room and bar. Membership's pretty cheap as these things go: $950 initiation, $170 a month, $30 dining minimum.
As the low price of entry suggests, the membership alone can no longer sustain the big old place, so all of the City Club building is now open to the public. Anyone can eat at the restaurant and drink at the bar, the building's grand if slightly public shabby spaces are available for weddings and events, and its 35 rooms are kept full by online travel merchants.
The clubhouse tour
The view of the Berkeley City Club from the street is arresting, with Romanesque archways framing the doors and six stories of tower rising above, punctuated with Moorish details and Beaux Arts filigree. The building is made mostly of concrete and steel, solid choices for an earthquake-prone area. In some places, like interior ceilings, the concrete is made to look like wood. It's eerily convincing.
The public spaces inside have vaulted ceilings and leaded windows, and include a musty old library, a performance space with a musty old piano, little alcoves with tired but ornate period furniture, and two Mediterranean-style garden courtyards.
We had a couple of drinks at the bar, surrounded by frumpily charming older folks, club members who appear to be retired university faculty. We then just wandered around the building's two lower floors, sitting here and there, reading historic signage, and ducking into the gardens. Maybe it was the Manhattans, but it felt to me like a visit to an historic funhouse.
But the true highlight is the pool, a mammoth spread of sparkling aquamarine under a wide vaulted ceiling with beautiful colored tiling.
My wife and I swam some laps and I could not help but be distracted by the tilework and the beauty of the space itself.
The rooms? Just big enough for a queen bed, a dresser, and two small nightstands, with just enough perimeter leftover to maneuver around. The sinks are charming period pieces as well, with two spigots: one hot, one cold, and a plug on a chain. The rooms are unheated and uncooled. Fans and heaters are in the closet.
On the positive side, the rooms have metal keys and no TVs.
A 501(c)3, unaffiliated with the club, raises money for the Berkeley City Club building, to fund essential renovations. But one has the sense that they are sticking a plug into a drain.
I have no inside knowledge into the club's, or non-profit's, finances. But I've seen this thing play out elsewhere. What happens when the roof goes? When that arched ceiling over the pool collapses? An earthquake rattles loose one of those Romanesque arches and unsettles one wing of the hotel?
You can just imagine: the club decides it can't make budget and maintain the facility as they want. With heavy hearts they put it on the market. A hotel developer specializing in historic boutique properties snaps it up.
Here comes the A/C, TVs, and modern furniture.
My advice: Book now.