In celebrating its history, the Little Rock Club is looking to ensure its future, and that future must embrace diversity, young people and families.
That’s the message of three members who had an Arkansas Business reporter over for lunch at the club, which occupies the 30th floor of the Regions Center at 400 W. Capitol Ave. downtown. The physical premises of the club are undergoing an update meant to help it commemorate its 50th anniversary.
Although they don’t explicitly state it, Jim Laidlaw, club vice president, Sherman Tate and Jordan Broyles Hallenbeck are representing the face of a club that has always had room for white businessmen (Laidlaw), but that also welcomes African Americans (Tate) and women (Hallenbeck).
“So many membership clubs that stem from the time were thought of as the old white men’s club, and there is nothing further from the truth — at least at this point in time,” said Laidlaw, owner of a commercial janitorial company. “That’s not what we want to be known as, at all.”
“It’s not reflective of what we have here,” said Hallenbeck, a lawyer at Friday Eldredge & Clark of Little Rock.
“If you look at private luncheon clubs in other states that have survived, they’ve gone through a similar process,” said Tate, referring to clubs’ efforts to broaden their appeal. Tate, who rose to high positions at Arkla Gas, Alltel and, after Verizon bought Alltel, Verizon, is a member of the University of Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
The number of Little Rock Club members has dropped, Laidlaw acknowledged, “but we feel like it has stabilized at this point.” Membership now stands at about 225, he said. “If we were to hit 400, I would be blissfully happy,” Laidlaw said. “Is that reasonable? I think it is. We’ve been higher than that before, ‘back in the day,’ as we say.”
Tate noted that 30 years ago, private clubs didn’t have to worry about promoting themselves. “It was a prestigious thing, a very select group of businessmen and women, and everybody knew that,” he said. But now, “it’s a different generation,” Tate said, and the Little Rock Club needs to give that different generation reasons to join the club.
That update to the 14,000-SF club includes a new bar area and a refurbishment of the furnishings, resulting in what Hallenbeck describes as a “more modern, clean look.”
The Little Rock Club’s landlord, Newmark Moses Tucker Partners, paid for and oversaw much of this first phase of the update, Laidlaw said. “Frankly, we are hoping — and we think they will — continue with us” as more work is done. He hopes to have the refurbishment completed by mid-2020.
The purpose of the update, Hallenbeck said, is twofold: The club is engaged in a kind of “membership revival” in which it seeks to serve the needs of both longtime and new or potential new members.
New members are “the future of our club,” Laidlaw said.
The Little Rock Club traces its antecedents to the Top of the Rock Club. It was a private club on the 18th floor of the Tower Building, which was completed by Winthrop Rockefeller’s Arkansas Realty Co. in 1960 and was the tallest building in Arkansas for almost 10 years.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Little Rock had several exclusive private city clubs occupying prime spots atop downtown skyscrapers, among them the Capital Club, which occupied the 23rd floor of the Worthen Bank Building, now the Bank of America Plaza. “The skyline of Little Rock was lively in those days, with … the clubs lit up and revelers enjoying dinner and entertainment in them,” the veteran business journalist Leroy Donald wrote in the Feb. 10, 2008, issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The Little Rock Club dates its origin to 1969 or thereabouts. It had previously occupied what Donald described as a “nondescript building where a parking lot is today.” In 1970, The Top of the Rock Club merged with the Little Rock Club, and the reconstituted club moved to the top two floors of the Union National Bank Building, now the Union Plaza Building.
In 1986, the acclaimed Jacques & Suzanne restaurant, on the 30th floor of what is now the Regions Center, closed and the Little Rock Club took over the premises in 1987. “Still in their place of glory are the two cut-glass chandeliers built in Italy that Jacques and Suzanne Tritten had commissioned for their legendary restaurant,” the Little Rock Club notes on its website.
“And on clear nights, you can still look up to the top of the tower to see them sparkling in a nod to the owners and staff who first introduced fine foods and even finer wines” to the palates of Arkansans.
But times and tastes changed, and new liquor laws in the 1970s led to the development of many fine restaurants and bars in central Arkansas — venues open to the public. This, in turn, led to the closing of many private clubs.
In 1999, the Capital Club closed, and on Jan. 1, 2000, its membership merged with that of the Little Rock Club.
Covering the merger in October 1999, Donald wrote: “Both clubs were centers for business news exchange, the ‘round tables’ at each serving up business gossip like no place else. Deals were cooked and closed there. There were grand events, receptions and dinners. Some of the most lavish parties of the modern era were held there.”
The merger left the Little Rock Club as the last of the “tower top restaurants and private clubs that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s as the tall downtown buildings went up. The banks that built the towers wanted to have their own clubs perched on the top floors offering the spectacular views of the city and the Arkansas River. By and large these banks underwrote the costs of their clubs even though they had memberships,” he wrote.
Now, of course, many people never actually enter a bank, conducting business by computer or smartphone.
But people still want a chance to network. Despite the decline in private city clubs, just three years ago the membership-only 1836 Club opened in the historic Packet House on Cantrell Road, a project undertaken by Little Rock investment banker Mark Camp and then-state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. (Hutchinson has pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in a state government corruption scandal and awaits sentencing.)
The View From Here
People also still appreciate a spectacular view, and the view from the Little Rock Club is certainly among the best in Arkansas. It’s something that Tate cites in touting it as a location from which to view Fourth of July fireworks: It’s a place to create memories.
Hallenbeck noted that the club has created tiered memberships to attract members. Those include a “junior” membership for those 21 to 39, with an initiation fee of $500, half that of a regular resident membership. “We’ve tried to vary our options to capture more people, and then hopefully retain them,” she said. The club, which hosts business luncheons, is still a place to network, Laidlaw and Tate said. “But that’s not the only purpose,” Tate said.
Families are welcome, and monthly fried chicken night attracts a lot of them. A club can’t exclude families and survive, Laidlaw said.
The club has also held events like gallery walks and a murder mystery party.
Jeff Morgan, president and CEO of the Club Management Association of America, told Arkansas Business that private clubs across the country in general had become much more family-centric.
“What used to be the traditional city club of food and social activities and meeting rooms is really evolving into how do we use all that space in the club to maximize it for our members’ benefit,” Morgan said.
Millennials still enjoy clubs, he said, but “what has evolved is the economics for millennials are different than the economics for somebody of 15 or 20 years ago, so what we’re seeing clubs adapt to is more flexible membership structures based upon where they are in their career.”
Joining the Little Rock Club, Hallenbeck said, is a kind of rite of passage for young professionals, signaling, “I’m grown up now.”
Tate simply loves the ambiance of the Little Rock Club. “That’s part of the story I hope we can tell … about who we are, where we are, what we have to offer. It has an air of exclusivity, but it’s not arrogance.”
“Nor is it exclusive,” Laidlaw said. “It has that feel, but it’s not.”