Hidden Seattle

How Exclusive Are Seattle's Private Clubs?

We took a peek inside to where the members-only fun is.

By Allison Williams November 16, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Seattle Met

Jenifer oliver photography w5o12v

The Rainier Club Dresses for the Occasion

Is there anywhere else in Seattle with this many black and navy business suits in one place? In a town of business denim and boardroom Chucks, the suit jackets in this dining room somehow don’t feel stuffy or formal. It’s a charming throwback—Rainier Club remembers when downtown Seattle was smaller, dress codes ruled, and lunch came with martinis.

The club itself goes even further back, to 1888, predating Washington’s statehood and the naming of Mount Rainier. Since 1904 it’s occupied a somber brick building on Fourth Avenue, the roof scalloped like a gingerbread house. Both of Seattle’s world’s fairs were planned here; president Bill Clinton held an Asian summit in one of the salons in 1993. This is the kind of private club where rows of brass studs line the leather armchairs. Where, in the billiards room, the pool table’s red felt complements the painting above it, fox hunters in scarlet coats. Heck, it’s a place where there is a billiards room. 

At midweek lunch, a sunny dining room hums with respectful murmurs as members crunch on chicken salads and BLTs, the crowd not nearly as old as the dress code. It’s as buzzy as any other downtown restaurant, mostly animated four- and six-tops talking business.

Down a hall lined with sepia Edward Curtis photographs—the documenter of Native American life was a member—past more of the club’s endless parlors and meeting rooms, is a walk-in fireplace bigger than most Capitol Hill aPodments. But its gold andirons are the size of filing cabinets. They don’t make fireplaces like this anymore (try getting that building permit), and they don’t make clubs like the Rainier. 

The Ruins Keeps Its Eccentricity Pristine 

“We want this to feel like home,” says Virginia Wyman as she floats through the rooms of the Ruins, under an antler chandelier and through the ballroom, past a wild mishmash of Japanese wall hangings and a floral life-size replica of a horse. Home? Sure, if you live in the house from Clue as reimagined by Elton John. 

There’s no formal name for the eclectic style of the Ruins, a private club built from scratch in a Queen Anne warehouse in 1993. “It’s just Joe,” says Wyman of her late partner, founder Joseph McDonnal.

The horse was once owned by the window-staging unit of a department store; McDonnal begged for the retailer’s wildest props and also scored an animatronic elephant shown at the 1962 World’s Fair. Upon request Ruins staff will turn on the ancient gears to make the elephant’s robotic trunk move.

Dinner—for members only—is served in a bookshelf-lined room with a fireplace. No tome, the waiter swears, opens a secret door, but that’s hard to believe. For all the club’s otherworldly dreaminess, the Ruins menu is traditional, like the juicy porterhouse and housemade rolls the size of tennis balls. The kitchen is a nook off the library dining room, and feasting from a Queen Anne armchair upholstered in rich satin feels rather like being a rich eccentric with a personal chef. Home? You wish.

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The dining room at the Ruins.

Image: Andrew Waits

The College Club Stays Afloat 

For rowers, midmorning is actually midday. Many of the rowers at the College Club’s Sunday football party began their day before dawn, pulling sculls from the boathouse’s neat stacks at 6am and hitting the water. In the rain. For fun.

While the Seahawks pregame on a projector screen and chafing dishes warm the club breakfast, future College Club members from Seattle Prep take their turn on Lake Union, padding upstairs in bare feet postregatta. The club is comprised of a pair of floating two-story buildings, both of which detach from their Eastlake moors four times a year to prove they can serve as independent vessels: their official names are the M/V Unity and M/V Inspiration.

The buildings may be more seaworthy than some of the members; until last year the club had nothing to do with the water. Launched in 1910 as a private men’s club by a group of mostly Yale grads, the society saw membership fall to lethal lows by the 2000s. The club made a hail Mary play, buying Lake Union Rowing’s former boathouses and relaunching as a rowing collective; that attracted local oarsmen and oarswomen, and membership began to grow again. 

Happy hours and summer concerts on the dock draw members together but rarely go late. Rowing is an exquisite form of solitude, one member muses as the football game flickers on the screen. Here, it’s solitude found in community. 

Columbia Tower Club Is Up High and Up Late 

“Have you seen the bathroom?” Members of the Columbia Tower Club ask the question at happy hour when a newbie’s in their midst. “The bathroom” is a very specific washroom, a ladies’ room on the higher of the club’s two Columbia Tower floors where the toilet faces a window with a postcard-ready vista from Beacon Hill to the Cascades.

There’s nothing loftier than the CTC, formed in 1985. Its calendar boasts Cocktails and Coloring hangouts and chef-led cooking classes. Between the bar (view of downtown) and the big TV (view of the stadiums) is a casual restaurant; down a hallway is Harvest—seven-course meals and personalized menus. Since its 2012 remodel, the club has a modern, if slightly corporate feel, like a hotel that attracts both business travelers and tourists.

But on the first Wednesday of the month, CTC teems with a free happy hour for members that rages into the night. Everyone loves free stuff, even people who pay almost $300 per month to hang in the city’s tallest building. 

“There’s something about pushing that 75th-floor button on the elevator,” one member muses. Another admits she joined to impress her law clients but couldn’t give up the view at retirement. A lip-ringed twentysomething says he does freelance work from the club lobby next to an oversize wall-mounted Scrabble board. Others, perhaps, head sky high just to take a turn on the porcelain throne that overlooks the entire kingdom.

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