Thursday, January 04, 2007

THE FRANKLIN CLUB ON ITS LAST LEGS?

(News-Herald, January 3)I never really believed the Franklin Club could fold. Still, not everything that’s old and traditional manages to survive. Nor does it necessarily deserve to.
The club started out as The Nursery Club. Long ago, Franklin’s motto was “The Nursery of Great Men.” That phrase was apparently coined by Erie politician Morrow B. Lowry, who was not a fan; he intended it as ironic mockery, but Franklinites picked it up and ran with it. The town called itself the Nursery, and Franklin High School sports teams proudly called themselves the Fighting Nurserymen. Hard to imagine how that nickname could fall into disfavor. But it did. FHS became the Knights, the Nursery Club became the Franklin Club, and Morrow B. Lowry, according to the local paper, ended up in an insane asylum.
The Club was initially happy to have rooms in the old Hancock Building. Common enough practice—the band and the newspaper and many other such reputable groups rented rooms rather than owning entire buildings. But the college boys who founded the club in 1877 became men and made lots of money, and the club bought a nice house and started adding to it.
That the club approaches extinction is not exactly news. The prognosis on the street has been grim for several years now. That in itself has probably not helped; folks are reluctant to book a facility that may not open by the time Billy Bob and Eulah May are fixin’ to get hitched.
And of course the club has never really been for Billy Bob and Eulah May. Part of the point of the club for most of its 130 years has been to preserve a certain amount of snootiness. There are people right now who are not rooting for this symbol of privilege. Fairly or unfairly, people are dredging up tales of days when merchants and teachers and laborers were blackballed from The Club because they weren’t the right sort. I’ve already been reminded of the story that circulated decades ago about a club employee who embezzled a truckload of money, and the club’s supposed decision not to pursue the matter in order to save face.
But I don’t think The Club suffers from bad karma. It has hosted many fine events, provided touches of grace and beauty to the entire community. There are more than enough fond memories of the Club to go around.
Places like the Franklin Club require a fairly good supply of Rich Guys, and we’re running a little low on that breed. Can you remember when most of Joy’s upper management lived right in Venango County? If you can, well, sorry, but you are old. There are not a great number of well-to-do folks around, and many of the few are not very visible in community life.
For that matter, many of those who are visible are visible in organizations involved in more active pursuits than maintaining a big club house with a ready supply of good food and alcohol. And many of them are part of a younger generation that is famously impatient in matters personal and professional. Why join an organization or business and wait twenty years to be trusted with any position of importance when you can go out and start your own club today?
That, in fact, is where groups like the Franklin Club came from in the first place. In 1877, American’s thirst for starting clubs was blooming. Virtually every civic and semi-civic organization (Red Cross, NAACP, Rotary, Boy Scouts) that you’ve heard of was founded between 1870 and 1920. By the 1970’s, we’d virtually stopped creating groups.
Then we stopped participating in them. From 1975 to 1999, figures show that participation in clubs dwindled to less than half its former level.
So The Club’s problems are not unique. In early 2006, the Pittsburgh Business Times reported a big decline in country club membership throughout the region. Wanango Country Club’s reputation hasn’t been much more solid that The Club’s for a while, and they have a pool and a golf course. In many ways, the Franklin Club is just a country club with nothing to play but basement duckpins.
We face increasing problems with these white elephants. Franklin First Baptist Church, Galena Building, Transit Building—created by long-dead rich guys, these beautiful buildings provide rich heritage and gut-busting maintenance costs.
How to hang onto them? Government pork would be a poor solution. Besides, these buildings have doors and windows; some other business with doors and windows would sue.
Nope. If we want to keep them, we have to pony up. It’s nice to say you’d like the Franklin Club to survive. But what would you pay to keep it? Right now, that’s the only question that counts.

2 comments:

Dittman said...

Pete - enjoyed this in the paper yesterday -- the Bowling Alone angle is astute.
Two questions came up though - What's up with the Baptist Church? Is it in danger of closing? And, when you said people should pony up if they wanted it saved (and I'm not sure people do, to be honest. I just don't want to see such a beautiful building end up as an Airways-style bar or a flea market)what exactly did you mean? To support it with taxes? Or to purchase it outright? or...?
I'd really be interested to know how the other clubs in the region - the Bradford, for instance - have adapted....

Peter A. Greene said...

I love Bowling Alone-- it's a great book and years ago, when preparing columns about it, I found the author very approachable and helpful.

I don't think the Baptists are in danger of closing, but they have struggled for years under the costs of maintaining that gigantic building that General Miller left to them.

I'm not sure people want it saved, either. I'm not even sure I want it saved. Just in the last twenty-four hours since the column ran, plenty of folks have reminded me of the days back in the seventies when the club leaders voted down proposals to try to actively recruit and involve younger folks in town.

So while I would regret the demise in some ways, there's a part of me that suspects it's their own damn fault. At least partly.

I don't want to see tax dollars propping it back up. I think if people want to see it survive, they'll have to come up with the money to do it.

When I was in college, one of the frats was on its deathbed. Some enterprixsing underclassmen took that opportunity to join en masse and take the outfit over. Perhaps a bunch of young professionals could do the same here. But hey-- who knows...

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