No one knows today who first conceived the idea of The Columbus Club. Perhaps one or more of the original founders had been invited to prominent clubs in New York, Chicago or Cleveland and became imbued with the idea of establishing such a private club here in Columbus.
At any rate, some seventy-five or more men met on a cold evening in December 1886 in a room on the first floor of City Hall to discuss the founding of The Columbus Club. These men of considerable business or professional standing in the community believed that Columbus could and would support such a club where they could meet in privacy with the assurance of good food and service.
Whatever the motive might have been, the result of this meeting was the organization of a club for purely social purposes. The membership was to consist of "all gentlemen of lawful age" properly recommended and passed upon by the Board of Directors.
It is undoubtedly true that the mutual desire of the founders was to provide a convenient downtown location whereby the members could be assured of a private, dignified place of meeting to enjoy the privileges of the associations, which such an organization could afford.
No man is living who attended that first meeting. Much of the history of what has happened since that day in December 1886 comes to us from the archives and records of The Columbus Club.
Some twenty years before this time, Benjamin E. Smith, a successful railroad contractor and banker of the heyday of development following the Civil War, built what he considered as the most imposing house in Columbus. The contract for building his home provided that each of the bricks used in the structure was to be pressed in Philadelphia, wrapped separately in paper and shipped to Columbus, Ohio. Upon it;s completion, Mr. Smith moved into what is now The Columbus Club and occupied it as his residence.
It is interesting to note that in his life, Mr. Smith had a consuming desire to build an amusement park. He selected Rockaway Beach, New York as a location. His every intent was to create a rival to Coney Island. During the process, Mr. Smith's sizable fortune dwindled, and with that, he left his home on East Broad Street.
For a time the house was vacant. Two governors of Ohio, George Hoadley and Joseph Foraker, occupied the structure as their homes. Mrs. Foraker has written of the difficulty of maintaining the home on the salary of a governor, which, at that time was $4,000.00 per year. The residence was built with no central heat plant, with heat in the front living rooms provided by the two open fireplaces.
The Foraker family moved to smaller quarters during his second term as Governor of Ohio, and when a committee representing the new Columbus Club negotiated for the purchase of the structure, it was indeed something of a bargain. It was reported that the property was purchased by the Club for $45,000. The members of that negotiating committee were Emerson McMillen, David S. Gray, William D. Brickell and Ralph M. Rowd.
On December 15, 1886, the original articles of incorporation were filed in the Secretary of State's Office and were signed by five incorporators: Emerson McMillen, John S. Morton, Walter Morrison, Charles O. Hunter and Walter B. Page.
On the bulletin board in the Club there is posted the one remaining copy of the invitation which was mailed to the new members upon the opening of the clubhouse. It reads as follows:
THE COLUMBUS CLUB HOUSE
WILL BE FORMALLY OPENED ON
WEDNESDAY EVENING, MARCH 2, 1887
RECEPTION TO MEMBERS OF THE CLUB
AND THEIR LADIES AT EIGHT O'CLOCK.
J.K. JONES, P.W. HUNTINGTON, JOHN JOYCE,
WALTER MORRISON, EDWARD B. WALL.
At the time, however, the Club House was not completed, and for some time thereafter, it was inhabited by carpenters, plasterers and decorators who were employed to make the necessary changes in the building itself.
Actually, there have been few physical changes within the Smith mansion since it was originally constructed. Sometime around 1915, the Club acquired the Andrews property to the east of the present building. The Andrews house was torn down by the city and the Club's members voted to purchase the vacant lot, providing more front lawn and a strongly debated parking area. That parking area, now so necessary for our use, originally caused considerable contention among the members who could not thoroughly approve or encourage the noisy, smelly and dangerous automobiles.
A plan progressed at that time for the building of a new wing on the old Smith home on the east side with a game room and living quarters. The plan, however, was voted down and abandoned. By way of compromise, the bar room was added on the east side along with a small bowling alley and all partitions were removed on the second floor to make the main dining room. In early 1930, the kitchen was moved from the third floor to the card room on the second floor, the card room was moved to the bowling alley; and a barber shop was built on the first floor where it continues in operation today. In 2004, the card room returned to the second floor, the billiard room was refurbished and the original bowling alley was outfitted for informal dining. The new "Club Room" features memorabilia celebrating the history of the Club, it's members and the Columbus community. Member contributions to the decor continue to be welcomed by the House Committee.
Of course, the property of The Columbus Club, including the quarter-block of land, has long been one of the most valuable single parcels of real estate in Columbus. At one time or another, numerous offers have been made for the purchase of this property. Fortunately, in each instance, the Board of Directors at the time, decided to retain The Columbus Club in its present condition, and rejected all offers made. Our lawn has frequently been referred to as "the most expensive front yard in Central Ohio."
Through some hundred and twenty five plus years of its existence, there still remain traditional social functions which, of course, are now famous to the membership. One of these still regularly held is the New Year's Day reception. In earlier years the officers of the Club formally received their fellow members during the day and offered The Columbus Club's famous assortment of foods. After six o'clock P.M., the ladies were welcomed and for a second time during the day, the tables groaned and the punch bowls flowed. Today the atmosphere is less formal, but the tables still groan and the punch bowls still flow.
As the leading social organization of the State Capital, The Columbus Club established the custom of honoring governors of the state at banquets. The first was held for Governor Campbell and others followed in due course. Since the founding of The Columbus Club, all governors of Ohio, with the exception of a few, have been entertained and have been extended honorary membership in the Club. Many governors have thoroughly enjoyed this privilege, notable, Governors McKinley, Herrick, Harmon, Cox, Bricker, Herbert and Lausche.
Besides the many governors, senators and congressmen, other frequenters of The Columbus Club have been such figures in the political world as Mark Hanna, Philander Knox and Charles Dick. Presidents Warren G. Harding and William Howard Taft were members of The Club for many years. In fact, it is reported that during the presidential campaign of 1920, Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox were having dinner in the Club's Tiffany Room on the same evening after a day of campaigning in Columbus. Many presidents of the United States since the days of Grover Cleveland have, at one time or another, been entertained in the Club. Theodore Roosevelt's forceful and magnetic personality is particularly well remembered.
One of the most noteworthy functions was that banquet tendered to Admiral Dewey in the triumphal hour which followed his Manila Bay victory. To the amazed delight of the Admiral, his entire fleet was reproduced in pastry by the chefs of the Club. Other visitors feted by banquets were such military heroes as General Philander Sheridan, General Fitzhugh Lee, former Governor General of Cuba, Admiral Halsey and of course Major General J.W. Forsythe, who shared the recipe of his favorite salad which remains the Club's house salad to this day.
We sincerely hope that this brief account of some of the early history of The Columbus Club will be of interest to it's members and visitors alike.