The Ever-Evolving Saturn Club
By Elizabeth Licata
Photographed by Jim Bush.
Saturn Club Motto:
Then hail, O Saturn, hail thou Age of Gold,
Ere hair turn silver, ere the blood run cold.
What is a private club? The answer to that question has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. All you have to do is read the first sentence of the published history of Buffalo’s Saturn Club to understand that a shift in thinking would be necessary:
“The Saturn Club, like many another club of its time and other times, started with an ideain the minds of few men.”
-One Hundred Years: 1885-1985, by George Goodyear/The Saturn Club
Although women now play a major role in most former men-only clubs and there are many prominent women’s clubs, in the nineteenth century, clubs were for men. Buffalo’s earliest clubs were no exception.
In 1885, the young founders of the Saturn Club felt that the Buffalo Club (founded eighteen years earlier, in 1867) was too dignified and conservative. They decided to form their own group, mainly for the purposes of card-playing and drinkinglike almost all men’s clubs of the time. Their annual meeting was initially called Saturnalia. The first three founders, Carleton Sprague, William F. Kip, and Francis Almy, rounded up ten others, including men with such familiar Buffalo names as John B. Olmsted and Ansley Wilcox (whose home later became the inaugural site for his friend, Theodore Roosevelt).
Saturn Club Motto (discarded)
Where the women cease from troubling, and the wicked are at rest
Boys just want to have fun
At first, the club’s headquarters shifted from private home to private home, and the governing members, or “faculty,” mainly devoted their time to refining the set of rules that governed their whist games, liquor service, and tobacco supplies. They also had to placate the club’s unfortunate neighbors. Club headquarters were open for boozing all the time, though no cards were allowed from sunrise Sunday to sunrise Monday. By late 1890, the club had finally incorporated, and, after dealing with many complaints and warnings from residential neighborhoods, had built its own clubhouse at 417 Delaware, near the Buffalo Club. With the building of a formal clubhouse, which included a main lounge, smoking lounge, bar, billiard room, and staff living spaces, a kinder, gentler era was initiated, and some social occasions started to include women, to a limited degree. An article in the Buffalo Daily Courier (December 14, 1890) quotes a former neighbor of the Saturn Club’s tongue-in-cheek regrets when the club moved to its official headquarters:
“My family and I will no longer be regaled in the small hours by any saturnalia of the Saturnine membership. It was only the other morning, at the restful hour of three, that I lay awake and listened to “Little Annie Rooney” as the tender ditty is seldom sung. True, the element of harmony was eliminated...”
Saturn Club member Lynn Gates.
From the beginning, the club had adopted St. Patrick as their patron saint and had a dinner on his day (with exceptions) until 1962. There were also annual dinners and special chairing ceremonies for the inaugurations of new “Deans.” Later, more elaborate events than regular dinners began to be added. Beginning in the 1890s, baseball games, lectures, costume balls, and, most significantly, vaudeville shows began to be added to the club’s programming. A library was initiated, and debates were held on the important issues of the time, often in participation with other area clubs, including the Buffalo, University, and Garret Clubs. Though still retaining its lively character, the Saturn Club gradually gained more of an institutional aura. Ladies nights and other mixed gender events occupied a more important portion of the calendarthese events often included fanciful amateur skits and theatricals, with names like “Freaks Ball” and “Nothing Minus Something Equals More,” and “The Blue Tattooing.”
Saturn Club Motto
The best of all ways, To lengthen our days,
Is to steal a few hours from the night
From men’s club to family club
After WWI was over, the club began work on badly needed new headquarters. Since its founding, the club’s membership had grown from forty-four to 334. A new clubhouse at 977 Delaware Avenue officially opened in 1922, and it remains the Saturn Club’s headquarters today. Since then, the structure has been updated many times, including recent and significant renovations of the roof, inner courtyard, recreation facilities, and residential areas.
The current building, designed by architect Duane Lyman, is of the Tudor Revival design very popular in the 1920s. The facade and interior combine brick, stone, and wood to create something of an “Old English” feel, while the distinctive Saturn motif can be seen throughout, as well as some of the club’s traditional mottoes (though some of the less appropriate sayings have been discarded).
The amenities of the new club include everything offered to the good old boys of the early days and much more. There is a main lounge, a large dining room, a bar and members’ grill, a stage for theatricals, a library, a billiard room, a swimming pool, a four-lane bowling alley, four squash courts, other exercise facilities (including sauna, steam room and whirlpool), and, last but not least, a spacious inner courtyard where residents dine under the stars all summer long. As current club manager Vincent Tracy says, “We’re a country club without the golf course.”
The Saturn Club now
I visited the Saturn Club on a brisk summer evening. As we made our way to a table in the courtyard, I saw why Tracy likened this undeniably urban institution to a country club. Families and children were very much in evidence at many of the tables. The atmosphere was casual and nobody was dressed “to the nines” though it was a Friday night. Instead, guests wore skirts, sweaters, pants suits, and colorful summer sports jackets. The food was excellent, but not fancifully plated, and most guests had glasses of the house white or traditional cocktails in hand.
We were welcomed by assistant general manager Peter Hasset, an easy-going raconteur who has worked at many a Buffalo bar and restaurant. Hasset has been with the Saturn Club since 1981, and he, like the club, has theatrical leanings. His father was a set designer and he worked for a long time at Studio Arena. Later, we met Head Chef David Hoffman, with the club for fourteen years. Hoffman presides over banquets and buffets for special occasions (wedding receptions, etc.) as well as lunch and dinner every day. Hoffman also has personal fame as one of Western New York’s best ice carvers. His creations are used as banquet centerpieces and as sculptures in their own right.
Peter Hasset is very familiar with the history of the club, and its evolution over the years. He says that though women were officially admitted as full members in 1985, for years before that they had full use of the club, through a relationship with the Garret Club, as well as through their spouses and other connections.
What the club offers women
Lynn Gates has been an active member of the Saturn Club for ten years. A lawyer, Gates frequently uses the club for luncheon meetings with colleagues and clients. Gates is also very active on several organizational committees of the club, including entertainment, finance, and operations. She worked on the Saturn Club buffalo during the summer 2000 Herd About Buffalo project, and participates in squash tournaments. Her husband is not a member.
Gates likes what the club can offer families, especially the recreational options. The bowling alley is popular for kids’ birthday parties, and her two teenage girls often use the club for social activities. Gates also looks forward to the two international squash courts that will be added as part of the renovations. Gates and I talked near the Turtle Pond, a good metaphor for how the club has changed. Previously, this little-used portion of the courtyard was called “the Swamp.” Now, the pond and statuary are meticulously restored, and inhabited by friendly turtles.
Saturn Club Motto
To play a good game of billiards is the
mark of a well-rounded education;
to play too good a game of billiards is
the mark of an ill-spent youth.
(attributed to Herbert Spencer)
The Saturn Club’s future
General manager Tracy takes a briskly professional tone when talking about his hopes for the club. The words C.C.M. on his business card mean “Certified Club Manager.” To retain this certification, Tracy takes classes in an incredibly wide range of areas, including finance, marketing, construction, and food preparation, and had to pass a seven-hour exam to gain the certification. He also has degrees in hotel management and culinary arts. He’s a far cry from the fun-loving young scions of Buffalo’s first families who first invented this club and made up the rules for it.
Tracy wants to complete the Saturn Club’s transformation to a family-oriented “country club in the city,” by overseeing the final stages of the current million-dollar renovation. When it’s finished, all the structural vestigeswhat Hasset calls the “architectural momentum”that made it hard for women to get to their locker room facilities, etc., will be gone. And the cigar-chomping, neighborhood-terrorizing days of the old Saturn Club will be even more distant a memory.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.
Many thanks to the staff of the Saturn Club for assisting with this article. The excellent history of the club by George Goodyear was particularly helpful.
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