Rainier Club (Seattle)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 4/27/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2959
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The Rainier Club is Seattle's oldest private club, established in 1888 when Washington was still a territory. A handful of politicians and business leaders met on February 23, 1888, to discuss the idea, and the group reconvened on July 25, 1888, in the 22-room mansion of James F. McNaught, a Seattle attorney, to incorporate the Rainier Club, named after British naval officer Peter Rainier. Seeking to establish a permanent home, members purchased two lots in 1902 at 4th Avenue and Marion Street for $25,000. On September 30, 1904, the Rainier Club, designed by Spokane architects Kirtland Cutter and Karl Malgren, opened its doors. Membership grew and waned during two world wars, economic depression, Prohibition, and other major events, but the Rainier Club persevered. The building was expanded in 1929 and the club was host to numerous diplomatic and trade meetings over the decades. The first Japanese American member was admitted in 1966, the first Black member in 1978, and the first woman member later that same year. 

Gentleman's Club for Seattle's Elite

On February 23, 1888, a handful of civic leaders met to discuss starting a private gentlemen's club for Seattle's business and professional men. The group included the financial elite of Seattle: a railroad president, a judge, two former Seattle mayors, and the editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among others. The following day, the Seattle Daily Press noted that "the object of the club is like that of a hundred other kindred bands scattered over the face of the civilized world, the pursuit of pleasure among congenial conductors" (Dorpat).

Club members met five months later, on July 25, 1888, in the 22-room mansion of James F. McNaught, a local attorney, and his wife Agnes, who agreed to lease their home at 4th Avenue and Marion Street to the club for $100 a month. A year later, the Great Fire of 1889 ravaged much of downtown Seattle but the McNaught mansion survived. With hotels and other meeting rooms in short supply, the Rainier Club became a popular meeting and dining spot for city leaders. Prominent judge and railway builder Thomas Burke (1849-1925) was one of three men who filed for incorporation. Initially set up as a men's boarding house and restaurant, the organization was reincorporated in 1899 as a private club. The name honored Peter Rainier (1741-1808), a British naval officer who had achieved a certain amount of fame thanks to George Vancouver's decision to name a nearby mountain after him a century earlier. On October 5, 1888, William Allison Peters was elected the Rainier Club's first president. Born in Georgia, Peters was a Yale classmate of William Howard Taft (1857-1930), who served as U. S. president from 1909-1913. Club dues were $100 for resident members, and membership was limited to 200 men. Dues for out-of-towners were $50.

Spokane Architects Create a Permanent Home

In 1892, the lease arrangement at the McNaught house expired, and members moved temporarily to 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street in a building previously occupied by the Seattle Theatre Company (today the site of the Arctic Club). In 1902, seeking to establish a permanent home, members purchased two lots at the southeast corner of 4th Avenue and Marion Street for $25,000 and retained the services of architects Kirtland K. Cutter (1860-1939) and Karl G. Malgren (1862-1921). Cutter and Malgren designed the Rainier Club in a Jacobean revival style, although concept drawings initially showed a half-timbered Elizabethan structure. Construction began in January 1904, but a fire on March 1 delayed the project. "Fortunately, the structural timbers were salvaged, and though charred beneath their decorative veneer, they still support the Club today" (The Rainier Club, 30). On September 30, 1904, the stately brick building with its scalloped roofline, looking like a giant gingerbread house, was ready for occupancy. The cost was said to be slightly more than $100,000.

The architectural firm of Cutter and Malgren was based in Spokane. Kirtland Cutter was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1860, and traveled to New York as a young man to study art, planning to become an illustrator. But his uncle Horace, a banker in Spokane, convinced him to "go west" and turn his artistic talents toward architecture. He arrived in Spokane in 1886 and started getting work as a residential architect. He later made a name for himself when he and his partner John C. Poetz (1859-1929) designed the Idaho Building for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

When Poetz retired, Cutter went into business with Malgren, and the duo went on to design some of Spokane's most recognizable landmark buildings and private residences. Malgren was born in Orebro, Sweden, in 1862, and educated in architecture in Sweden and Germany. He immigrated to Seattle in 1888 and moved to Spokane the following year. The structure he and Cutter designed for the Rainier Club featured tall ceilings, handcrafted woodwork, and enormous fireplaces. Members entered the building off 4th Avenue; spouses and female children were required to use a special entrance off Marion Street. On Sunday nights, however, women and children could join the male members in the main dining room.

The club played an important role for prominent men of the era, offering a place out of the public eye where they could eat, drink, meet, discuss politics, and make important business deals. "In these Victorian times and the Edwardian period which would follow, it was customary for men and women to take much of their society apart from the opposite sex ... In addition to serving as a restaurant and communal parlor for family men, the Rainier Club provided a home for bachelors and for husbands whose wives were away on long trips ... It also offered room and board for members' out-of-town guests" (The Rainier Club, 23). 

Building Upgrades and Additions

The club underwent several major renovations and additions over the years. In 1907, a third story was added to serve as a ladies' annex, allowing the men to continue to meet in men-only club rooms where they enjoyed their cigars and whiskeys. But even that pleasure was challenged, albeit briefly. In 1909, Seattle Mayor John F. Miller (1862-1936) ordered that all social clubs had to stop selling liquor unless they purchased a city license. "Today all the club bars are closed and they will stay closed, officers state, until the clubs obtain a license or some other solution of the trouble is worked out" ("Mayor's Order to Clubs Causes Furore").

In 1921, the club and its property were valued at more than $300,000. That year, members decided to purchase the lot to the south, but only after the property owner lowered the price from $35,000 to $25,000.

In 1923, a second lot was purchased next door at 4th Avenue and Columbia Street, and in 1925, the club retained the services of Seattle architects Charles Herbert Bebb (1856-1942) and Carl F. Gould (1873-1939), who were asked to expand and remodel the club interior. When the 521 active club members were asked what they wanted to see in the new design, top of the list were improved athletic facilities and an elevator. Bebb and Gould also added Art Deco floral details, decorative wrought ironwork, and a Georgian-style entry.

The Rainier Club expansion made front-page news. Under a headline announcing its $1 million price tag, the article described the proposed expansion in this way: "The first three floors of the main structure would provide dining, card, reception and reading rooms, according to the plans. The next six floors would be converted into forty-three bedrooms or suites. The tower floor is designed for athletic equipment, such as cabinets, handball and squash courts ... Space for fifty or more cars is allotted ... hidden from public view" ("$1,000,000 Structure to Occupy Half Block"). These plans were eventually scaled back to less than half that cost and the tower was never built.

If These Rooms Could Talk

By 1931, with the country mired in the Great Depression, club membership began to slide. Many men had to drop out as personal fortunes were erased and companies went bankrupt. In an effort to increase its ranks, the club dropped its initiation fee from $500 to $200 in 1932, and further reduced it to $100 the following year. "Attracting the sons of members was one of the tactics employed by the Club in attempting to blunt the effects of the Depression. At the close of 1933, it created 'Junior memberships' for members' young sons at half the normal fees and dues. By mid-1935, such inducements were having an effect, and membership had recovered to 707, its level of five years before" (The Rainier Club, 44). Club recruitment also was impacted positively when Prohibition ended in 1933. "The state's new liquor laws were a bureaucratic tangle that required members to use scrip to purchase their drinks from a 'liquor pool,' but they may have been a key factor in recruiting many new members because liquor could then be sold by the drink only in private clubs" (The Rainier Club, 44).

The club continued to attract some of the most powerful leaders in Seattle, and many important deals and decisions were made there. Some of its prominent guests included "Mark Twain, John Philip Sousa, Buffalo Bill Cody, President [William Howard] Taft, General MacArthur, Babe Ruth ... The club has served as a Pacific Coast guest house for Presidents and their staff. For example, Gifford Pinchot, who served in the Teddy Roosevelt administration, stayed at the Rainier Club during a trip that led to the foundation of the United States Forest Service and later the creation of the Mount Rainier National Park" (Powers). Plans for both of Seattle's world's fairs – the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition – took shape within its walls, and "in 1993, President Bill Clinton hosted the first of two U.S.-based Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings with Japan and China at the club" (Powers).

Diversity and Inclusion

Once the U.S. entered World War II, the Rainier Club was forced to reassess its admission and hiring policies. A courtesy membership that had been extended to the Japanese Consul in 1923 was rescinded. Ten Japanese Americans who worked at the club (out of a total of 70 employees) were initially kept on but had to be let go by spring 1942. As other club employees were drafted into military service, replacements were critical. Blacks were employed as servers for the first time in the club's history, and women, who had worked at the club during its early years up until 1920, were again hired.

Initiation fees and membership rates seesawed during the decades following World War II. At the same time, a shift in attitudes toward race, gender, and economic status created tremendous upheaval nationwide. Eventually, the shake-up reached the Rainier Club, which admitted the first Japanese American member: Saburo Nishimuro, on November 25, 1966. It would take another 12 years before the first Black member was admitted. Luther Carr (1937?-2014), a professional athlete who went on to establish a successful Northwest construction company, is generally credited as being the first Black to gain membership, joining the club on July 25, 1978, although a history of Seattle's private clubs stated that "the first black man asked to join was Andy Smith, president of Pacific Bell" (Private Clubs of Seattle, 66).

Carr's acceptance "required an amendment to club bylaws, which had permitted any 10 members to bar a nominated person from becoming a member. When Carr was first nominated, 10 members acted on their racial prejudice and protested his membership. Thus, in accordance with bylaws, he was automatically blackballed. The Board of Trustees issued a stinging rebuke, and asked the membership to amend the bylaws" ("Rainier Club, Seattle's Preeminent Private Club, Admits ..."). The second vote was unanimous: Carr was allowed to join. The oldest of nine children from Tacoma, Luther Carr was a gifted all-around athlete at Tacoma's Lincoln High School and played football at the University of Washington. He was drafted into the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers in 1959. The following year, he joined the AFL's Oakland Raiders before a spinal injury cut short his career.

A month after Carr was admitted, federal judge Betty Binns Fletcher (1923-2012) became the first female member, admitted on August 22, 1978. Fletcher, whose father was also a lawyer, grew up in Tacoma. She attended Stanford University, married Robert L. Fletcher, a law professor at the University of Washington, and had four children. She later became a federal appeals court judge and spent 33 years on the bench, writing about 700 opinions, including one concerning discrimination against women who worked for the transportation department in Santa Clara County, California. It was "one of the first judicial approvals of affirmative action for women. The United States Supreme Court affirmed Judge Fletcher's opinion in 1987" (Martin). In addition to being the first woman admitted to the Rainier Club, she was also the first woman to head the Seattle-King County Bar Association. By 1988, some 40 of the club's 1,200 resident members were women.

Into the Future

The Rainier Club was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated a historic landmark in 1986 by Seattle's Historic Preservation Office. It houses one of the largest private collections of works by photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis, a Rainier Club member from 1903-1921. Other artworks decorating the club include works by Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, George Tsutakawa, and glass artists Lino Tagliapietra and Dale Chihuly.

After nearly 135 years in existence, the club faces many challenges as it struggles to remain current. "The Rainier Club is stately, but in need of a décor renovation to keep it feeling fresh and modern. Club members skew older, but with a decided campaign to bring in younger faces. The feel is old world luxury but make it Seattle casual. The club has rules about dress and where cell phones are allowed, but it's a welcoming, friendly space" (PNW Living blog).

Journalist Knute Berger, who received a two-year Rainier Club fellowship in 2018, chose four words to describe the club's ambience: "tradition, power, privilege and solidarity." Berger noted that his grandfather, "an inventor of logging and marine hauling equipment, was a member back in the 1940s ... Back in the day, women like my grandmother could not join but only visit through a side entrance. Fortunately, membership no longer works under the constraints of race, gender and national origin that the club once used" (Berger).   

In 2019, female membership at the Rainier Club was about 49 percent of the total. Michael Troyer, who had worked at the club since 1984 and served as its CEO from 1990 to 2019, recalled some of his most memorable moments in a 2019 interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal. Among them were "when former Seattle Symphony Maestro Gerard Schwarz asked the late Jack Benaroya to invest in a downtown home for the symphony; the Seattle Mariners and Seattle Seahawks being sold; [and] an APEC press conference in 1993 with President Bill Clinton" (Payne). Troyer noted changes that occurred during his tenure, including, "the end of social drinking at lunch, a health club being built in 1991 and a relaxation of the dress code ... diversity is increasing as well" (Payne).

In a further nod to changing times, Troyer was succeeded in 2019 by Josie Henderson, the club's first woman CEO. Upon taking up her new duties, Henderson, former vice president of strategic partnerships and development at Portland Business Alliance, pledged to "expand and diversify our membership and the extraordinary experiences we offer members. I will also ensure that the Club moves forward in a way that embraces our future while honoring our past" ("The Rainier Club Appoints ..."). 


Celeste Louise Smith and Julie D. Pheasant-Albright, Private Clubs of Seattle (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2009); Walt Crowley, The Rainier Club (Seattle: Frayn Printing, 1988); "Kirtland K. Cutter (1860-1939), Spokane City/County Historic Preservation Office website accessed April 1, 2022 (https://www.historicspokane.org/projects/spokane-architects/kirtland-k-cutter/); "Karl G. Malgren (1862-1921)," Spokane City/County Historic Preservation Office website accessed April 1, 2022 (https://www.historicspokane.org/projects/spokane-architects/karl-g-malmgren); Knute Berger, "Rainier Club: Where Influence Runneth Over – But Not By Everyone," Crosscut, December 7, 2018 (https://crosscut.com/2018/12/rainier-club-where-influence-runneth-over-not-everyone); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Rainier Club, Seattle's Preeminent Private Club, Admits First African American and First Woman in 1978" (by Priscilla Long); "Gentlemen Meet to Organize Seattle's Rainier Club on February 23, 1888" (by Priscilla Long); "Rainier Club" (by Walt Crowley) http://www.historylink.org accessed April 10, 2022; Douglas Martin, "Betty Binns Fletcher Dies at 89; Liberal Stalwart on the Bench," The New York Times, October 24, 2012 (www.nytimes.com); "Mayor's Order to Clubs Causes Furore," The Seattle Times, November 10, 1909, p. 1; "$1,000,000 Structure to Occupy Half Block," The Seattle Times, April 25, 1928, p. 1; Sherry Grindeland, "Top Clubs Get Inclusive: Seattle's Exclusive Clubs Try to Boost Waning Memberships," The Seattle Times, March 26, 2002 (www.seattletimes.com); Adam Jude, "Luther Carr Jr. Made Name at UW in Football and Track," The Seattle Times, July 10, 2014 (www.seattletimes.com); Paul Dorpat, "The Rainier Club & the Burnett Home," Seattle Now & Then blog, December 29, 2012, website accessed April 1, 2022 (https://pauldorpat.com/2012/12/29/seattle-now-then-the-rainier-club-the-burnett-home/); Mathew Powers, "The Rainier Club," "Clio: Your Guide to History" audio tour, March 10, 2017, website accessed April 3, 2022 (https://theclio.com/tour/192/4); "The Rainier Club – A Review of Seattle's Elite Private Club," PNWLiving blog, August 8, 2020 (https://pnwliving.com/2020/08/08/the-rainier-club-a-review-of-seattles-elite-private-club/); Patti Payne, "Outgoing Rainier Club CEO Looks Back on Three Decades at the Helm," Puget Sound Business Journal, August 30, 2019, accessed April 1, 2022 (https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2019/08/30/outgoing-rainier-club-ceo-looks-back-on-three.html); "The Rainier Club Appoints Josie Henderson CEO," news release, The Rainier Club, October 2019 (https://www.therainierclub.com/files/Press_Release_Josie_Henderson_CEO_Rainier_Club.pdf); "The Rainier Club" website, www.therainierclub.com.

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