At 90, the current Pendennis Club is true to its original furnishings and style, including elegant wedding facilities. Except the phone booths no longer have phones.
By Steve Kaufman
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
There’s often a moment in British and American films of the 1930s and 40s when an angry husband packs his bags, tears out of his Fifth Avenue duplex or Kensington townhouse and announces that he’s “going to the club.”
One wondered just what an exclusive and sophisticated place this “club” must be.
In Louisville, we have such a club. In fact, we’ve had it for 137 years. It’s the Pendennis Club, started in 1881 and located at Second Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard since 1928. While today many honor it for its food and beverage heritage – which includes the original Henry Bain’s sauce and the Old-Fashioned cocktail – it’s still a place of Victorian elegance. It’s still the men’s club of Leslie Howard/Cary Grant Depression-era sophistication.
Only those were movie sets. This is the real thing.
The wood paneling, leather chairs and walls of books in the club’s library.
The comfortable, well-appointed dining room. The squash courts and a men’s locker room that’s right out of the past. The old paintings, the classical woodwork on walls and floors – dimpled and whorled walls, herringbone patterns, teak floors with wood pegs and wide planks, hand-carved tables and chairs. Paintings, lamps, light fixtures, historic wallpaper. All the old fireplaces still work. So do the pianos.
The Wedding Site
All of these facets make the Pendennis an outstanding wedding venue. “Weddings are the most popular function here,” said chef and general manager Jim Gerhardt (Limestone, The Oakroom at the Seelbach). “We do several dozen a year.”
Like nearly all things at the Pendennis, a member must either be involved in the wedding or sponsor it. But Gerhardt also sees weddings as an opportunity to broaden the club’s membership.
“If a non-member is thinking of holding a wedding here,” he said, “we encourage a tour of the facilities. When people see this place, it lends itself to membership. People will often join our club just so their daughters can be married here.”
The wedding charges are slightly lower for members than for non-members. But there are other benefits to membership, Gerhardt points out. “It’s a great place for entertaining clients and customers or holding company meetings. Plus, if you work downtown, a lunch here is about half the price of lunch at some of the downtown restaurants. And there are no reservations required, no lines or waiting and you can have your pick of venues, from the large Grill Room to a smaller, more-private room.
The wedding facility is soup-to-nuts, starting with a private, multi-vanity dressing room – and attached bathroom – for the bride and her bridesmaids.
“The reception starts on the first floor, usually with string music and passed hors d’oeuvres. Then, we ring the chimes, and dinner is served on the second floor. After dinner, a band is set up in the third-floor Grand Ballroom with an adjoining full-service bar and smaller ante-rooms with couches for sitting, relaxing and conversing.”
He said the club has handled weddings as large as 300 to 350 guests.
Many groomsmen’s dinners have been held there as well.
The building’s large patio on the west side of the property is a bride’s favorite for wedding photos, especially when the double doors are open and the crystal chandelier in the foyer becomes background eye-candy.
The Pendennis Club was started in 1881 by 19 local business, professional and political leaders, in a rented space over a grocery store at Fourth and Walnut (the present site of the Seelbach Hotel). The name was borrowed from Arthur Pendennis, a character in an 1850 Thackeray novel (described as “a paradigm club man”).
The character’s crest, described in the novel, was also borrowed and the motto nec tenui penna (“with unfallen wings”) was adopted.
The first permanent home was the residence of William Burke Belknap at 332 W. Walnut St. It opened on Aug. 1, 1883, the same day President Chester Arthur was in town to open the Southern Exposition. That evening, the president and cabinet members, including Robert Todd Lincoln, were guests at the club for dinner.
In 1891, Frederick Law Olmsted presented his vision of a Louisville park system to various civic leaders over dinner at the Pendennis.
The Club House
The club moved a block east in 1928, constructing a $1 million, 80,000-square-foot Georgian Revival mansion at its current location, designed by the architecture firm Nevin, Wischmeyer & Morgan. Then-club president Owsley Brown spearheaded the endeavor.
“It was one of the first fireproof buildings in the country,” said Gerhardt, thanks to a U.S. Gypsum product called Pyrobar set between the walls. “The material could withstand an acetylene torch for five minutes and still be cool to the touch.”
The Pendennis website refers to contemporaneous accounts of “the entry and lobby, with its black and white marble floor, a meticulous reproduction of parts of the American wing in the Metropolitan Museum. The Billiard Room is of natural walnut and, with the Grill Room, has a teak wood floor. The latter room contains pillars and pilasters made of black Belgian marble.”
The only things missing are the sleeping rooms, similar to those that drew William Powell and Fred Astaire as a refuge from the movies’ domestic tensions, but Gerhardt has plans for that.
“I’d like to get five or six sleeping rooms,” he said. “We’re a nationally-registered historic building, one of the oldest clubs in the country. Every other tier-one city has a great centrally-located club with sleeping rooms. If we want to set up a reciprocal agreement with, say, The Cornell Club in New York or the Olympian in San Francisco, they’ll ask for a list of amenities, and they always ask, ‘Do you have sleeping rooms?’ Without those, we can’t get a complete reciprocal agreement.”
It’s a big benefit to the members, he said. “The average hotel room in San Francisco runs $425 a night. A room at the Olympian would cost our members $175 if we had that reciprocity.”
Keep the Old, Add the New
Gerhardt joined the Pendennis full-time three years ago. Part of his job is to hold onto the tradition, which he’s done by having some dinged-up furniture recovered and restored and making renovations in upstairs rooms and hallways. But another part of the job is making sure the club is still relevant as a whole new generation of men and women makes its lifestyle decisions.
A tour of the club with Gerhardt shows changes he’s made and changes he plans to make, like adding high-speed internet and Wi-Fi; putting in a second squash court, one that’s internationally sanctioned; better organizing the food service areas; and upgrading the menu. He’d also like to turn all of the old, non-functioning phone booths into something useful, like charging stations and quiet places to make cell phone calls.
“This is intended as a quiet place for members,” said Gerhardt, “not a din of public phone conversations.”
There are more than pillars and pilasters as vestiges of the Pendennis Club’s history. In the early 1950s, a 16-year-old high school student named John Johnson earned a job as a dishwasher in the evenings. Johnson proved himself enterprising and capable, and worked his way into the restaurant as a summertime busboy, then head busboy, then dining-room waiter, then private-room and banquet waiter, then captain, then head waiter. Eventually, Johnson completed his meteoric career rise by becoming general manager of the club.
“It became my home away from home,” he said. Then, reflecting on the hours he had to put in, he smiled and said, “Actually, it was more like my main home.”
After becoming director of membership relations, he decided to retire. Nonetheless, at 82, he’s still a regular presence in the club, running the monthly Travelogue, a presentation of various international travel destinations. It began with eight-millimeter film; today it’s all digital.
“They created this position for me,” Johnson said. “They didn’t want me to retire.”
Fight Night at the Club
Johnson’s brother, Jerry, was an amateur boxer, another part of the Pendennis’ history. Periodically, they set up a boxing ring in the ballroom and hold sanctioned fights. Muhammad Ali, when he was still a teenaged Cassius Clay and an Olympic gold medal contender, fought here as an amateur and as a professional.
“Several of his original (backers) were members here,” Gerhardt said.
Baffert’s Lucky Space
A few years ago, Gerhardt related, one of the members had an ownership stake in a horse being trained by Bob Baffert.
“NBC Sports wanted to do an interview, and the local horse community recommended doing it at The Pendennis,” he said. “That horse was American Pharoah, and Baffert now calls the club ‘my lucky place.’ Baffert has become a familiar Pendennis Club presence during Derby week, and that draws a lot of attention.”
Bain’s Sauce and the Old Fashioned
There’s a somewhat murky origin of the Old Fashioned cocktail – Angostura bitters, muddled cherries and orange slices, simple syrup, a splash of water and bourbon with a lemon twist around the edge – but Pendennis members maintain that it was started in the club’s bar in the 1930s.
The term “old-fashioned cocktail” was a 19th-century quest for the more-simple mixed drinks that were then being overtaken by increasingly elaborate concoctions. But the “Old Fashioned” as a famed cocktail was started here, insisted member and unofficial club historian William Carrell II. “The single biggest piece of evidence comes from a 1931 book, ‘Old Waldorf Bar Days,’ which maintains that what distinguishes the Pendennis Old Fashioned from others is its use of bourbon.”
Besides, said Carrell, “There’s a lack of any evidence suggesting anyone else created this drink. There’s no Old Fashioned recipe that pre-dates the club.”
There’s no disputing the original Henry Bain’s Sauce (though it has been bootlegged and produced off-recipe over the years).
“Henry Bain started here (in 1884) as the elevator operator, then became head waiter, and he would make that meat condiment for diners,” said Johnson. “But he had trouble patenting it because of some of the already-trademarked ingredients, like A-1 Sauce, opening the door for imitators.”
The club now owns the sauce’s trademark.
It’s all part of the 137-year tradition. VT
The Pendennis Club
218 Muhammad Ali Blvd.