Closing of University Club leaves holes in hearts, lives

Closing of University Club leaves holes in hearts, lives
The University Club offered a bird’s-eye view of Friendship Fountain and the St. Johns River.
James Citrano

James Citrano

The closing of the University Club in December left a big vacancy at the top of Riverplace Tower in San Marco but an even bigger hole in the
lives of its members.

Back in 1976 when Jim Citrano joined, having a membership in the University Club was a status symbol. Its Old World décor, skyline views and central location made it a great place to do business or socialize.

Some people preferred the River Club atop what was then the Independent Life building. But the University Club was always more progressive, welcoming a more diverse membership, Citrano said.

“The club itself had a character that was unique. I had never seen anything as friendly,” Citrano said. “Managers would come and go but everyone had the same warm attitude toward members that I haven’t seen reflected in any other club. It’s a shame to see it close.”

The owner, Dallas-based ClubCorp Group, announced in September it was making a business decision to close the club on Dec. 20. It had occupied the top two floors of the riverfront office building for 48 years, and the lease was expiring.

During his 40 years as a member of the club, Citrano served on the board and was chairman several times. He has seen a lot of changes.

There was a dress code – no jeans on men or pants on women. Citrano remembers entertaining a California developer who arrived at the club in expensive designer jeans. Noticing the faux pas, the manager pulled Citrano aside and quietly said, “Don’t do that again.”

The men-only fitness center on the 28th floor drew complaints from women, but the club couldn’t figure out how to provide additional bathroom facilities.

Finally, in the early 1990s, after Gate Riverplace bought the building, a second fitness center that admitted women was opened on the first floor.

An Old World ambience prevailed at the University Club.

An Old World ambience prevailed at the University Club.

As vice president of Gate Riverplace, Citrano had his office in the building for years, worked out regularly in the gym and was especially fond of the Caesar salad that maitre’d Betty Luna made at the table.

“Betty Luna was an icon,” Citrano said. “She was there for years and was a wonderful human being.”

Even though the club’s recipe for the Caesar salad was secret, Betty slipped Citrano the recipe, which the family still enjoys.

For the Citrano family, the University Club was the scene of all the family’s major events – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and his daughter’s wedding.

“It felt like home. I am totally sad, as are my kids,” Citrano said. “I wish someone would take it over. I wouldn’t join another club but I would rejoin the University Club.”

Michael Balanky, CEO of Chase Properties, was a member for almost a decade and served as chairman several times.

Balanky lives and works across the street in San Marco Place and enjoyed the convenience of a club that served breakfast, lunch and dinner and had two fitness centers.

“The staff is what made the place special,” Balanky said. “Several of them had been there for decades, which is unheard of, especially in the restaurant industry.”

The club named its cocktail lounge MeLS Pub in honor of three of its longtime employees – Margaret Atter, Liza Flowers and James “Slim” Allen. 

The lounge, with digital TVs and a popular jukebox, had a more informal atmosphere than the Oxford Room, and appealed to younger members.

The club hosted a number of activities – membership mixers, birthday celebrations, wine tastings, business forums, fundraisers, murder mystery nights, even speed dating.

Georgianna Pionessa remembers the club as a great place to go dancing with her husband A.J., who was the 21st person to join the club when it opened in 1968.

“My husband put up the scaffolding for the elevator shafts when they were building the Gulf Life Tower,” she said. “The club was looking for members and he had the chance to get a lifetime membership for $1,500 and he took it. We celebrated our 25th anniversary there and it was fabulous.

“It was a classy place. We took a lot of special people there. And on the Fourth of July it was the best place to watch the fireworks,” she said.

Jerry Rosenberg, co-owner of The Metro nightclub in 5 Points, remembers going to the club as a child with his parents and joined in 1993.

While serving on the membership committee, Rosenberg persuaded Engelbert Humperdinck to join, though the British pop star only visited the club once.

And then there was the special evening with soap opera star Ruth Warrick, his godmother, who shared memories from debuting in “Citizen Kane” and her years in “All of My Children.”

Another perk of membership was the travel club, and Rosenberg organized a number of trips – skiing in Austria and Switzerland, a Caribbean cruise and Christmas shopping in New York City.

“The club has been a big part of my social life for 23 years,” Rosenberg said. “It has been so much of a home where I was always welcomed and greeted by name and always had a table.”

So it’s no surprise that Rosenberg wanted a memento. When the furnishings and equipment were auctioned off last month, Rosenberg bought a table and some light fixtures.

“It was heart breaking. They were selling everything – the columns, the wood beams, the blinds, the Oriental carpets, the leaded glass. They were selling down to the studs.”

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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