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Only memories remain of great University Club

It was, in its heyday, a place away from home for the educated elite of a bustling city.

It had dining rooms, a lounge area with an elongated bar, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, four squash courts, rooms for overnight stays and a walled-in outdoor patio for dining when weather permitted. And to recognize its origins and purpose, each dining room had a fireplace with the name of an Ivy League school etched into the mantle.

It was Buffalo's University Club, built in 1905 at Delaware Avenue and Allen Street to serve the social and recreational needs of businessmen, lawyers and doctors. Today, the last remnants of the past have disappeared, ended, death-knell-like, as the clock struck midnight to usher in 2011.

The demise of the University Club mirrors the changes that have befallen its host city in the 105 years since the cornerstone was laid. For nearly 70 years, only men with college degrees were allowed to join. It was one of a network of University Clubs formed in metropolitan areas to nourish the minds and bodies of members.

Changes began as Buffalo lost its stature, as Fortune 500 companies moved away, as local retailers found themselves in a losing fight with national chains and as the number of college-educated prospective members dwindled.

In 1974, the club was ravaged by a devastating fire that rendered much of the building unusable. Gone were the upper-floor guest rooms and the lounge. Heavily damaged were the second-floor dining rooms. What remained were the squash courts, locker rooms and swimming pool housed in an annex to the main structure.

The University Club was at a crossroads, and the remaining members decided to reinvent it. Squash was considered an elitist sport, and racquetball was a growing one, so the members decided to build two racquetball courts in hopes of attracting new -- and younger -- members. It worked; membership exploded, women were admitted and anybody who inquired about joining wasn't asked about a college education.

Now lawyers, doctors and businessmen mingled with blue-collar workers and college students of both sexes. The modified lounge and dining rooms served from a modified kitchen bustled with activity for more than a decade.

It allowed those who didn't have the means to sample, in some small measure, what the well-to-do of a generation before had experienced. It was still a private club, but most members preferred to describe it as a "YMCA with towels." It fostered friendships, alliances, business deals and memories of athletic competitions, social gatherings and special events.

But it didn't last. As the city's population deteriorated, membership declined. The main structure, never restored from the 1974 fire, was sold to a developer and now calls itself the Bellasara, an upscale apartment complex.

The remaining members hunkered down in the annex, but then, 12 years ago, sold that to investors who kept the racquetball and squash courts, but covered the swimming pool and converted the floor space into a fitness center. The annex was now called Allentown Athletix. The University Club had become a club with no portfolio, a club in name only.

As 2010 came to a close, Allentown Athletix sold the annex to the owners of the Bellasara, paving the way for more apartments.

Perhaps that's a fitting end to an elite club that failed under the duress of a shrinking populace. The building no longer houses the sweat of racket sports, the laughter and tears of friends or the pleasure of a fine meal. But it will always house the memories.

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Lee Coppola is dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism at St. Bonaventure University.

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