Cincinnati Athletic Club: From 1853 to the Present

June 25th, 2016  |  Published in June 2016

“It adds years to your life and life to your years,” is one of the mottos of the Cincinnati Athletic Club, according to Mike Gehrig, recently retired trial lawyer, who has attended the club since age seven when he accompanied his father John.  During both of their tenures at the CAC, they enjoyed the camaraderie and the friendships he developed through the club and equally enjoyed the athletic facilities.

A group of men founded the Young Men’s Gymnastic Association (YMGA) in 1853.  The club pursued a goal:  to bring the benefits of exercise to the busy businessmen of Cincinnati, according to professor Jonathan Dembo in The History of The Cincinnati Athletic Club 1853 – 1976.  There were no sports teams in high school or college in the mid-nineteenth century.

In their mid-twenties, Samuel Carey, a bookkeeper at the soap and candle manufacturing firm Gross and Dietrich & Col; B. Green Neville, a clerk at the Cincinnati Insurance Company and Thomas Howell, a clerk at the wholesale grocery firm of J. A. Dugan & Co.  After considering a number of locations, they obtained a lease of two large halls in the Apollo Building on the corner of Fifth and Walnut Streets.  In 1853 a membership drive attracted approximately one hundred men who paid a $1 initiation fee and $5 annual dues.  Members found a climbing rope and parallel bars – just a start.  Then the club added balance beams, parallel bars of various heights and lengths, chin-up bars and a modern pommel horse.

Hiram Powers, Jr., a Woodward graduate and son of a famous Cincinnati sculptor, won the election to become the first club president.  Judge A. B. Huston, president from 1855-56, campaigned to increase membership from 300.  He also instituted a sponsorship system in which prospective members needed two sponsors from the club.

YMGA became more organized with the addition of an organizational structure by the late 1850’s.  Rutherford B. Hayes, future president of the United States, became president of the club from 1860-61.  Since the membership had grown to over 500, the club acquired a ten-year lease for the fourth and fifth stories of the Commercial Building at Fourth and Race Streets.  Members enjoyed a larger gymnasium and increased locker space.

With 800 members, the club looked again to expand.  It found space in the St. Lawrence Building, on Fourth St. between Vine and Race Streets.  The building offered improved bathing and toilet facilities as well as a second floor gymnasium.

Edwin Murphy was hired as the superintendent of the YMGA in November 1877.  Because of the economic depression, there was a reduction of membership to 553 and a debt of almost $4,000.  Murphy went about recruiting more members, gradually bringing 200 more men into the club.

At the turn of the century, the club changed its name to the Cincinnati Gymnasium and Athletic Club.  It was also struck by disaster.  A fire decimated CGAC, which had moved to the Grand Opera House, at Longworth and Vine.  The club set out to find new quarters:  it found land at 111 Shillito Place, where construction began.  A cornerstone ceremony was held on Saturday, April 26, 1902.

The club attracted men of note throughout the city.  In addition to Hayes, President James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States and CAC Member, Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States, and William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States, were club members.  Other notable names in Cincinnati history include Charles Scripps, John Sawyer and Mayor Charlie Luken.

In 1916, Julius Fleischmann, who had lost a son in World War I and whose brother who had been wounded, donated a bronze tablet, still hanging in the front hall, memorializing club members who served in the war.  Names such as Barney Kroger, Charles Sawyer and Ira Emery appear there.

The club struggled with membership and finances continually.  However, one bright light was a boxing exhibition, which the club continues to offer today.

During the depression of 1929-1940, the club faltered.  Members resigned for financial reasons. Layoffs occurred.  By 1941, CGAC was running in red ink.  As with other organizations, there were standards for behavior, members who were counseled or reprimanded.  Staff and directors changed regularly.

In the period 1977-1994, the club operated in the black.  According to Dembo, the club has been slow to change.  By 1986, the club established reciprocal membership arrangements with other athletic clubs in other cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Seattle.

Dembo said that the gym amended its General Code of Regulations to permit minorities to join the organization in 1977.  The prospect of admitting women has been discussed since before the 20th century, however, according to current executive director Patrick Lindsay, there is not enough space in the building to accommodate women’s facilities.

The US National Register of Historic Places named the four-story Second Renaissance Revival building to its list in 1983.  Built of brick with stone and metal elements, the building has arched windows, rusticated stone courses and a molded balustrade.  Members raised $300,000 to build the structure.  Local historian Walter Langsam, Jr. said the building is an excellent example of the Beaux Arts Classical style (check this) with refinement of detail.  The architects used different materials, i.e., brick, stone and tile.  With the delicacy of ornaments, the club aspires to be an example of good taste, according to Langsam.

It is the nation’s oldest all male club, according to Gehrig.  Current amenities include a 20’ yard indoor heated swimming pool five lanes wide, wood floor basketball court, racquet ball court, personal training, track, whirlpool, sauna and nautilus.  In addition, there are massage and acupressure services, a whirlpool, tanning bed and club lounge.  Breakfast and lunch are served.  Meeting rooms are available.  There is even a Museum of Athletics as part of the club with artifacts from the turn of the century.

Long-time member Gehrig said, “I use it daily,” often coming in early in the morning.  He thought the exercise benefitted him as a trial lawyer in competition in the court room.  “You’re stronger than the average person, even at age 69,” said Gehrig.  He still enjoys the friendly environment in a mostly male environment.

Originally working in corporate America as well as a volunteer on nonprofit boards, Patrick Lindsay returned from California to become CAC’s executive director in 2011 in addition to serving as an instructor of marketing at Miami University.

This private, fraternal organization 501© (8) attracts business executives, accountants, physicians, lawyers, but also small business owners and entrepreneurs ages from 21 to 93.  Three members are in their ‘90’s, a dozen in their 80’s, with 50 – 70 members in their 60’s and 70’s.  Working professionals in their 30’s – 40’s – 50’s have joined the ranks.  Lindsay said the club intends to provide a different level of camaraderie with people who might not ordinarily meet each other.  The club provides a respite from the working world with its workout facilities and individual offices.

Other activities include a restaurant night with a well-known chef, happy hours every Friday night, card nights, movie nights, roaring twenties night.  A highlight is a high school pre-season event where top coaches speak.  But, the biggest event is a boxing night where Lindsay brings in boxers and provides a fight along with a dinner for members.

In spite of its ups and downs, CAC continues to survive and operates on a break-even basis as a  non-profit, according to Lindsay.  He is grooming young assistant managers and recruiting new members.  The stock market crash in 2008 caused a loss of members.  From 2008 to 2011 was a difficult time for the club.

At the end of his career, Lindsay wanted to enjoy a job that challenged him, but also where he could make a difference.  He has had discussions with the board about staffing, outsourcing, membership, finances, and facilities.

The board and Lindsay began to draw up renovation plans with renderings and blueprints.   The club unblocked the front windows, added work cubes and a new fitness center, renovated the locker room.

But, one can’t help but notice the history from the moment you enter the building.  The workmanship includes vaulted ceilings and Italian handmade tile on the floor.  In addition to being on the National Historical Register, the club was named a Cincinnati Historical Building on February 17, 1983.

Lindsay said the membership is slowly coming back.  New flooring, new lights plus a yoga studio upstairs with a women’s locker room is available.  CAC has partnered with Move Your Hyde Power Yoga to offer classes.  Business/social memberships are available to women and professional groups to utilize the renovated facilities on the first floor.

CAC is the oldest continuously operating Athletic Club in the United States.  Full member price for 2016 is $1,895 plus tax.  Lower rates for approved junior members are $855/year 21-29 and $1,495/year 30 – 38.  There is a $500 initiation fee waived if the year is paid in full in advance.

Cincinnati Athletic Club

111 Shillito Place

Cincinnati, Ohio  45202   241-0096

–Laura A. Hobson

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