Williams Club of New York makes appeal to new members

As of 2010, the Williams Club shares its Manhattan residence with the Columbia Club of New York and the Princeton Club of New York. Photo courtesy of the Williams Club.

In the back corner of the simply-named “Bar & Grill,” a waiter in an orange and black tie set my order on a table The room was replete with oversized canvas paintings of Lake Carnegie in Princeton, NJ. With only a few moments to come up with my initial impressions of my meal, I found a hand immediately reaching for my side dish. “You don’t mind if I snag of couple of these, do you Jack?” my dining companion inquired without reservation as he “relocated” some fries across the table.

I would come to understand this innocuous moment as one of the many “points of resonance” Dale Riehl ’72, director of the Williams Club of New York, constructs as he attempts to burnish the Club’s identity as “a Williams home-away-from-home in our nation’s arts, culture, media and financial capital for alumni, undergraduates and faculty.”

This summer, Riehl came into his new post after about two decades of owning and operating The City Quilter, a quilt shop which offered quilting classes, and was both a member of the Club and part of its governance prior to becoming director. He immediately assigned himself a somewhat daunting task: keeping the Club’s membership up in a time where millennials and Generation Xers increasingly view private clubs as too “elitist” for their liking and the Club feels disconnected from the College. “I don’t believe much of the student body, let alone the faculty, really knows much about us and, consequently, our relevance,” Riehl said.

The circumstances surrounding the Club’s location and existence over the past seven years amplify this challenge. Up until 2010, the Club operated out of its own facility on East 39th Street. Budget issues and the haphazard state of the clubhouse, however, prompted newly-minted President of the College Adam Falk, on the advice of the Board of Trustees, to order the sale of the Club’s existing location. Nowadays, the Club, along with the Columbia Club of New York, is technically hosted by the Princeton Club of New York, a nine-story clubhouse that, like the old Williams Club, resides in midtown Manhattan.

With portraits of distinguished Princeton alumni hanging from the walls, a formal dining hall named after Pres. Woodrow Wilson (who additionally served as president of Princeton) and the “Tiger” themed food offerings available in the dining facilities, navigating through the clubhouse felt, at times, like venturing into a stranger’s territory, especially upon noticing that the Williams Club membership card features a link to the Princeton Club’s website rather than williamsclub.org.

Riehl, for all of the work that he does to sell the amenities of the Club to prospective members – he discusses the Club’s squash courts, room rates and member’s lounge with the adroitness of a seasoned salesman – and to create programming to keep people stopping by, acknowledges the challenges of operating under the Princeton mantle. However, he insists that members of the Williams Club still belong at the new location. “I hasten to add that it is a meritocracy, and thus Princeton grads, Williams grads … [and other members] are all treated the same,” Riehl said.

Moreover, Riehl seeks to make the Club as much a “Williams” environment as he can. This is where the aforementioned “points of resonance” emerge as a key mark of Riehl’s tenure thus far. The new director proudly boasts of all of the symbols of the College at the Club that offer members a connection back to the Purple Valley. “With Williams’ flag out front, name at the entrance, one of our [NACDA Director’s] Cups on display, a President [James] Garfield [Class of 1856] lithograph, a copy of the Record … next to [the New York Times and the Daily Princetonian] in the useful Members’ Lounge [and] more points of [Williams] reference to come, the Club is a unique place of Williams resonance in New York City,” Riehl said.

He made sure to add that he is planning a trip back up to Williamstown soon to pick up what will be the latest point of resonance for the Club: a painting undergoing restoration by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. “This oil is a rather marvelous depiction of Griffin [Hall], with supporting roles played by the [Thompson Memorial] Chapel, Hopkins [Hall] and the [First Congregational] Church,” Riehl said. “I intend to get that very … recognizable work hung in a reasonably prominent Club location.”

Between the lithographs, Director’s Cup and not-so-subtle attempts at fry thievery, Riehl has come to create a sense of community amongst the Ephs who belong to the Club. In his new role, he takes all that he has come to understand about the College as a student and an alumnus with him. “I was a Williams Club trustee for over 15 years and served two separate terms as a Gaudino Fund trustee. The latter role at Williams afforded me wonderful opportunities over the course of 14 years to learn a great deal about faculty, programs and students. The insights and knowledge I gained are helping me enormously.” Insofar as Riehl is concerned, the work continues towards making fry stealing feel as casual in the Club’s Bar & Grill as it would be at snack bar.