There was a time some years back when luncheon guests at the Alta Club would look at all the empty tables in the main dining room and wonder if Salt Lake's answer to the fabled men's clubs of London, New York and San Francisco would survive into the 21st century.

The problem wasn't that the club was old, funky and smelled of cigars smoked back when William McKinley was president of the United States and the world was preparing to ring in the 20th century. All that was (and is) a big part of its charm as far as the members are concerned.

The real snag was competition. Private clubs, once a perk of the elite, were popping up all over the city, where for five bucks one could (and can) become an instant member and order a scotch and soda without having to bring in one's own scotch discreetly hidden in a brown paper bag.

Most young people went that route, and the median age of Alta Club members crept inexorably upward.

But while many of the upstart clubs have come and gone, the venerable bastion on the southeast corner of South Temple and State is still there and can even brag of new blood. Some younger folks have figured out that when it comes to a nest for networking, more deals have been cut in the Alta Club than all the other local private clubs combined.

"The Alta Club is alive and well," calmly assures William M. Shorter, general manager for the past six years.

As proof of their faith in the future, club leaders and the 700 members have raised $4 million for a yearlong renovation project to bring the 103-year-old structure up to current fire and safety codes and Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, improve its ability to withstand an earthquake, replace the heating and cooling equipment and clean (not sandblast) its gray stone exterior.

And perhaps most importantly, the 20 sleeping rooms on the third floor — closed since the 1950s because they didn't meet fire codes for overnight accommodations — will be renovated, and the "vacancy" sign hung out once more (figuratively, not literally).

While the work is being done there will obviously be some inconvenience for members, but there are no plans to close the club, said Shorter, at least not for more than a week or two.

If the room renovations are completed by next February, they will house a portion of the French delegation to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, although other areas of the club will become the French team's HQ even if the rooms aren't ready.

"It will be cleaned up and made safer, but that's all," stressed Shorter. "It won't look different. The exterior will be cleaned, pointed (window grouting repaired) and the trim painted, but that's all."

Same goes for the interior, he said. "There will be no visible changes on the inside. All the wood and charm of the building will remain. It's a renovation, not a remodel."

Get the picture? Tamper with the ambience of the Alta Club at your peril. Founding president W.S. McCormick and the many who followed him just might come back to haunt you.

The Alta Club was first formally proposed in 1881 and moved into its current location in 1898, but its roots may go back further than that. Its founders were non-Mormons, mostly involved in the mining industry, and it is believed the name derived from the various mines around Alta at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, an area long since given over to ski resorts.

According to a history of the club written in 1976 by by O.N. Malmquist, the late political editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, the "Gentiles" who founded this "social club" assumed it would exclude members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not so much because it was basically a smoking and drinking establishment but because of the politics of the time.

But that didn't happen. "It was not long until several prominent men of the Mormon business community did join, and thereafter it functioned as a mixed Gentile-Mormon organization," wrote Malmquist. And that remains true today.

Women were a different matter. Not only could women not be members, they had to enter by a side door on State Street, not the main entrance on South Temple.

All that changed in 1987. Following a successful anti-discrimination lawsuit, a lot of late-night meetings by the ruling members and the threat of losing its alcoholic beverage license, Deedee Corradini, then a Chamber of Commerce executive and later mayor of Salt Lake City; Genevieve Atwood, Utah State Geologist; and Annette P. Cumming, a prominent Democrat and philanthropist, became the first female members.

Today there are about 40 women members, and the brass plaque on the side door that once read "Ladies and Guests Entrance" now reads simply "Guest Entrance."

The list of 700 total members is a bit deceiving. It includes widows, junior members and members who live out of state. The "resident" members, Salt Lakers who use the club with some regularity, total about 430. And, yes, the club is taking new membership applications, but Shorter says when the list of regulars hits 450 there will likely be a waiting list.

Membership prices and monthly dues? They don't like to talk about those publicly. If you want to join, you'll have to ask them yourself.


E-MAIL: max@desnews.com