By Maria Saporta
Friday, Oct. 15. The end of an era.
That’s the day when the Commerce Club served its last meal in its historic building at 34 Broad St. The lunch room was packed as many of the Commerce Club’s most loyal patrons paid homage to the place where Atlanta history was made.
The Lane Room on the 16th floor was so busy that the buffet tables had to be moved out in the lobby area.
Pete McTier, retired president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, was sitting in the upper area having lunch with his wife. Bill Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition, was in the lower area having lunch with his wife.
There was Pat Upshaw-Monteith, president of Leadership Atlanta, have lunch with a dozen of her closest friends sitting around a large round table. Mike Cassidy, president of the Georgia Research Alliance, was sitting at my favorite table — the governor’s table. That was the table where Gov. Zell Miller would sit on nearly a weekly basis when he was in office.
Georgia State University’s Ken Bernhardt was dining with colleagues in the alcove.
Former Atlanta Constitution Editorial Page Editor Hal Gulliver, a long time regular, sat upstairs.
Lunch was so busy that people had to make reservations. Noon was booked; 12:30 was booked. So I made a reservation for 1 p.m. for me and Lauri Strauss, executive director of the Atlanta Press Club.
The APC and the Commerce Club entered into a partnership several years ago, whereby the press club moved its offices to the 18th floor and began holding monthly “Newsmaker” luncheons with speaker that included former Secretary of State Colin Powell; NBC newsman Tom Brokaw; NPR’s Garrison Keillor; The View’s Barbara Walters; and so many more.
The Friday lunch was special because it was a throw-back to the days when Five Points was Atlanta’s center of the universe. All the major banks were headquartered within walking distance. So were the law firms and accounting firms. Rich’s Department Store was only a couple of blocks away.
Of course, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was a couple of blocks up the street at 72 Marietta St. N.W. On the walk between the AJC and the Commerce Club, one could wave to the statue of a highly-perched Henry Grady, the former editor of the Atlanta Constitution who was the architect of the New South more than a century ago.
Now the banks have moved to upper downtown and Midtown as have the law firms and accounting firms. Rich’s is closed, and the AJC has moved outside the city limits and outside the perimeter.
So many changes Atlanta has seen in less that 20 years.
And now the Commerce Club. For 50 years (since September 1960) the club has been a safe haven for Atlanta — a place where business and civic leaders could take on the most challenging issues of the day and set the city on a progressive course.
We were able to capture much of that history in a 62-page booklet that we did in honor of the 50th anniversary. In its wisdom, the Commerce Club board wanted to make sure that the history would be remembered and that the club’s legacy lived on.
The good news is that the club is not going far. It is merging with the 191 Club, and the combined club will called the Commerce Club. It will reopen in early November on the 49th floor of the 191 building, and the hope is that the Commerce Club will remain strong for another 50 years.
It is nearly impossible to relocate history. But it is possible to create new history in the mold of the past. The Commerce Club can survive as long as it retains its influential board of trustees, that it remains dedicated to the overall good of Atlanta, that it keeps its long term employees, and that it respects the role that club has played and can continue to play in our city.
But that is what is on the horizon.
Friday was a day to look back and celebrate the ground that we have already traveled. Someone said it was “bittersweet.” No, on Friday it felt bitter. That sentimental, nostalgic person in me did not want to say good-bye to a club that has molded me as much as it has molded our community.
When I shared my “bitter” thoughts, I was told the “sweet” part was the Commerce Club ice cream, a tailor-made treat for the club that can’t be bought any where else.
There was another sweet side today. Just before I left for lunch, I had gotten word that Atlanta had won a $47 million grant from the federal government for its streetcar proposal — which will run along Edgewood and Auburn avenues connecting Centennial Olympic Park with the King Center.
Eventually, the plan is to also run a streetcar up and down Peachtree Street between downtown, Midtown and Buckhead. One day, a streetcar line could be extended to Fort McPherson. And when the Atlanta Beltline gets transit, we finally will have a robust transit system to serve the heart of our region.
The news that the streetcar received funding on Friday proved to me that our central city is still in motion. Beyond the tourist attractions and government offices, downtown is vibrant with GSU students, new residents and enhanced sidewalks and streetscapes. There really is not a more lively street in Atlanta than the four blocks of Broad Street at lunchtime.
Those were the thoughts swirling in my head as Lauri and I ate our final lunch in the historic Lane Room — and then finished our meal with a celebratory cup of Commerce Club ice cream just for tradition’s sake.
All these emotions. The bitter. And the sweet.