Built in 1926, Bellevue Club was originally the Women's Athletic Club of Alameda County. It's halls and ballrooms have hosted countless weddings, holiday parties, and special events. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Oakland’s Bellevue Club, an imposing six-story edifice on the northern shore of Lake Merritt, with interior decorations inspired by Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, a pool, dining rooms, private lodging, and more, was on the verge of closing 15-years-ago. Somehow, the historic private clubhouse valiantly managed to hang on, despite its aging and dwindling membership. 

But the pandemic, which forced the closure of all of its revenue-producing enterprises, put the final nail in the coffin, and on June 16, the club’s Beaux Arts building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be sold. 

“The writing was on the wall, even before the pandemic,” said Bellevue Club President Carole Levenson in an interview.

Founded as the Women’s Athletic Club of Alameda County in 1926, the Bellevue Club started granting membership to men in 1985. Its Olympic-sized pool, high ceilings, Mural Lounge, vast ballroom and lake views are stunning. It’s ornately decorated rooms have hosted many weddings, events, and holiday parties for generations of Oakland and Piedmont residents.

The closure of the Bellevue Club will also affect small businesses and community groups that rented offices in the building—a writers’ group, a therapist, a realtor, and a masseuse—all of whom have already moved out. The East Bay Children’s Theater also stored their costumes and props at the club.

“After the board voted to sell, there were still some people who were in total denial,” said Levenson. “They thought that, like the phoenix, we could rise from the ashes. I just didn’t see how that could be.”

But the Bellevue Club will continue to serve as a social institution. The owners of San Francisco’s The Battery, are purchasing the building for $10 million. 

Created by Michael and Xochi Birch in 2013, The Battery, like the Bellevue, is a private social club housed in an historic building, offering hotel rooms, dining, a gym, live music and special events. Unlike the Bellevue, The Battery has societies to link members (LGBTQ+, Womxn, AAPI, Earth, Creatives, Gamers, Adventures), virtual events featuring experts speaking on current events, an online magazine focused on arts, culture and philanthropy, a wine cellar, hot tub, bar, library and a charitable foundation that has donated more than $20 million to philanthropic causes, including many based in Oakland. The Battery’s owners hope to bring this updated and more lively style of social club to Oakland’s Bellevue.

Michael Birch didn’t even set foot inside of the Bellevue Club before deciding to purchase it. From the British Virgin Islands, where he is currently living, he viewed video clips of the building and its interior sent to by his team. 

“Incredible,” and “too good an opportunity not to pursue,” he said in an interview. 

The Bellevue Club’s membership was declining for years and it couldn’t survive the pandemic, which prevented the clubhouse from hosting money-making special events. Credit: Amir Aziz

Although The Battery’s plan has always been to identify other locations around the Bay Area for expansion, Birch says he didn’t expect to find an existing club, and Oakland was always at the top of his list. 

“I love the Bellevue Club’s great history,” said Birch, who along with Xochi founded the social networking site Bebo and sold it to AOL in 2008 for $850 million. “It felt so perfectly suited to be a club, with its grand rooms and real character.”

Birch said that keeping Bellevue a club (albeit re-named The Battery Oakland) is preferable to it being sold to a developer for high-end condos in the parking lot and the clubhouse becoming an amenity for use only by the building’s new residents. (This was an option the Club confirmed they were considering before the Birch’s made their offer).

The Battery’s membership profile skews much younger and racially diverse than the Bellevue’s, with women making up 40%. The Bellevue Club’s regular annual dues are just under $3000 per year; The Battery charges members $2,700 per year, and offers scholarships for artists, writers, and other creatives. 

The Battery also actively curates its membership to include people from all walks of life, something that has long been the practice in Oakland civic organizations, including Oakland Rotary and the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club. Bellevue’s membership had dropped below 200 during the pandemic while The Battery currently counts over 4,000 members.

According to The Battery’s founders, philanthropy is an important part of the club’s ethos, and their members have contributed to Oakland groups like Ayesha and Steph Curry’s Eat. Learn. Play. Program, First Place for Youth, which serves foster youth, Creative Growth Art Center, which works with artists with disabilities, and Ubuntu Theater, now named the Oakland Theater Project. Birch hopes that as more Oaklanders join The Battery the club can expand the philanthropic reach of its foundation.

The new owners also said they plan to give current members of the Bellevue Club free lifetime memberships in The Battery.

Birch said he’s happy that the concrete and steel enforced building itself is sound, but that much work needs to be done on deferred maintenance before it can be reopened and rebranded. “I’d love to say we’ll open in a year, but that may be naively optimistic.”

As for the character of the building, Birch said he wants to honor its history. “Literally, I don’t think we could have chosen a better building or location. We look forward to continuing the next chapter of the Bellevue Club’s story.”

“I think that under the circumstances, this is just about the best thing we could have hoped for,” said Levenson, the Bellevue Club’s last president.

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, where she produced two regular series and ran San Francisco’s public access channel. She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.