The University Club at Penn State was started in 1908 as a social club at the corner of College Avenue and Fraser Street, then ‘incorporated’ in 1910 by faculty members, according to its website – but now it’s risking the demolition.
James Collins, current president of the University Club, said a “group of professors” and its first president Irving Foster originally bought the land for $1.
“They were offered the land that the Penn State club was residing on for a dollar, then borrowed $30,000 and built the building that’s on it now,” Collins said.
Historically, the club hosted “all major social events,” Collins said. “The [Penn State Board of] The trustees had [its] meetings there and the annual President’s Ball – all those sorts of things happened there because there was nowhere else.
Although at one time Collins said the building was open to members, current club members get together “a few times a month and enjoy each other’s company.”
“Anyone who had a Penn State affiliation could get a room,” Collins said. “Think of it as a fraternity house – we had 39 rooms on four floors, and we had faculty, staff and students living in the house.”
But on February 18, the Penn State Board of Directors approved the Finance, Business, and Capital Planning Committee’s recommendation to purchase the land the club resides on at 331 W. College Ave.
The last resident of the club’s lease left on February 28.
“So he was literally the last person living in the house,” Collins said.
Collins said the building that once belonged to the club is now “being torn down because that’s what Penn State wants to do.”
“I understand that because the building is old, and to renovate it would cost quite a bit of money — I would easily say $4-5 million,” Collins said. “Because it would also have to be brought back to [compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act] — [they’d] it probably needs an elevator, things like that.
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However, Collins said he believed “the building’s hour has come.”
“Between COVID and the number of new apartment buildings at State College that students have access to,” Collins said, it made sense why he was sold back to the university.
Collins said he hopes with the land the university will set up “a wonderful gateway to Penn State.”
“We’re all pro-Penn State,” Collins said. “We have reached an agreement, and we are fine – we will continue to survive, but not in this house.”
Vicki Fong is the current Treasurer of the University Club and has served on the Board since 2019.
Fong and her husband previously worked at the university and were “recruited” to join the club.
“The VP first invited us to join the band, and we know James Collins, so they asked if we were interested. [in joining the board]“, said Fong.
Since beginning his involvement with the club, Fong said the pandemic “really reduced” the number of activities the club could organize.
However, Fong said the club has “a number of really creative and innovative people”, so she still enjoys its atmosphere.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to come together and have great conversations,” Fong said.
Collins said the club “will continue to exist” and is considering different properties to buy in the future, and Fong said the club had “explored” new locations and “visited” some properties.
“I think [the club is looking]…the real estate market is really tough right now – a near certainty in town,” Fong said.
Fong said the members are reaching out with local restaurants or nonprofit organizations to host “a casual social activity together to support the local community.”
For Mary O’Neill, current secretary of the University Club, it will be “sad” to see “the empty space”.
The club started over 100 years ago and has “gone through many changes”, O’Neill said.
“It was really this wonderful gathering of people being drawn to the architecture of the building and creating events together — to have this beautiful space to come and mingle,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said that on the last Friday of each month the club usually holds a “special meeting”.
“Some have themed parties, guest speakers, line dancing — just things to do together,” O’Neill said.
A big attraction of the club for O’Neill is that many members are “informal” musicians.
“We have a grand piano in the living room,” O’Neill said. “Everyone would bring their instruments, and as the evening progressed, there would always be great live music playing.”
For O’Neill, his favorite memory at the club was the Kentucky Derby night, which was a “tradition”.
“All the women wear their Kentucky Derby hats, we have a contest, we watch the Kentucky Derby, and we eat really well,” O’Neill said.
Giving more history about the club, O’Neill said it started as a place to socialize and had “mostly male college professors and visiting college professors to stay”.
“They would have meals provided – it was an all-inclusive place to live for young single university professors and visiting university professors – it goes back to the turn of the century, the beginning of the 20th century,” O’ said. Neill.
O’Neill said times have changed, women “were allowed in” and the building is “everyone recognizes it”, but “no one really knew what it was”.
“It’s good to see that it’s going to come back into the hands of the university because initially, [it] sold us the property, and [it] always had the first right to redeem,” O’Neill said. “I think it’s very fitting, that’s how it goes.”
After 12 years of membership, O’Neill said it was “bittersweet” for the club to leave the building.
“I think we did our best to make things work in a positive way.”
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