Historically Jewish Concordia-Argonaut Club leaving its 105-year-old home

Third-generation Concordia-Argonaut member Matt Wertheim practically grew up at the venerated San Francisco social club. Like his forebears, he and his wife, Lisa, took their children there every week, where they would dine in the banquet hall and swim in the elegant indoor pool.

But if the Wertheim kids, both now grown, choose to join, it will have to be at a new location yet to be determined.

After 127 years at the same spot on Van Ness Avenue — and 105 in the same three-story building — the Concordia-Argonaut Club has sold its ornate edifice. An entity affiliated with Academy of Art University purchased the property for $19 million. The club is due to vacate the premises at month’s end.

Patricia Rosenberg, a third-generation Concordia-Argonaut member and current president, said the historically Jewish club sold the 52,000-square-foot building in order to downsize to something better suited to its smaller membership.

“We’ve been looking at properties,” Rosenberg said. “We need much less square footage. Although the properties are interesting, they have not met the goal of our programming, which includes a swimming pool, basketball court, commercial kitchen and dining room, among others.”

She added that the club’s board is mulling a possible merger with an existing entity, such as the Presidio Golf Club or the University Club. The board’s proposals, and a board recommendation, will be brought to the membership for a vote by spring 2015. The funds from the sale must be deployed into real estate, according to capital gains tax rules.

In the interim, members will have access to a fitness center on Mason Street, with club social events and lectures taking place around the corner at the Marines’ Memorial Club and Hotel on Sutter Street.

Though homeless for now, leaders say this is not the end of the Concordia-Argonaut Club.

Photos of past presidents and a poker game in the lounge

“Everyone feels strongly that the club is an important part of San Francisco, especially for the Jewish community,” Rosenberg affirmed. “For all the camaraderie among the Concordia-Argonaut family, we intend for the club to continue.”

Lisa Wertheim, 51, looks back fondly on the personal warmth at the club, very Jewish in character, very secular in practice.

“We were a big family,” she said. “When our children were young we’d go twice a month on Sundays. The kids’ eyes would bulge out when we’d go to the buffet. And as long as I’ve known him, my husband has gone every Wednesday night to play poker. It was a beautiful sanctuary to walk into, a glamorous throwback to the old days of San Francisco.”

Old days, indeed.

Founded in 1864 by a group of German American Jews led by Levi Strauss, the Concordia moved into its own building on Van Ness in 1891. That structure was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and the present building was completed three years later, complete with library, bar, pool and, later, regulation-size basketball court.

Many members in the club’s early days came from Congregation Emanu-El, the center of San Francisco’s German Jewish community. Names like Haas, Dinkelspiel, Sutro, Lilienthal were ensconced on early membership rolls.

A fire in 1982 caused $2 million in damage, destroying much of the interior. But it was rebuilt and returned to its turn-of-the-century splendor.

In a 2005 piece, J. described the club’s halls as “wide and welcoming, and decorated with rich, wall-to-wall carpeting and wood interior trim. The walls are coated with artwork, often depicting subjects such as foxhunts or endeavors of a similarly aristocratic (and exotic) mien. 

The leather chairs and polished tables befitting a turn-of-the-century British explorer’s club — they’re all here.

“Upstairs, the dining room is vast and impeccable, and the buffet dispenses mountains of steaming, delectable food (including shrimp — the club is as kosher as a cheeseburger). The downstairs pool, hemmed in by wall-to-wall marble, is similarly grand. Backstrokers are treated to a ceiling painted to resemble the soft blue sky and cottony wisps of cloud appearing during the one or two perfect San Francisco afternoons a year.”

The Concordia-Argonaut Club on Van Ness Avenue between Post and Geary streets

The Concordia merged with the Argonaut Club, another Jewish men’s club, in 1939. Membership peaked at more than 800 in the 1960s. Those were the days when men swam naked in the pool, took a steam and went through more than a few boxes of cigars while playing poker late into the night.

In the early 1960s, the club opened its doors to non-Jews; San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays joined around then. About a decade later, women were allowed to join, as well, though some old-timers put up a fight, perhaps because their days of using the pool without swimming trunks would soon be over.

Since hitting peak membership, numbers have since slowly dropped to its present 300.

The Wertheims chose to drop their membership last year, though it is technically a leave of absence. They felt that dues and other costs had grown too high. “It’s expensive to join,” Lisa Wertheim said. “And it costs us something like $450 a month.”

Earlier this month, the club hosted a black-tie dinner to salute its past presidents. It was the last official gathering of its kind in the building.

“It was a beautiful evening,” Rosenberg said, “with superb food and wine. It’s part of our club history to have these events. It was very sad because we were leaving our home of 127 years. However it was also celebratory. We all talked about our future and the possibilities we now have to ensure the club endures and thrives.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.