Since 1880, the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC) has been a fixture of downtown Los Angeles.
It’s been through the city’s ups and downs, development and disinvestment. And, as the neighborhood has changed dramatically over the last decade, so has the club that calls it home.
How do you change a 137-year-old club steeped in history without ostracizing longtime members that span generations? That’s something Cory Hathaway, assistant general manager of LAAC, has asked himself as he’s helped oversee a transformation of the club. His family has looked over the club for five generations.
“We had the idea of trying to change a century-old organization to match what was going on in the neighborhood,” Hathaway says.
“It was just kind of like a typical downtown club with lawyers and finance people and athletic people. It wasn’t until more people started living in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago that we put on paper a plan to change the club to match the new group of people coming downtown.”
That’s not to say the old version of the LAAC was staid and boring. When you’re around for over a century, you’re doing something right. But Hathaway and his team at LAAC saw an opportunity to improve the club for longtime members and cater to a new, younger demographic—a generation more keen on spending money on health and wellness (and a nice place to have a drink after a hard workout). But they had to convince some old timers it was worth it at first. Especially when it came to the bar.
“Some of the changes were easier and didn’t ruffle many feathers. Like when we renovated the ballroom, there’s not much people can complain about that! But when we go into the bar area and say we’re gonna do a whole craft cocktail program and not have Bud Light on tap or Apple Pucker martinis anymore,” Hathaways says with a laugh. “That’s when we started to see some people get pissed off.”
Under Hathaway’s watch the entire LAAC has been reimagined. Literally—the entire place, all 12 floors. “Every single floor we’ve changed,” he says. “Whether it’s completely changed the way that area is being used. Or completely renovated it and brought to it a new feel.”
But the LAAC didn’t treat it like a gut renovation in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. They understood the gravity and history of the place and that’s reflected in the club’s new look, whether it’s the regal ballroom or the historic bar.
“We always look to see how we can tie it to our history,”
Hathaway says. “We’ll hang up old pictures or vintage squash racquets. Every room we want to make it feel like part of our history.”
It wasn’t simply about painting some walls, putting some polish on the club, and courting new members. They redid it. And it was after they renovated the basketball court that longtime members who were perhaps averse to change saw that Hathaway’s vision for the future of LAAC was bright. “After the basketball court it really showcased what you can do if you really redo a place,” he said. “People kind of realized we weren’t just repairing carpet, we were redesigning the whole room.”
Now the locker room rivals the Lakers’ at the Staples Center. The gorgeous swimming pool made an appearance in Mad Men. And longtime members have warmed to the craft cocktail program in the bar. They see the quality in it and have embraced the change.
“Some people took longer than others to realize—especially on the bar side—that everything we were doing was higher quality,” Hathaway says. “Now they’re pretty excited about it.”
It’s a reflection of downtown LA’s revitalization and the club’s enduring popularity. “It’s definitely a bridge between an old school mindset and new downtown Los Angeles scene,” Hathaway says. “It’s not full on SoHo House here. It’s super diverse, for one. And you don’t see that in a lot of these new school places. It’s a contrast of history and innovation.”
Photography by Matthew Miller.