Supporters will have a chance to show that the Petroleum Club matters on May 23. Courtesy photo

The Long Beach Petroleum Club is getting some belated love from the community some six weeks after its closure, with the preservationist organization Long Beach Heritage rallying local residents and devotees of the once venerable club to attend a meetup from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. May 23 at its 3636 Linden Ave. location to celebrate its culture and architecture.

The gathering is part of Long Beach’s participation in “This Place Matters,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s national campaign that encourages people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and their communities. The idea is to share photographs and stories and share them on social media with the hashtag #thisplacematters.

So, the key question is: Does the Petroleum Club matter?

Long Beach has a history of allowing developers to knock things down, and then spending the ensuing years and decades bemoaning the losses. Think about the Pacific Coast Club, the Jergins Trust Building and its underground arcade leading to the beach (which, itself, is gone, or at least relocated), the Pike, Buffums, Acres of Books, the Carnegie Library, a handful of City Halls…You could build a great town out of all the things we’ve thrown out.

And now the potential buyers of the Petroleum Club reportedly have a residential building on their mind and have been in communication with the city about what they can and cannot build in that area, so the wrecking ball is on hold until the buyers ascertain what’s permitted in terms of height limits and other restrictions pending the finalization of the city’s Land Use Element or the passage of SB 50.

That’s a bit of a tragedy because, yes, architecturally at least, the Petroleum Club matters. Though the club was founded in 1954, it wasn’t until 1958 that the members moved into the building on Linden. It was designed by architect J. Richard Shelley, who had a solid reputation as a mid-modern designer. The Poly High graduate’s local works include the 12-story Royal Palms Apartments (now condominiums) with Francis O. Merchant, at 100 Atlantic Ave., as well as his own residence at 197 Rivo Alto Canal in Naples. He went on to build a succession of hotels in Hawaii, Bali and Indonesia.

The Petroleum Club building is notable for its mid-century design and its use of rough-cut stone facade below a barrel vault roofline. It has been a good fit, both visually and socially for its Bixby Knolls neighborhood.

The interior was luxuriously dark and featured the famous circular bar in the Linden Lounge, where three-martini lunches were enjoyed by wealthy oil men who founded the club back when oil still ran the city. Fine dining was enjoyed in the richly upholstered Red Room and a Sunday night buffet in the banquet room was a highlight of the week. Oil toddlers splashed happily in the club’s Olympic-size swimming pool while their folks enjoyed highballs at poolside tables.

It was a perfect setting in its early years for large and elegant events, with dancing to the music of live orchestra as well as a whole host of parties and weddings. In its last years it had been enjoying a bit of a renaissance by a younger crowd enthralled by its “Mad Men” vibe and old-school swank.

The club was founded by and for wealthy oil men who dragged their riches from nearby Signal Hill, and their lovely spouses. It was a terribly homogeneous group, with charter members including Freeman E. Fairfield, an oil tycoon and owner of Oil Tool Exchange; Wilbur Harrison, president of Apex Petroleum Co.; C.L. “Slim” Fowler, whose Fowler Drilling Co. tapped more than 3,000 wells; Chester F. Yunker, a geological engineer who discovered two deep oil deposits on Signal Hill in 1925; and M.H. “Curley” Stansbury, an oil-drilling contractor who was given the job of raising money for the club’s pool.

The club was taking off just as oil was beginning to fade from its key role in the city and derricks that had covered Signal Hill were beginning to fall to make room for pricey condominiums with their views of the city and the sea. Eventually, oil men faded from the club’s roles to be replaced by people from other sectors of the city: store-owners, pharmacists, doctors and lawyers. Its petroleum history dwindled, but the Petroleum Club became sort of a cross between a fraternal organization and a country club.

And then, that too dwindled as the whole idea of a social club faded from popularity to the point where on many nights non-members were allowed in to enjoy the club’s bar and restaurant, somewhat to the dismay of those few who still clung to the exclusivity and perceived civility of membership.

There have reportedly been stand-by offers from groups that would preserve the club’s physical structure, if not the clubbiness, but developers with tear-down ideas are, sadly, on the faster track to purchase the building and its surrounding land, including the large parking lot south of the club.

Preservationists, or simply people who have come to love the physical building in a nice neighborhood in Bixby Knolls, will root for the current deal to fall through allowing a more appreciative group to purchase the building.

The May 23 “This Place Matters” meetup is a free event and no registration is required. Click here to learn more.

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.