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Klifa Club Closing, Selling Historic Burlington House


Published July 28, 2011 at 12:07 p.m.

It's the end of an era on Pearl Street. After more than 110 years, the Klifa Club, a historic women's social club in Burlington, is closing its doors. Its stately and mysterious red-brick headquarters is now for sale.

At one point the club was hosting as many as 250 women for its afternoon luncheons, but in recent years it "quietly dwindled," said current Klifa Club president Christine Powell. "In the end we would be lucky if 25 attended." The numbers were even fewer in the winter when many members headed south, Powell added, and the club was closed for the duration of the summer.

Klifa joins the Ethan Allen Club and the Athena Club on the list of local social hubs that have closed their doors in recent years.

Online editor Cathy Resmer paid a visit to all three of those shuttered clubs back in 2003. Here's an excerpt from her Klifa Club visit:

[Then-club president Eleanor Smith] admits she was reluctant to meet with me. She's afraid it might upset the members. "It's not that we have anything to hide," she says. "We just like to keep a low profile."

The Klifa Club consists of 100 middle-aged and elderly ladies who pay $125 a year to have luncheons twice a month. The 12 women who founded the organization in 1900 named it after the Icelandic word for "to climb." According to Smith, the club's purpose is "to expand our minds."

Over the years, members have been involved in social and charitable causes, but the main focus has always been the luncheons, which attract a diverse array of speakers.

Klifa dates back to a time when women were expected to spend their days socializing at clubs like this one. In addition to playing bridge and attending lectures, they took part in community activities. Check out the photo on the right — that chalice was awarded to the Klifa Club for having the most artistic float in the "Welcome Home Troops" parade after World War I in 1919.

But in recent years, the club was made up of women with professional careers, said Powell, who herself works in marketing for the American Red Cross. At the same time, that was perhaps the biggest contributor to the club's decline: Professional women working 9 to 5 don't have time to enjoy lunch and tea at the club on Thursday afternoons at 2, especially when they have to bring the kids to music recitals and sports practice, too.

"People now are more social on the soccer fields than in the social clubs," Powell said.

Even if you've never heard of the Klifa Club before now, you probably know their building at 342 Pearl Street. It's one of those gigantic old Burlington houses you've probably seen hundreds of times. One that, every time you walk by it, you wonder what its story is.

Well, here's the abridged version: The house was built in 1800 by Horace Loomis, a leather merchant for whom the Burlington street is named. As the house was passed down through the years, it welcomed notable visitors such as Henry Clay and President William Henry Harrison. In 1924, it was donated to the Klifa Club, and until now has functioned as their meeting space. There have been a few modifications to the house over years — a new, neo-classical-inspired porch was added around 1850, and the upper floor was split into a pair of apartments — but the house has retained its historic character. And now it can be yours for just $699,000. Considering how much history lives in these walls, that doesn't sound like a bad deal.

But the remaining Klifa Club members won't take the money from the sale and run. They're establishing a fund in the Klifa Club's name through the Vermont Community Foundation. Club members will advise VCF on how and where to make grants from the fund, according to Peter Espenshade, vice president for philanthropy at the Vermont Community Foundation.

"Several of our members were also members of the Vermont Community Foundation," club president Powell said. "We're happy to put our funds in a foundation with a great reputation."

Espenshade said the fund will be used to continue the Klifa Club's "tradition of women in philanthrophy and volunteering." For now, he said, the fund will likely focus on causes ranging from helping single moms to funding business opportunities for women — but that will likely change in time. "We don't know what the issue will be in 10 years," Espenshade said.

So the Klifa Club's spirit will live on for future generations of Vermont women. And it's historic building will live on in the hands of some lucky buyer. And women will find new places to socialize: at the kids' soccer practice, around the water cooler at work and in their Google+ Circles.