On the 9th floor of the former Ouachita National Bank building exists one of the oldest private social clubs in Louisiana. The Lotus Club has welcomed members into its well-appointed dining rooms for almost one-hundred years.
Photographed by Martin G Meyers and article by Kay Stothart Rector
For almost one hundred years, the Lotus Club has welcomed members into the sanctum of its private quarters on the 9th floor of the former Ouachita National Bank building in downtown Monroe. Within its well-appointed rooms, club members have formed friendships, forged professional associations, discussed business deals, negotiated settlements and furthered political agendas. Decade after decade, the Club’s staff has served some of the best food and libations in Northeast Louisiana to members, their families and guests.
Founded in 1920, the Lotus Club is the second oldest private social club in Louisiana. As Lotus Club Manager Jim Lockhart explains, only the Boston Club of New Orleans is older, having been formed in 1841. Lockhart says that because the Boston Club was shut down during a brief period of martial law following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Lotus Club holds the distinction of being the oldest club in the state to continuously operate in one location without interruption. Regardless of seniority, the Lotus Club is, by any estimation, a local historical icon.
Named for the Lotos Club of New York City, Monroe’s Lotus Club is what Lockhart describes as a “copycat club,” patterned after the famous New York social organization. The spellings are different, as Lockhart explains: “Theirs is actually the correct spelling, since both names are taken from the Tennyson sonnet ‘The Lotos-Eaters.’” One of founders of the Monroe club, an attorney, was concerned about infringement violations, so the more common spelling was used.
Fred Hudson, a Princeton graduate and one-time member of the Lotos Club of New York City, designed the Monroe club’s foyer as a replica of the Lotos Club of New York, with wood paneling and an ornate stained glass door, handcrafted by Tiffany Studios of New York, gracing the front entrance. The mosaic of colorful glass depicts a ship at sea with a banner that reads: “There is no joy but calm.”This line, taken from “The Lotos-Eaters,” penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, British Poet Laureate, is the Monroe club’s motto. Tennyson’s words, describing a sailor’s joy derived from a calm sea and a satisfying meal, serve as a reminder to enjoy this retreat from the busy world outside, a safe harbor filled with good food and good company.
In its earliest days, the Lotus Club was a hub of gambling activity, with slot machines and poker tables available twenty-four hours a day. By the early 1930’s, the Club was renowned as one of the finest gambling clubs in the South and enjoyed a thriving membership. During World War II, Club membership was extended to the training officers of the Selman Field Navigational Base. In 1951, house-sponsored gambling was eliminated, although card games and friendly wagering among members continued to be popular club pastimes.
Steeped in tradition and slow to change, the Lotus Club was a “men only” domain in its first sixty-plus years of existence. Women only became provisional or “widow members” upon the death of their husbands, and were only allowed inside the Club if accompanied by a male family member. When Ouachita National Bank, led by President Lee Vanderpool, promoted its first women to officer status, a dilemma arose. The Bank had always provided its officers with membership in the Lotus Club as a benefit of employment. In 1986, at Vanderpool’s urging, the Club’s Board of Governor’s voted to allow female members.
Along with the Ouachita National Bank, which occupied the first floors, original tenants of 130 Desiard Street, now known as Vantage ONB Tower, included the law firm of Hudson, Potts and Bernstein, as well as other attorneys, doctors’ offices, dentists and accountants. In its glory days, the Lotus Club was the favored meeting place for ONB tenants and other downtown businessmen to have lunch, and bustled with activity after business hours as city leaders and professionals met to unwind at the end of a busy workday. It is still a premier spot for business lunches and professional gatherings. Attorney groups such as the Judge Fred Fudickar Inn of Court chapter meet regularly at the Lotus Club, and many local business owners have a standing reservation for the Club’s delicious buffet lunch. Lockhart surmises that countless lawsuits have been settled over cocktails at the Lotus Club through the years.
The Lotus Club has also enjoyed a reputation as a place to garner support for political candidates seeking statewide and even national office. “At one point,” recalls Club Vice President Mickey Bennett, “this place was a major stopping point in the political arena. The politicians knew where to find the business people. They would find them right here at the Lotus Club.” Lockhart agrees, noting that member Johnny Johnson once commented that “As far as meeting places went, the Lotus Club was the dance floor and all of the other places were the gallery.” In the 1930’s, Huey P. Long was rumored to have met with James Noe at the Lotus Club, but only after midnight, as the populist Governor Long did not want to be seen in a private club.
Lockhart has collected many colorful and interesting stories during his tenure as Club Manager. He recalls an incident that resulted in the adoption of what is laughingly referred to as the “Bennett Johnston Rule.” The Club has a policy prohibiting video cameras during regular operating hours. That policy developed after camera crews from a news station infiltrated the Club one morning, hoping to catch an interview with U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston as he lunched at the Lotus Club. Noting their absence at the official press conference earlier that morning, Johnston politely declined the interview, refusing to allow them to disrupt the Club’s privacy and quiet atmosphere.
The Club consists of two member dining rooms along with four private meeting rooms, a bar and covered parking available for members and guests. Two of the Club’s private dining rooms feature stained glass created by local artisans. In the Lotus Room, a stained glass window incorporates the lotus flowers from the Tiffany entry door in its design. The Club can accommodate up to 100 people for private banquets and up to 300 guests for wedding receptions and other larger celebrations.
“The Lotus Club is really a hidden gem,” says Toni Bacon, who serves as the Club’s Secretary/Treasurer. “The views here are spectacular,” Bacon notes of the Club’s 9th floor location. “There is no other place in town to eat or have a drink and enjoy these views.”
Bennett says that, in keeping with the revitalization efforts throughout downtown, the Lotus Club is scheduled to undergo renovations in the coming months. “There is a lot going on right now in the City of Monroe, especially in the downtown area, and the Club is making positive changes as well,” says Bennett.
Club leaders have been working with a hospitality designer out of Vancouver, British Columbia to update the look and functionality of the bar area. According to Bacon, the designer is working on renderings with a vision of returning the décor to the Art Deco period and style that it once reflected. Bacon says the Club’s goal in redesigning and updating the bar space is to capitalize on its unique location and atmosphere.
“We are really excited about this,” says Bacon. “We want to appeal to new members, and to have something our existing members, some of whom have been here for decades, can enjoy and appreciate as well.” The Club’s reconfigured bar area will continue to include seating for members and guests to dine. “We are going to rearrange the space to highlight the beautiful bar that is there,” says Bacon. The bar’s operating hours will also be extended and live music added for members to enjoy. “We hope to create a really nice, exclusive, upscale area that will be utilized by all of our members and entice other people to join.”
The Lotus Club’s membership currently stands around 400, with a number of resident memberships available. Membership drives take place on a regular basis to solicit new club members. Looking ahead to the Club’s 100th year anniversary, board members and officers hope to extend to more area residents the benefits that membership offers.
Excellent food, fine wine and drinks and friendly service are Lotus Club trademarks. The buffet lunch is known for its staples of fried chicken and banana pudding. The Club’s “Lobster Night” is one of its most popular recurring events, with imported lobster shipped fresh from the East Coast. Managed by Lockhart since 1985, the Club has a reputation for quality and efficiency in its catering and dining services. As Lockhart points out, longevity of the Club’s staff is an important aspect of the Club’s success. Robert Eleam has served as a waiter and club employee for more than forty years and ensures that each member’s experience is exceptional.
The Club’s activities have changed considerably since its days as a gambling haven. Business meetings over lunch or cocktails are still common occurrences, but the dining schedule now features a Family Night each week, with a special menu and high chairs available upon request. Members host elegant wedding receptions and anniversary parties at the Club with family and guests. Once comprised exclusively of men, the Club now has female officers and governing board members.
As Monroe’s downtown district has evolved over the past century, the Lotus Club has stood as a sentry atop the Vantage ONB Tower. The Club benefitted from a booming downtown during periods of economic prosperity, and it remained in operation during decades of declining commercial activity and outlying development. Throughout the years, the Lotus Club has maintained an atmosphere of timeless elegance. As members prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding, the Lotus Club is recognized as an important part of Monroe’s history and a downtown anchor, contributing to the city’s exciting future.