He was the first African American member of Miami's most exclusive social club. Today, he owns it — and has a plan to recoup his $8 million investment.
- Miami’s exclusive club The Bath Club has reopened with new owners.
- After years of excluding Black people, its current owner Don Peebles is African American.
- The new owner talks to Insider about his plans to build an “exclusively inclusive” club to cater to a new generation of private club-goers.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When R. Donahue Peebles first set foot on the sand of the Beach Club in Miami in 1996, toured its three acres of private beach, two clay tennis courts, and 26,000-square-foot clubhouse, he had no idea he would be the private social club’s first African American member.
“It was a beautiful Mediterranean building,” said Peebles, who is the founder of the multi-billion dollar real estate development company Peebles Corporation. He’d come to Miami to build the Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach — a project that would make him the first African American to develop a major hotel in the US.
And that wouldn’t be his last first: In 2000, Peebles bought this very social club, remaking its image after decades of excluding people of color. He and his wife Katrina, who is creative director at Peebles Corporation, invested $8 million renovating the club, which reopened this February with a membership list curated by the couple.
The new Bath Club, they said, will be a place where everyone is welcome — and Peebles has a plan to recoup his investment by catering to a new generation of private club-goers who value his family’s “exclusively inclusive” approach.
‘This wasn’t the barrier I was looking to break’
Founded in 1926, the Bath Club was the first private social club established in the Southeast United States. It was a place of leisure for the Vanderbilt, Cartier, and Boeing families, though minorities, especially Black and Jewish people, were barred from entering.
Though Peebles joined seventy years later and thirty years after the end of the Jim Crow era, he said there were moments when he felt used — a mere vehicle to help the storied club change its image. “This wasn’t the barrier I was looking to break,” Don said.
Miami Beach has a long history of racism and discrimination. In fact, it used to be a sundown town, a nearly all-white community that banned Black people past sunset. Aside from the Bath Club, other prominent social clubs, such as Indian Creek and the Everglades Club, have all faced decades-long criticism for their policies which appear to discriminate against Black and Jewish communities. Some of these clubs have found a loophole in a Florida law that only explicitly bans clubs with over 400 members from discriminating against minorities.
Freddy Stebbins, a history and sociology professor at Miami Dade College, told Insider the old Bath Club used to send postcards that said “gentiles only” on the back — a way to signal they didn’t want Jewish people to enter the club. (In 1947 Miami Beach passed a law banning businesses from displaying signs that used the distinction.)
“It was a boy’s club,” Stebbins said, adding that members were typically those from the North who had money, wealth, and prestige. “You most often had to be Protestant. You could definitely not be a person of color and you could definitely not be Jewish.”
Things began to change, however, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the end of Jim Crow. The area experienced an influx of immigrants and new money. Then, in 1996, came Peebles.
More diverse than ever before, but still just as exclusive
As the demographics of South Florida began to change, old-school exclusive clubs fell on hard times. Over 70% of the region’s population is Latino, compared to an overall 27% for the state of Florida. As of 2018, over 50% of the population was born outside of the United States (the national average is just 13%). Miami has the highest population of Cubans outside of Cuba; it has a vibrant Haitian community in what’s known as “Little Haiti,” and a Colombian population nearing 300,000.
In the modern era, the Bath Club struggled to attract new members. After it experienced financial difficulties, Peebles won a bid to buy it in 2000 for $10 million. At first, he allowed the club’s original owners to retain rights; he built a luxury tower and six beachside villas on the property.
But around 2013, he began buying out club members. Two years later, his company took full control of the club and used it as an event space. It was Katrina who suggested turning it back into a social club.
The aim for the new Bath Club, said Katrina, is to be “exclusively inclusive.” As a biracial couple, both have experienced feeling like the “only” people in the room and felt buying the historic Bath Club sends a message. “It could show how far Miami and even America has come,” she said.
The club may be more diverse than ever before, but it’s still just as exclusive. The initiation fee is $20,000 with annual dues costing $18,000 — a steal compared to other clubs where initiation fees can start at $200,000. Membership is capped at 200 and is via referral by a member, or the Peebles themselves.
So far, about 150 of the memberships have been sold, though they declined to share to whom beyond saying the group included some “high profile” people. The Peebles are fixtures on the nation’s social scene, having hosted campaign fundraisers for both the Clintons and the Obamas.
Peebles says he’s already made a third of his $8 million investment back. The rest he’s expecting to recoup in less than two years.
Enter, the new Roaring 20s
The club’s exclusivity is a selling point to many new members, as it gives the opportunity to socially distance while lounging in a cabana on a private beach.
The private dining spaces, ballroom, spa, and restaurant attracted new members like Lauren Geduld, who told the Miami Herald she joined the club alongside her husband and two daughters, looking for a place to entertain themselves safely and privately. “The beach is what attracted us. It’s located in such a special part of Miami Beach. The service is great. The food is great. It has such a magical environment.”
The interiors, done by female-founded firm Antrobus + Ramirez, contain floral patterns, with a mix of retro-furnishings. The Prohibition-era secret doors were restored, and the new menus are curated by the Apicii Hospitality, which also worked on the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort in Orlando.
The US market for golf courses and country clubs hit over $20 billion last year and is expected to increase at least 2% over the next five years. Calling the social club industry “interesting,” Peebles isn’t in a rush to buy another one. In fact, he said, when he bought the club he didn’t even necessarily have plans to reopen it; he just wanted to preserve it. But then of course, on the cusp of a bustling new jazz age, it would be quite irresistible not to share that white-sand view of the twinkling night sky above the Atlantic.
“It was a long winding road to get us here,” Don said. “But buildings tell stories, and this one tells the American story of how we were segregated, how our wealth was concentrated racially, then someone like me bought it, and, along with my wife, this is what we did with it.”
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