The Pen and Pencil Club, the 129-year-old gathering spot for Philadelphia journalists, is preparing to reopen, likely sometime in June, after dealing with a ceiling collapse and financial challenges.
If not for the support of members and the ability to tap into a trust set up by a widow in 1931, the P&P probably would have had to permanently close its Rittenhouse Square bar.
Billing itself as the oldest continuously operating press club in the country, the P&P, pre-COVID-19, served as a night-time hangout for newspaper reporters, camera operators, radio hosts and others in the media industry.
While it’s a private club, it’s not a secret society. In addition to journalists, the club is also a magnet for those in the hospitality sector and people who work in arts and culture, according to Bobbi Booker, the P&P’s board president.
Everything at the bar is ‘off the record,’ meaning journalists can’t use tidbits from conversations in their next article or segment.
“That made it a safe space as well for newsmakers and influencers,” said Booker, a journalist and jazz host at WRTI. “It was not unusual to see a city official having a cocktail with a beat reporter.”
Prominent Philadelphians are known to stop by for drinks, and P&P holds events featuring politicians, authors and reporters who have been covering prominent stories.
“It’s one of the few places that the media community as a whole can gather and speak their minds about everything,” said Booker, who began coming to the club in the 1980s.
As one of few such organizations in the country, the P&P has never been rolling in the dough, and, like nearly every bar and restaurant, it was not prepared for the prolonged shutdown brought on by the pandemic.
Its status as a private social club, which allows it to stay open after 2 a.m. and permit smoking, prevented the bar from receiving COVID-19 grants and loans and offering cocktails-to-go. There is also no outdoor space at the P&P’s clubhouse on Latimer Street.
In October, one of two wooden structures that ran along the ceiling of the club collapsed, forcing the P&P to undergo extensive repairs.
The organization had $2,200 in the bank by December, with a $1,330 insurance payment looming, according to an email sent to members.
Tim Haas, director of digital product at Philadelphia Magazine, had been thinking about a 90-year-old will since he became the P&P’s treasurer in 2018.
Eleanor Robinson, whose late husband had been a newspaper reporter, established a trust in 1931, leaving part of her estate to the P&P. In recent years, the club had been receiving about $300 every three months in dividends from the account.
Previously club leaders, including Inquirer editor Ron Patel, who died in 2000, had attempted to access the funding during previous financial crises (Patel helped resurrect the P&P when it nearly dissolved in the early 1990s).
They were unable to withdraw the principal because state law prohibited an entity to empty a trust without the permission of the Pennsylvania attorney general, Haas said.
However, the statue was changed sometime over the last decade, he added, and the P&P reached out to the bank to get the funds — about $45,000 — last August. The transaction eventually went through in December.
“It was a massive help because we had been deferring federal tax, city taxes and all kinds of stuff, just in an effort to keep the club solvent,” Haas told Metro.
He is pushing to have the P&P install a plaque commemorating Robinson and her husband, whose name remains a mystery.
The trust fund “helped us sustain the club, especially during what I would consider the drought period of the second six months that we were into the pandemic,” Booker said. “It was almost as though it was a Hail Mary from the past.”
Members, current and former, also pitched in to keep the P&P going.
Some signed up as ‘sustaining members,’ paying double the annual dues, and several rounds of fundraising over the past 14 months have been successful, those involved in the club said.
A GoFundMe launched in the aftermath of the ceiling collapse has raised nearly $10,000.
Most of the repair work is done, and, while a reopening date is not set, the P&P hopes to get up-and-running over the next several weeks, if everything goes well.