PORTLAND – Everything about The Portland Club has the whiff of history.

From the 1805 Federal-style mansion it occupies at 156 State St. to the famous Maine Republicans who started the organization in 1886, the club is imbued with the city’s past.

As the club prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary Friday, its leaders are taking steps to update its mission, increase its membership and retool its finances to ensure the future of the social club and its historic home.

“It comes down to having a club you can have fun at and growing it to the point that you can have a positive impact on the community,” said club President Steve Luttrell, 64, a publisher, poet and drummer who lives in Falmouth.

Contrary to what many people think, the club is no longer the Republican bastion it was when Fred Dow, newspaper publisher and son of the famed prohibitionist Neal Dow, founded the organization. The club welcomed men of all political persuasions in 1971 and allowed women to join in 1981.

“It’s embarrassing to say we accepted Democrats before women, but that’s the way it was,” Luttrell said. “It started as a social club for affluent, white, Republican men, but those barriers have broken down over time.”

Today, the club’s 105 members include Democrats, independents, minorities and women, who make up about one-quarter of the membership, Luttrell said.

The club hosts a Sunday brunch and a dinner speaker each month, and special seasonal events such as a summer picnic and holiday party, all catered by Black Tie Catering, which books and caters all events at the club. Members also gather to play pool and poker and to watch sports on large flat-screen TVs. Annual dues are $275 per person, $350 per couple.

Political discussions are a rarity at the club, said William Dow, 41, a past club president who lives in Falmouth and is a financial adviser and pianist.

“I’m a Republican, but I wouldn’t belong if we only allowed Republicans,” said Dow, who is not related to the club’s founder. “Because I like diversity and this is a great way to meet new people.”

The club’s leaders are recruiting new members of all stripes who are community leaders, especially men and women in their 30s and 40s. They’re looking for people who will bring fresh ideas for club programs and community activism.

Still, the club relishes its history. In its heyday, it had 400 members and a five-year waiting list. Many members were business and government leaders and founding members of the state’s Republican Party. The club’s political forums, variety shows and baseball games often made front-page news.

“There was a time, if you wanted to be a candidate for office in a Republican race, you had to pay your respects at The Portland Club, and that included presidential candidates,” said Tony Payne, a former club president who serves on the Falmouth Town Council.

Founding members included Josiah H. Drummond, a state legislator and attorney general who was chief counsel for the Maine Central Railroad and Union Mutual Life Insurance Co.; Seth L. Larrabee and Henry P. Cox, executives of the Portland & Yarmouth Electric Railway Co.; and Harry R. Virgin, who presided over the Maine Senate for two years.

Other famous members through the years were Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of the Ladies’ Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post; Guy Gannett, who bought two local newspapers and began publishing the combined Portland Press Herald in 1921; John Calvin Stevens, renowned Portland architect; and Stan Bennett, the late CEO of Oakhurst Dairy.

For many members, preserving the Hunnewell-Shepley House, which the club purchased in 1922, is a primary reason for their membership, William Dow said.

The house was designed by Alexander Parris and built for Richard Hunnewell, a Revolutionary War veteran and Boston Tea Party participant who was a sheriff of Cumberland County and tax collector for the port of Portland.

It was later owned by Gen. George F. Shepley, who fought with the 12th Maine Volunteers and served as military governor of Louisiana and Richmond, Va., during the Civil War. He later served as a federal circuit court judge in Maine, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The club has spent thousands of dollars on maintenance, renovation and restoration projects over the years, including the addition of a first-floor ballroom and a second-floor billiards room designed by John Calvin Stevens.

The club is now repairing the front stairway, and planning to install a new roof and restore the facade to its 1805 appearance. Club leaders are working with historic-preservation experts to establish a nonprofit arm of the club that will make it easier to raise funds for restoration and maintenance projects.

“Maintaining this house is a group effort,” Dow said, “but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]