April 12, 2013 05:01 PM

From its humble beginnings as a bar and grill for oilmen only, the club now serves a variety of professionals beyond its traditional industry base and continues to grow. Six decades ago, big oil corporations, independent operators and oilfield service companies began building offices far outside Lafayette in the hinterlands along Pinhook Road off St. Mary Boulevard. These newly paved streets formed the northeast border of Maurice Heymann's nursery, neatly planted with azaleas, camellias and other woody ornamentals (including my favorite Heymann cultivar, the White-by-the-Gate camellia). Heymann quickly recognized this migration as a great real estate development opportunity, constructed six office buildings to meet the growing need, and established Lafayette's identity as a center for innovation in global energy development for generations to come.

Of course any center for collaboration requires a good watering hole, and these industry pioneers soon realized they needed one, too. Heymann offered to donate the land if the oilmen would build it, and soon a group of 10 men formed The Southern Building Company.

They sold 200 shares of stock at $200 each to fund construction of The Petroleum Club of Lafayette, which opened as an intimate place where members could do business over lunch or cocktails. The grand opening party was an evening of dining and dancing with so many guests that it was staged in the parking lot; the club was too small to accommodate the crowd.

By the end of the first year, the board purchased land outright from Heymann to build a bigger facility. There have been four expansions since, most recently in 1981 when membership exceeded 2,200 and it was on record as the largest petroleum club in the world as measured in square footage. The club will celebrate 60 years this month in much the same way it marked its first year: by throwing a huge soiree for members and unveiling plans for additional growth.

In the years between, the Petroleum Club evolved with the industry. The original "male only" rule was changed in 1981 after a small group of women geologists (represented by a young attorney named Colleen McDaniel) filed suit. Although the Men's Grill remained for a time, that too is gender integrated now, complete with the longest bar on the planet covered by one continuous piece of pewter. The club survived the Great Oilfield Depression of the mid-80s by changing membership rules even further and remains open today to individuals and businesses with no affiliation to the oilfield.

John O'Meara, who has been at the helm of the club since 2000, will oversee the upcoming expansion. "Our volume is approaching the club's peak years," he says, quickly noting growth in membership but not member fees. Plans include renovation of the Heymann Ballroom to be more flexible and accommodate up 475 seated guests for dining. The club has also acquired the adjacent building but no details yet on plans there. Architect Bob Barras, who was involved in the 1981 expansion, is designing this one as well. Construction will begin this fall.

When the club marked its 30th anniversary, Frances Love was hired to produce a small commemorative brochure, including some vintage photographs that we've scanned and posted online at www.acadianabusiness.com/petroleumclub. There are great memories there. Happy anniversary to a true Lafayette institution, and here's to another 60 years of fantastic food, impeccable service, successful fundraisers, great parties, important civic events - and the not-so-occasional big deal.

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