By Michael Futch
Arlie Smith misses the old days, when the Fort Bragg Officers' Club was still a club for officers.
"I wish it was the same as it used to be," said Smith. He's 79 and retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. "The first thing you had to do when you showed up at Fort Bragg or on post was to go sign up at the officers' club . Everybody had to belong. It was formal, and it was great."
These days, it's not so formal. You won't see officers in white gloves and dress uniforms walking the corridors.
And while some may miss the exclusive atmosphere and officers-only tradition, the people responsible for running the club say the demand today is for a place where rank doesn't matter.
"They want somewhere where anybody can go," said Kimberly Huston of Fort Bragg's Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation directorate.
Now it's just the Fort Bragg Club, and it's open to all.
"When I got there, there was a formal dress code," said Michelle Hagwood, who managed the establishment for 23 years. "As the culture has changed, it is no longer a formal place to go. People changed. The tradition of putting on a sports jacket at night to go eat - that has gone. Your business practices have to change as people change."
That change means the club is more family-oriented today.
On weekends, the club serves up Sunday brunch and invites the public. It's an all-you-can eat affair, complete with carving stations, omelet and pasta stations, a salad bar and various desserts.
Birthday parties are held at the club. So are anniversary and retirement functions, luncheon meetings, job fairs, conferences.
The goal now is to make sure everyone understands the club's new function. "The stigma, that it is the officers' club and there should only be officers who go there," Hagwood said, "that is going to be our challenge."
It is all a far cry from the origins. The building opened June 27, 1939, as the Bachelor Officers' Quarters and Mess. At the time, it featured five guest rooms and "50-officer messing facilities," said Donna Tabor, reading from the club's original description.
Tabor is command historian of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
The construction represented the largest and most picturesque example of Spanish colonial revival style on the post and resembles a basilica. Part of the installation's 1926 construction plan, the club was among the last of the brick-and-stucco buildings to be completed in the Normandy housing area.
Later, a large wing that includes the Lafayette Room was added.
Retired Col. Harry Meinhardt, who is 83, joined the club in 1957. He was a captain then and a battery commander in the 82nd Airborne Division. He has seen all the changes in more than 50 years of membership.
Meinhardt has mixed feelings about it. Though he has good memories of the old days, he said the new crowd maintains a respect for the establishment.
"The people there are well-dressed. Well-behaved. Some of them in shorts, which you would never have seen in the good old days, as we used to call them," he said. "Everybody in those days had a coat and tie."