Tokyo American Club prepares to move

by Angela Jeffs

Michael Bumgardner is not only the general manager of Tokyo American Club; he’s a “keeper of trees,” as his ancestral German name Baumgartner suggests.

A few trees have had to come down to make way for the club’s new temporary quarters in Shinagawa’s Takanawa district, as piles of sawed-up logs awaiting clearance testify. But there are still plenty of beauties around, both in the grounds and over the wall, the remaining garden estate of Mitsubishi Kaitokaku, a Meiji Period mansion still owned by the company and used to host VIPs.

Making our way through trucks pouring concrete, and the baggy trousers and traditional tabi boots of construction workers at full stretch, Bumgardner leads the way into the sleekly contemporary red-white-and-blue building that will be TAC’s home for the next two and a half years.

“I think members will be very pleasantly surprised,” he says. “Many have expressed concern at the idea of ‘temporary’ quarters, envisaging something cheap and flimsy. But as you can see, it’s far from that!”

Indeed so. The three-floor structure is totally solid, being constructed of concrete and steel and glass, with no expense spared on flooring, furnishings or equipment. Outside, the swimming pool is being completed with a vast of expanse of decking and even a changing block so that swimmers need not trek in and out of the main building.

After a very impressive tour of all the facilities, we sit in a meeting room amid piles of hard hats — testimony to the fact that with only weeks to moving day, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

It’s Bumgardner’s job to see that the club opens on time. He then has to supervise the construction of the new permanent TAC back on the original Azabudai site.

“Yes, we could have rebuilt the club section by section over six or seven years while keeping the place up and running, but it’s actually cheaper to do it this way: build this as a temporary club, then move back into a brand-new custom-designed building.”

This is Bumgardner’s 14th year in Japan. He came from South Korea, where he had worked for seven years at similar U.S. social welfare and recreational clubs all over the peninsula.

“While studying business and accounting in Kentucky, I got my hands dirty, washing dishes and waiting tables on campus. During my holidays I worked at the Washington D.C. Marriot hotel chain where later I started my career proper.”

The catalyst for change at TAC was the Kobe earthquake in 1995. First, the 12-story building was evaluated for safety, followed by a thorough check of its infrastructure — electrics, elevators and so on. Management also made a close study of changing demographics since the structure was erected in 1974.

“When it was designed, TAC was serving a much older membership. There were few children at that time. Now, with over 3,000 kids, we have to be far more youth orientated. Hence the baby pool outside, and all the child-care facilities.”

In May 2006, 93 percent of TAC’s members voted to move. Bumgardner says the consensus of opinion was a huge surprise, as motions for change usually fail several times before ratification. “The decision to relocate to the Azabudai site in 1952 was rather more contentious; it passed by one vote.”

TAC’s development partner is Mitsubishi, who allowed TAC to build on what was originally the site of stables and staff housing in earlier times. Konike Construction — whose workers are still so busily employed — was selected through a competitive bid process.

TAC will say goodbye to its old premises on Christmas Day; a “Thanks for the Memory” party was held on Dec. 7, “But with many activities there’s a bunch of mini-parties going on all the time. Nittsu, who are moving us, are already busy packing boxes.”

Bumgardner laughs when asked what exactly it is that he does. “Normally, I’m chief cook and bottle-washer. But in this instance I was hired to manage the club and later to oversee the renewal project from start to finish. There’s a project director, and also a technical project manager. I kind of hold the whole thing together.”

Because the temporary quarters are smaller — 10,000 sq. meters instead of the current 14,000 — certain facilities will be lost for the duration of the stay in Takanawa: the ballroom, bowling alley, one squash court (there are still two); three banqueting rooms, and Bumgardner’s apartment.

“Instead, my wife and I will be staying in Gotenyama, just a short walk away. It won’t be so different. Also, we’ve arranged for members to use facilities like the bowling alley in hotels in the area, so hopefully no one will too inconvenienced.”

On the plus side, Temp TAC will boast a spa, rooms for teens and pre-teens, and separate kitchens for each dining room. There will also be an increased number of parking spaces — from 65 to 85.

But even this pales into insignificance when the plans for the new Tokyo American Club, due to open on the Azabudai site in 2010, are put under the microscope.

Designed by Cesar Pelli, who designed Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it will offer 20,000 sq. meters of space for club activities, with underground parking for 230 vehicles. All the missing facilities will be back, plus the new ones incorporated into the Takanawa premises, and more.

“We plan to open TAC events to the public by providing a separate entrance. Certain events like the CWAJ Print Show have been open for a number of years, but until now access has been a problem.”

The club’s membership currently stands at some 3,750 families. And while it may be American in name and management offering an American environment (harking back historically to 1928 when it was founded), TAC is now a private social club in a multicultural setting.

As Bumgardner explains: “We have 52 nationalities on our membership list, headed by Americans, but with Japanese coming in second, and Brits running third. As you know, the Azabudai site has the Russian Embassy to one side, the Afghan Embassy on the other. I’m happy to say that we maintain positive relations with both and one ambassador is a TAC member.”

Christmas will of course be no holiday for any of TAC’s staff, which in itself is made up of 27 nationalities. After the 25th, they will be fully occupied making the move, so that when the Takanawa site opens on Jan. 11, TAC will be operational. But not fully so.

“We’ll begin by opening up the fitness center and casual dining areas. The American Room and Vineyards will open Jan. 15, the Day Spa on Feb. 1. Most likely the first day will be chaos, but hopefully there’ll be a long-term smooth transition, for members and staff alike.”

Asked if his wife contributes much to TAC, Bumgardner laughs. “She’s unbelievably active,” he says. “In fact, she knows more people there than I do.”

As for the ongoing responsibility — the completion of this first phase simply heralds the start of the next: demolition (which starts March 1) and the commencement of rebuilding back in Azabudai (from Aug. 1) — he admits it’s stressful “to say the least.”

Would he want it any other way?

“Never.”

Tokyo American Club, 4-25-46 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0074; Phone: (03) 4588-0674; Fax: (03) 4588-0888; Web site: www.tac-club.org