Once it was the premier gathering spot for the cream of Richmond's business and society women, a private social club as elegant as the grand hotel that gave it a home 23 years ago.

But times change, even in Virginia's state capital, and The Colony Club of Richmond is getting ready to close its doors after Thanksgiving Day.

Seen as "almost the last bastion of gracious living" by many of its 450 members, The Colony Club,, since its formation in early 1956, has been a place where women could come for lunch, card parties, afternoon teas and dinner.

It wa also, for years, the only place in town where a woman could get a drink.

Until 1968, when Virginia lawmakers grudgingly approved legislation allowing the sale of liquor by the drink, away-from-home cocktails in the state were as scarce as Yankee accents.

Richmond residents could get a fair meal in any of several restaurants in the city, but if they wanted a drink they had to go home or to a private club where members kept their own bottles on the premises.

None of these clubs then admitted women as members, and only a few permitted their presence - and then only in the company of their husbands or another male escort.

Grace Watt, a consultant and retired envelope company executive who has served as The Colony Club's president for the past nine years, was one of its original founders.

"We felt that there was a need, particularly for businesswomen but also for many women on the social side who had no place to sit down and relax and offer people a cocktail," said Watt. "Also we wanted a place that was more suitable for women than the men's clubs."

Whatever the reason for its formation, The Colony Club was a huge success from the beginning. A ceiling of 800 was placed on membership, but within a year after opening, a new limit of 900 was adopted and there was a waiting list.

At its peak, The Colony Club had something like 1,100 members. But inflation, changing life styles and even the changing circumstances of many of its original members began to take a toll.

"The club filled a need that is probably not quite as acute now as then," said Watt, a handsome, smartly dressed woman who willingly divulged her age, then, more cautiously, implored a reporter to "just say I'm past 65."

Seated on a Chippendale-style chair for a recent lunch in the club's elegant pink and green dining room, Grace Watt relived a long-ago era that is fast fading and lamented that the club's members are "just devasted" at the thought of its closing.

"There's a certain amount of graciousness here," said Watt, who praised the club's permanent staff, particularly manager Dororthy Bender, for catering to the needs of the members in a very personal, attentive fashion. "It makes you feel like you're coming into a place where you mean something."

Liquor by the drink laws enhanced the appeal of restaurants and "eliminated some of the incentive to become a club member," Watt conceded. "But we are the victims of inflation as much as anything else."

Three-fourths of the membership were part of the founding group nearly a quarter of a century ago, so that today the average age of members is between 60 to 75.

"We have a great many widows now, and they find that they are on more of a fixed income than they used to be," said Watt. In addition to an initiation fee of $150, dues for the club rose from $15 every three months to $20 a month, and this turned into a steep expense for some.

Also, Watt said, "If you come here to eat several times a month, you can end up with a good-sized bill."

Another factor was migration to the suburbs and the growing reluctance of the members to come into the city at night, Watt said. Also, the club was unable to counter its membership decline by attracting younger single and married women.

But it wasn't always so.Yellowed clippings from Richmond newspapers attest to the excitement and enthusiasm The Colony Club generated when plans for its opening were announced.

The club was to be located in the basement of the majestic Jefferson Hotel, then considered one of the seven grandest hotels in the country. Built in 1894, its elegant marble staircase was copied by Hollywood set designers and served as a model for the staircase at Tara in the movie, "Gone With The Wind."

Plans were detailed for lounge and dining room areas, a writing room with French provincial furniture, private banquet rooms. Mrs. Bender, catering and social manager for her family's award-winning Half-Way House Restaurant was engaged as club manager. Mrs. Wilfred Roper, whose husband was chairman of the board of United Virginia Bank, was to be the club's first president.

Membership would be limited and by invitation only.

"It was not snob appeal, but we did try to be selective," said Watt. "I don't know of anyone we really black-balled, but you did have to have two sponsors."

Because friends tended to nominate friends, the club, described as "purely social" by Watt, fostered close companionship among the members. But Watt balked at likening the organization to an exclusive sorotity "because we were using the club for something specific and not necessarily seeing these people daily."

Blacks were never members of the club, she said, because none ever applied. "But black women have come as guests."

Elimore Shepherd, a respected Democratic legislator from Richmond who served 10 years in the House of Delegates and retired a year ago, was a member of the club and remembers it fondly.

"It was a delightful place to drop in for dinner, particularly during the [legislative] session," she said. "It was one of the few good eating places in Richmond, and it afforded me a chance to take people out to dinner and not have to try to pay for it in front of them. A woman always has a difficult time picking up the check."

Even if you didnt want a drink, said Shepherd, "There wasn't much of a choice of places to go." But after nearly 12 years as a member, she quit about a year and a half ago "because I didn't use it at all any more, and I decided it was just an extravagance for me."

Ironically, while The Colony Club is shutting down for lack of interest, the older, less socially oriented Woman's Club is thriving with about 1,500 members and no eating or drinking facilities. The Womans Club charges higher dues, long ago purchased its own building and was organized for the primary purpose of sponsoring cultural and educational programs and events for its members.

Dorothy Bender, the impeccably attired Colony Club hostess who greets all arrivals at the door and makes them comfortable, said the club's furnishings, piano, paintings, decorations, chandeliers and kitchen equipment will be auctioned off Dec. 2 in the lobby of the Jefferson.

The hotel is 84 years old now and showing the marks of time - tattered outdoor awning and faded furniture in a dimly lit lobby. Renovations are to get under way soon, but uncertainty about the hotel's future played a part in the club's decision to shut down.

Bender, as she had already indicated to the clubs board of directors, is returning to the family restaurant business. The club will retain its name and has not ruled out the possibility of reopening one day, but it will probably never be the same.

"There's never been a club like this one," said Watt, recalling the bridge games, monthly international dinners and occasional club-sponsored European tours. "I think the women are going to miss the friendliness, being known by everybody, the companionship."

Some of the women will be able to take advantage of membership in the Country Club of Richmond or their husband's entree at the prestigious Commonwealth Club, where women are restricted to certain entrances and areas. Businesswomen have recently been allowed to join the Downtown Club, but the Bull 'N Bear is still open to men only, and it is said that even wives of male members must call ahead if they are planning to drop in.

Since the announcement that the club would close after Thanksgiving, Watt said activities "have been extremely busy" as old or infrequent members and visitors come in to say goodbye.