Examining Chicago's Top 5 Private Clubs
by seth putnam
The rustle of suits. The clink of fine china. The kerplunk of a rubber ball careening off a glass wall. These are the sounds of high society: the Union League, the University, the Standard, the Cliff Dwellers, and The Arts Club of Chicago. They’re the urban oases—the squash courts; the guest rooms; the cigar, wine, and golf societies; and the dining rooms—where the landscape of the city has been imagined, negotiated, and shaped for more than a century.
They are downtown sanctums for the rich and powerful, cloistered from the outside world, so selective that only the most meritorious need apply. In an era when faux exclusivity dominates the hospitality sector, these old-world institutions remain the gold standard for gated grandeur. Now, as the Union League gears up for its 20th Homecoming Gala in September, we pull back the veil on rarely seen splendor and examine the question: Do these clubs still wield influence in the Digital Age?
Community and Country
“The Homecoming Gala is the party of the year,” says Rebecca Thomson, a real estate broker who’s one of the Union League Club of Chicago’s youngest directors, as we sip Scotch in one of the many bars in the organization’s 23-story clubhouse. Situated on Jackson Boulevard, it practically sits in the shadow of the Board of Trade and boasts a membership comprised largely of investors and financiers in addition to the attorneys, physicians, insurers, politicians, and other professionals who frequent the social clubs of Chicago.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in June, the day after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Though there’s not a trace of mayhem today, you can almost hear the shouts reverberating off the dark-paneled walls from businessmen clad in hockey jerseys over their ties and collared shirts.
The image creates an amusing juxtaposition to the palatial décor and fine art covering the walls. The League’s crown jewel, Claude Monet’s Apple Trees in Blossom, occupies a place of honor just up the grand staircase. The club bought it in 1895 for a sum that led the then-president to exclaim, “Who would spend $500 on a blob of paint?” (It was not displayed until his tenure ended.)
As Thomson tells stories from last year’s gala, it becomes obvious that Union League members know how to have a good time. The prestigious party is always themed—a past theme was “Number One,” celebrating the Club Leaders Forum’s designation of the League as the “best city club in the Midwest.” Each of the myriad rooms offers its own spin on the theme, and the hospitality staff is so agile that, throughout the night, rooms will periodically shut down and reopen under a completely different interpretation. (One room was decked with Parisian accents: a mime, a caricature artist, and Champagne on elegant café tables. Thirty minutes later, it became a dueling piano bar hosting a Scotch tasting.)
Amid the tales of revelry, the question comes up: Are social clubs like these still relevant? For Thomson, the answer is an emphatic yes. “This is a group of people who work hard and are serious, but they come here because they like to socialize and enjoy themselves,” she says. “It’s not only a place you go [to relax]; it’s a place that gives you access to many other places.”
The Union League does indeed open numerous doors. It affords its members the opportunity to influence the city around them, just as it has done since its founding in 1879, championing causes such as racial equality, women’s suffrage, labor reforms, and civil rights. Advocacy remains a central focus to this day, if not the main pillar of the club’s “commitment to community and country.” It was here that Governor George Ryan announced a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. In the Presidents’ Room, where past club leaders are honored, Senator Dick Durbin convinced a senator named Barack Obama to become a different sort of president. And so it continues. “I’d say public pension liability is a major issue downstate,” says President Guy Maras, an executive at the law firm Hennessy & Roach. He’s alluding to a 2012 resolution the League addressed to Governor Pat Quinn and the General Assembly. “And is redistricting being handled properly?”
There are other charitable outlets as well, including the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, which focuses on young artists, and the Engineers’ Foundation, which offers scholarships for college engineering programs. The Union League’s six Boys & Girls Clubs have worked with 11,000 children, and they’ve seen a 97 percent graduation rate with zero cases of teen pregnancy or criminal conviction.
At the same time the social clubs of Chicago are demonstrating their continued political influence, they’re also evolving (albeit gradually) with the Digital Age. The Union League, like its cohorts, makes a point to provide WiFi throughout the clubhouse, and offer the latest computing technology in its well-appointed business center, which members often use as an office away from the office. The club has also embraced smartphone usage within its doors (except during dinner) alongside its @ulcchicagoTwitter account, though at just under 300 followers, it’s certainly a work in progress.
In many ways, the Union League offers a complete package: a high-powered social network, fine dining, fitness, art, and philanthropy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. Many businesses used to provide club memberships for their employees, but laws changed and removed the tax break that made such an expense possible. Membership declined, and up-and-comers joined less frequently. The recession made it worse. Clubs had to reinvent themselves or wither.
At present, membership dues are tiered according to age and residency in the city, ranging from $195 per month for 21- to 24-year-olds at one end and $285 per month for those over 35. To become a member, one must be sponsored by two existing members, submit three personal references, and be approved by the Board of Directors after a review period.
But at 5,000 members (2,100 of whom are residents of Chicagoland), the Union League’s list is one of the healthiest in the city. Twenty percent of its members are under the age of 35. Eighteen percent are women, and that number is growing. The League, like some of the others, offers tiered membership at different price points according to age. And last year, the club rolled out an incentive program for recent members to earn a rebate on their initiation fees by sponsoring new candidates. Growth continues to be paramount.
A Billion-Dollar Front Yard
Wooing young members is also a priority for the University Club, though it has focused more on continually enhancing its clubhouse, which acts as a venerable setting for the club’s opulent, famed New Year’s Day party.
Everything about the University’s location gleams, from the quartersawn English oak to the 21-inch-thick limestone walls. The crescendo builds as you step onto the balcony of the top-floor dining room to find Grant Park spread out below, with Pritzker Pavilion gleaming in the sun, children splashing in Crown Fountain, and yachts bobbing in the distance on Lake Michigan. The club, which was founded in 1887, got lucky in 2004 when Mayor Richard M. Daley unveiled Millennium Park, creating what the club affectionately calls its “billion-dollar front yard.”
The 12-story Gothic skyscraper, designed by Martin Roche, was an anomaly at the time of its 1909 completion, but it has become an integral element in the club’s heritage. “Other clubs may focus on galleries and exhibits, but our building is our art,” says General Manager John Spidalette. The pièce de résistance is Cathedral Hall, where chef Mark Baker (formerly of the Four Seasons) serves a cadre of diners who have been conducting business over fine china for years. Across the room at Table 20, Spidalette confides, Mayor Harold Washington did battle with members of the City Council out of the view of the press and public. The ornate ceiling draws visitors’ eyes upward, commanding the same quiet reverence that overcame writer Franz Schulze when he declared that no other room in Chicago “clears the sinuses more speedily or whips the viewer more persuasively into social attention than Martin Roche’s Cathedral Hall.”
This idea of social attention is powerfully observed at the University Club. In 1976, the club was among the first to voluntarily admit women. Now, 25 percent of the nearly 3,300 members are female, a percentage the club leadership would like to see doubled. In 2006, the institution became the first of Chicago’s full-service clubs to admit domestic partners as well. Such diversity has, of course, changed the gentlemen’s-club atmosphere that characterized these institutions’ first several decades, but officials at the University Club wholeheartedly believe this is for the better. “Admitting women was not only the right thing to do,” Spidalette says, “but it also added a vibrancy to what previously was an all-male club.” This is a sentiment the other clubs in Chicago have echoed heartily.
President Bill McKenna (a partner at Foley & Lardner) points out another ultimate distinction about this place: “The major difference is the feeling of belonging,” he says, the word hanging in the air as he sips his iced tea on the balcony. McKenna should know. A member since 1982, he and his family have considered the club a second home for years.
Over his three decades with the institution, McKenna has discovered the truth about social institutions like this: How a person uses the club varies depending on the season of his or her life. As a young man, he came here to entertain clients and for the swimming. Now, something else keeps him here: the extended family of fellow members and employees, many of whom have been here even longer than he has.
The Standard Bearers
Establishing such a tight-knit aura of social intimacy requires flawless attention to detail, a quality that radiates from each club manager I meet. As Steve Thompson walks me through the Standard Club’s headquarters near Jackson Boulevard and State Street, pointing out the etched linoleum depiction of the Great Fire, the oxblood leather chairs, and the midcentury light fixtures, the manager’s skill as a master social tactician is obvious.
A place like this is all about the particulars, existing to serve a discerning, well-seasoned clientele who like things a certain way. So Thompson and his staff dance an elegant and complex choreography, paying attention to everything from gazpacho’s appearance on the menu to the logistics of the coat check in winter. “A truly good event is of course about food and drinks, but it’s far more about how people move through the space,” Thompson says. “We treat it like a battle plan.”
It’s this showmanship and attention to detail, Thompson and his staff point out, that create a shield from the hustle of the city center and allow members to feel grounded, even if it’s only for 30 minutes. Though their affiliation with such a club points to an enjoyment of the finer things, the Standard’s members are also committed to the organization’s credo of devotion to ethical giving. “Those who don’t have these commitments won’t feel at home here, and they probably won’t make it through the process,” Thompson says as we make our way upstairs into the ballroom, which he reveals is a favorite of the Secret Service for its fortresslike feel. (President Obama has staged multiple events here in the past.)
The club is also the setting for plenty of deal brokering such as trial preparation, leadership forums, and client negotiations. Famous sports figures have signed their contracts in the Standard’s meeting rooms, though Thompson and Gina Ciaccio, membership and programming director, remain silent when asked who those athletes might be. It satisfies them to simply describe their prominent members as those who “prefer to fly beneath the radar.”
Discretion is priority one at these institutions, which have been frequented by such Chicago cornerstones as Schwaab, Foreman, and Florsheim—and now their modern counterparts. The Standard has always been tight-lipped about its membership and finances, but Ciaccio says they’ve seen positive growth in both their female and under-35 member categories. Currently, membership is available to anyone 21 years of age or older, regardless of demographics, provided three existing members sponsor the candidate. Character requirements, of course, remain stringent. “Prospective members are screened, so we know they’re reputable members of society,” Thompson explains. “Philanthropy and ethics are focuses here, and people who don’t have these probably won’t feel comfortable here—and probably won’t make it through the process.”
One of the things the club has done to attract up-and-coming candidates is to mirror the desires of its members. Thompson picks up a table menu and rattles off a list of quesadillas, sliders, mini chardogs, and sweet potato fries. “Ten years ago, this would have been steak tartare and oysters on the half shell,” he says. The Standard has taken the same approach with its attire rules, slightly unbuttoning the dress code to match the loosened collars of its evolving membership. “It’s a balancing act. We try to achieve a mix of formal and informal to keep our members happy.”
Plenty of old-world charm still remains, however. Thompson intimates that the event of the year is the Standard’s legendary Boxing Night, when club members turn out in full regalia to watch fighters duke it out.
Though nearly all of the city clubs share an appreciation for art, there are two that stand out for their singular focus: The Cliff Dwellers and the aptly named The Arts Club of Chicago.
On the urban precipice that is its 22th-floor clubhouse on Michigan Avenue, the Cliff Dwellers gather for a lecture about Lorado Taft, a founding member of the society and the sculptor responsible for the famous Fountain of Time in Chicago’s Midway Plaisance. The club exists as a cultivator for the arts, welcoming working writers, painters, musicians, and others as well as affluent art lovers who want to act as patrons. Though the clubhouse itself is modest, with a bar, dining room, and reading nook (in addition to a breathtaking aerial view of the waterfront and sprawling greenery of Grant Park), the society’s roots are far from low profile, with names like Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Carl Sandburg marking its pedigree.
In recent years, the club has dealt with uncertainty: whether its lease would be renewed and how to attract new members. The Cliff Dwellers require their candidates to be 25 or older, and sponsored by two current members. Numbers are on the climb, according to President Leslie Recht, and the membership stands at about 400, split evenly between residents and out-of-towners who have continued their support. Recht believes increased membership will come from performing its mission of supporting the arts. The Cliff Dwellers have followed through in that regard, in part by renovating the clubhouse, holding contests, and seeking to revive the Artist in Residence program, which is for professional artists under 38, who are given a membership in return for creating something. Says Recht, “If they’re a musician, they play music. If they’re a visual artist, their art is on display. They show everyone what they’re doing, but they also bring that younger energy into the club.”
Hunting the Avant-Garde
Programming remains one of the most valuable tools at a club’s disposal, as The Arts Club of Chicago Executive Director Janine Mileaf discovered when she began offering more evening events in addition to the club’s lunchtime lecture specialty. It has also meant a continued effort to present its members with the most current, avant-garde offerings, such as Claudia Hart’s recent Alice in Wonderland opera, which featured iPhones clamped to a stripped-down dinner table, using augmented reality to display a naked woman and cockroaches on the empty plates beneath them.
This happened in the club’s Salon, an elegant room punctuated by works from Pablo Picasso, Sigmar Polke, and others in such a decorative way that it feels more like a lavish living room than a gallery. “The Salon is our opportunity to try new, risky things,” Mileaf explains, hoping prospective members will see the value in the corporeal experience of viewing art in person, rather than on a computer screen. “The scale, the sense, the material—they’re all different in person.”
Down the Mies van der Rohe staircase, a centerpiece that joins the club’s private and public wings, there’s a rotating gallery space where nonmembers can view the work of current artists. (September’s exhibit is “Josiah McElheny: Two Clubs at The Arts Club of Chicago” in collaboration with John Vinci, featuring a film, an installation, and a fashion-related performance.)
Membership is open to art professionals, though there is a classification for patrons—“those who have demonstrated commitment to the arts, but are not professionals in the field.” Candidates must present a letter of recommendation from a current member, as well as signatures from two others. The mission of the The Arts Club has always been to be a site for conversation, learning, and a little dissent. So it was in 1916, when the club was founded as a response to the outcry surrounding the 1913 Armory Show, which showcased modern works at the Art Institute of Chicago. It wowed some, while inspiring protests from others. A Matisse painting was burned. “Chicago enjoyed its inflamed reaction, and its Philistinism,” Mileaf explains. “In 1916 the Arts Club was actually ahead of its time, and it was formed to inspire conversation without telling people they had to love it.”
Clubs don’t remain relevant based solely on a century of tradition. The strategies each club has employed to spur growth are proof: the Union League’s recruitment incentive, the University’s renovations, the Standard’s attention to evolving member desires, the Cliff Dwellers’ contests, and the Arts Club’s updated programming.
Changes like these raise questions: Have their goals changed, too? What, exactly, is the future of the club in a digital society that has replaced many impenetrable gates with glass doors?
“These clubs have really changed,” Spidalette reflects in his office. The University Club man, whose 30-year tenure has designated him the “Dean” of the city club managers, assembles his counterparts each month for lunch and a frank discussion about the health, growth, and challenges facing their respective organizations.
At each club, the answer is this: They see themselves as urban oases, where prominent members of society can relax, network, pursue their hobbies, and catch a break from their hectic professional lives. Despite an age of greater accessibility—some of which has been imposed and some of which has been voluntary—they don’t expect these goals to change. They’ll continue to draw like-minded, affluent individuals who are interested in influencing the city.
The changes at these clubs aren’t the symptoms of dying institutions trying to stay alive; they’re the calling cards of shrewd leaders, who have known how to continually enhance their clubs’ luxurious amenities while remaining committed to their original missions.
“The successful clubs have reinvented themselves while still providing discretionary, thoughtful service,” Spidalette says. “The trick is to do a lot of things well. You stay within your core principles, but inside those parameters you invent and improve.”
photography by maria ponce berre