The Union League Toasts its 150th Year
by sarah jordan
It’s Abraham Lincoln’s actual undershirt. We are standing in the Union League’s Sir John Templeton Heritage Center on the ground floor of the clubhouse looking at a fragment of the faded white garment Lincoln was wearing on the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. John Meko, the executive director of the League’s charitable arm, Foundations, has brought up the fragment from the Heritage Center’s archives for a 10-year-old boy and his parents to inspect during their visit to this storied private city club at Broad and Sansom Streets. They are wide-eyed at this intimate piece of clothing worn by the 16th president for an evening out at the theater on the last night of his life.
It is startling to have a bit of Lincoln’s undershirt here in front of us. But the League, celebrating its 150th year, is full of surprises. It has one of the most extensive Civil War collections in the country and its open-to-the-public Heritage Center debuted last summer.
I have my own history with the league. And what I thought I knew, impressions forged through years of making occasional visits, simply isn’t true now in its sesquicentennial year. In fact, the league, founded in 1862, has published a glossy 300-plus-page scholarly history, written by several contributors including Meko and the book’s editor Barbara Mitnick, to celebrate this milestone: The Union League of Philadelphia: The First 150 Years.
My grandfather was a league member for decades until his death at age 99. He was your typical old, crotchety, conservative guy. For years, he would have lunch with his cronies at the Benson Table, probably at the same seat with the same lunch order of chicken salad and a cup of snapper soup. Despite having a daughter and three granddaughters, he voted against allowing women to join the club in 1983. When my oldest sister, a liberal Democrat, was going through the application process to join (women were finally allowed in 1986), he refused to propose her for membership. Talk about a man true to his convictions!
I had spent my childhood visiting the league, mostly for its annual New Year’s Day brunch. My sisters and I, wearing our best holiday dresses, did our best to dodge the intimidating receiving line of the formally attired board of directors. We would try to sneak sips of the famous rum, cognac, and brandy lethal brew, Fish House Punch, but typically ended up guzzling ginger ale as we gazed out the huge front windows facing Broad Street and down at the passing Mummers Parade debauchery. It wasn’t as hedonistic inside—unless you count the noisy college songs banged out on the piano and sung by members with increasing fervor throughout the afternoon, with more rounds of punch—but it certainly kept our feet warm and spared us from getting unwanted kisses from drunken men outside dressed up like women.
When my sister finally joined in 1989, ready to give the League a taste of some rare liberalism, the club was losing membership and losing its way. Corporations were fleeing the city, jobs were migrating to the suburbs, and the Move bombing was a recent memory. It was not a great time for the city, or to be a city club. To drive 45 minutes into the city (and back) for half a sandwich and a cup of soup, risk getting your car broken into, and pay upward of $25 for an hour of parking—it was a hard sell.
The league then suffered a serious financial blow, along with all the other city clubs, when, in 1994, the IRS took away the tax deduction for club dues as a business expense. Once members were required to pay dues out of their own wallets with no tax break, the membership rolls plummeted, down to a low of 1,800.
But everyone likes a comeback story, and it was during this dreary time in the 1990s that the league reassessed itself and created a plan with creative membership campaigns and capital improvements that would steer the league out of its doldrums to the robust numbers of today. Two of the best decisions involved two very basic things: food and parking.
“The older white guys didn’t care about food,” says Jim Mundy, director of library and historical collections at the league. “But for clubs to compete with restaurants now, food and beverage becomes a primary driver. The 1862 [by Martin Hamann] restaurant and the Founders Room are about creating membership retention. Even Philadelphia magazine, which generally never said a nice thing about the league, wrote, ‘that 1862 is the best restaurant in town that even [we] can’t get into.’”
This is my biggest surprise returning to the league. I recall going to lunch there after college with the late Thacher Longstreth, the ultimate Mr. Philadelphia and city councilman-at-large. He would check on my progress since leaving my summer City Hall internship. The company was fascinating—the room filled with city leaders, all stopping by to enjoy Longstreth’s bonhomie—but the food was very WASP and very bland.
No more. Chef Martin Hamann was lured away from a 25-year stint at the Four Seasons four years ago to mastermind a culinary comeback of staggering proportion. The 1862 restaurant is as sleek and confident as any haute French-based restaurant you will find on the continent. Hamann even began an aeroponic herb garden on the roof this spring. He used six no-soil lesson-towers as a trial, growing butter lettuce, chives, parsley, basil, and rhubarb. Next year, Hamann wants to use 20. One of the last phases of the club renovation includes revamping the 1950s-era kitchen for maximum efficiency, including losing a number of its 14 walk-in freezers. The newfound space will have a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes and wine tastings. It’s very on trend.
And the league finally bought the parking garage next door, setting a palatable all-day price of $15 for members ($28 for nonmembers). “It’s strategically the smartest thing the club has done since 1862,” says Mundy with a laugh. “It’s a commuter world, so to provide reasonable and secure parking with friendly attendants makes all the difference in the world.”
John Wanamaker-Leas, a fifth-generation member, approves of what he sees happening. “The Union League feels like the pulse of Philadelphia. One could run a Fortune 500 company, or govern a small country out of the business center... and by the standard of our members and guests, they probably are.... It’s the best mix of modern and old guard,” he observes. “Today a relevant club has to be more than just the rarified leisure institution of P.G. Wodehouse.”
Current membership is about 3,300, with a six-month vetting process from proposal to acceptance. The club’s rainy day fund has $4.2 million. The league has spent close to $62 million in the last 15 years on capital improvements. And the cherry on top: This year, the John Sibbald Associates’ Platinum Clubs of America named it the country’s number-one city club, besting others such as New York City’s University Club and Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Club.
The league is still more Brooks Brothers than Barneys, but change is definitely more “in” than “out” here. (It was even the site of a member-hosted fund-raiser for African-American Democratic congressman Chaka Fattah, with former President Bill Clinton at his side.) The league has also taken to social media with Facebook and Twitter. “We keep reinventing ourselves,” says Joan Carter, the league’s current and first female president. “At first it was founded to support the union, and when the Civil War was over... it became the lunch place for everyone who worked in the city; then it became the family-friendly experience. I think its next iteration is to appeal to the younger set, because it’s an all-in-one experience.”
New member Tara Theune Davis, a senior vice president at Freeman’s auction house, likes that the club offers things for all parts of her life as a businesswoman, friend, wife, and mother. “This club has something for everyone. I host business colleagues in the hotel and meet for lunch; it is a place of enrichment for learning, from the library hours to the Royal Oak Lectures,” says Davis. She also enjoys coming to the kid-oriented events with her boys and the dinners at 1862 with her husband. “But my fondest memory is the quiet Sunday afternoon Owen, my five-year-old, and I spent in the library playing chess.”
On any day of the week, the club hosts weddings, parties, music programs, lectures, business meetings, and black-tie galas. Just check the daily board, and one can see evidence of the ongoing bustle taking place here. On a recent walk-through, members were using computers in the business center, some were having lunch in the gorgeously redone dining rooms, others were taking an exercise break in the fitness center, and a member-hosted PLCB wine tasting was in full swing in Lincoln Hall. Meanwhile, secret service agents were preparing for a member-hosted fund-raiser for Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Staff members were putting the finishing touches on 84 swank hotel rooms that used to be rather monastic. The library was hushed, with major newspapers from the US and London stacked neatly, a chess set ready by the window, and sherry and port on offer at a table near the fireplace.
“Members come down and use this as their Center City base,” says Meko. “Twenty years ago, you could have shot a cannon through here after 5 pm and not hit a soul. Now this place gets busier after the workday is over.” The league’s vibrancy is proof that city clubs can reinvent themselves and redefine how and where we find community and connection.
“Ultimately, these clubs are about people and meeting people,” says Mundy. “It is a great building—do not get me wrong—but if you empty it out, you realize it is about the people who occupy it.”
photography by Laura Blanchard (lincoln day); barry halkin (1862; exterior); Rick Echelmeyer; The Union League of Philadelphia