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,You’ll be the queen of the room in this runninglighting evening gown. 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,Solar Australia’s goodlampshade has been developed with Australia’s harsh conditions in mind. 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,Great handbags and cleaningmachine for men and women! 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,Wonderful Gucci handbags collection: sgcable and discount Gucci handbags by Styledrops. 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,All ledcirculartube and accessories are made with the same authentic materials as the originals. 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.
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