Enriching the community: UNION LEAGUE CLUB OF CHICAGO has been a bastion of civic commitment in the Windy City for nearly 140 years – but it also offers five-star services and luxurious amenities.
Chicago’s greatest art collection may not be where you expect it to be. To fi nd it, walk past the famous Art Institute and head a few blocks down to the Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC) on West Jackson Boulevard. The historic club, which was founded in 1879, started acquiring art in 1886 and now boasts a superb collection numbering more than 800 artworks. While the focus is on Midwest and American art, the gem of the collection is a Monet, which when it is not on loan to exhibitions across the country, takes pride of place in the clubhouse.
The Union League Club of Chicago occupies a 23-storey, late-1920s building at the heart of downtown Chicago, and is an imposing presence on a street that is studded with consulates, federal buildings and banks. Venerable as it may seem, the building is a youngster compared to the club’s historic origins. The Union League movement has its roots in the American Civil War, and was founded by wealthy men to promote the policies of president Abraham Lincoln. “This politicized background gave our club its focus on civic and public policy issues”, says William Nissen, the club’s president. In fact, it was this involvement with public affairs that originally attracted Nissen, a ULCC member of 30 years’ standing.
Established to uphold the “sacred obligations of citizenship, promote honesty and effi ciency in government, and support cultural institutions and the beautifi cation of the city”, ULCC is the only private club in the United States that has an institutional commitment to public policy. The three ‘Cs’ – culture, country, community – are at the forefront of its community programing work. As well as supporting three key foundations in the city – the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs help disadvantaged children in the city; the Luminarts Cultural Foundation promotes arts education; and the Chicago Engineers’ Foundation offers incentive programs for engineering students – ULCC takes a non-partisan stance on signifi cant issues that have an impact on society, ranging from capital punishment to health care, and publishes resolutions that aim to actively engage with decision-makers at city and state levels.
While community and culture are writ large at the club, the more material pleasures are equally important: the club prides itself on offering the very best of everything, from gourmet dining to overnight accommodation, a pool, gym and spa facilities, a library and elegant meeting suites.
Step through the clubhouse doors and you enter a lobby with glossy marble floors and handsome woodwork, which are original details. The elevators whisk you up to three fine dining spaces. The exclusive Wigwam serves breakfast and dinner. The Main Dining Room on the sixth floor, which William Nissen rates as “the most beautiful room in the building”, offers lunch, and Rendezvous is open from lunch till late. There’s also in-room dining for the guest rooms, casual poolside dining and over 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space for business meetings. The overall style is gracious oldworld living, with thick carpets, cosy nooks, leatherbound books and open fireplaces. The top ten floors are occupied by 180 guest rooms, which are used by members, guests and reciprocal club members.
In a city with an enviable choice of dining options, the club is constantly looking at ways to reinvent itself. The latest remodelling project, due to start in the winter, will see a new café and workspace being created on the first floor. “It will be quite an informal space with plug-ins for laptops, something we have not had before,” explains Nissen.
ULCC has around 4000 members, many of whom are active in the club’s committees, foundations, activity groups and American Legion Post. “People join the club to make a difference”, says Nissen. Membership is by recommendation only. ULCC has reciprocal privileges with around 200 clubs worldwide, including the other Union League Clubs of America. There is a strict dress code stipulating business casual on weekdays. Athletic apparel is banned in public spaces and wearing jeans is very much frowned upon.
Members and guests have a choice of roughly 50 events every month, including monthly art lectures, exhibitions of local artists in the club’s gallery, family events, an authors’ group, an annual Bourbon & Boxing night with whiskey tasting and a steak dinner, fundraising galas for the foundations, and many regular evenings organised by the club’s interest groups, which range from accounting to craft beer.
With such a rich heritage, it comes as no surprise that the list of former and honorary members includes heavyweights like former U.S. president, George H. W. Bush, supreme court justice John Paul Stevens, former senator Elizabeth Dole and a host of current Illinois senators.
In fact, possibly inspired by ULCC’s political tradition, it was here in the clubhouse in 2007 that senator Dick Durbin told Barack Obama, then still senator, that he should run for president. And the rest, as they say, is history!