Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

Architecture of Chicago’s Exclusive Private Clubs

January 29, 2013


A while ago I dug into the architecture of private club buildings for a class, simply titled “Skyscrapers,” for my MA in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. I had been inside of the opulent University Club before for a special lunchtime talk, and I loved an excuse to see the rest of these buildings. So I chose to focus on Chicago’s private club buildings, the places of recreation and schmancy business meetings for Chicago’s movers and shakers across history, such as this gent pictured here.

Chicago Union League Club history Portrait

Old School Chap from a Chicago Private Club

From the outside, these structures are very different from the rest of what we see downtown. Most private club buildings that are still around today were built from the early 1900s into the 1920s, when downtown Chicago architecture was dominated by buildings that we now classify as “Commercial Style,” aka “Chicago School.”

The whole idea behind commercial style is right in the name “commercial.” These buildings were built more cheaply than previous masonry structures because of their steel frames. They were taller, meaning that they could have more floors, meaning that they could make more money.

Architects of Chicago private club buildings did not exactly follow the Chicago School because they knew that the architecture had to communicate the more personal–and less  commercial–nature of what went on inside these buildings. For this reason, Chicago’s private clubs look unlike the historic office buildings of downtown that would have surrounded them about a century ago.

Collegiate Gothic Architecture at Chicago University Club

Stone, gargoyles, and other gothic ornamentation at University Club of Chicago

Take the University Club, for example. Originally the primary requirement for membership with this club was a degree from an Ivy League university (or somewhat equivalent college.) Early members particularly had degrees from the University of Michigan, and Northwestern, Yale and Harvard universities. All of these universities had Collegiate Gothic architecture, which was all the rage as new universities sought legitimacy via the historic architecture of Europe. Collegiate Gothic includes features like gargoyles, pointed-arch windows, steep gables, and stone. The architecture of the University Club thus communicates the identity of its members to outsiders and, for members, makes them feel at home with a familiar style of architecture.

Union League of Chicago Architecture

Union League Club of Chicago Exterior, Photo Credit: Chicago Detours

Let’s consider this angle of “home.” These private clubs, like the Standard Club or the Union League Club, were actually a home for many young men first moving to the city in the nineteen teens and twenties. Today these private clubs have hotel rooms, but initially they were actually dorm-style rooms. And also, the club was to be for members a sort of “home away from home,” a place where a man could shrug off some of the formalities of regular business life and relax over a cigar. And so the architecture of the Union League Club is more akin to a house than anything else. Thanks to a cool blog called Designer Slinger, we found that Mundie and Jensen, the architects for the Union League Club, actually modeled its exterior after a house built just a few years before on Astor Street.

Cyrus Bentley Chicago Residential Architecture Astor Street

Cyrus Bentley House on Astor Street, Photo Credit: Design Slinger

Both the house and club (pictured below, on the left) use limestone on the ground floor, and then brick above, but of course here we have a much larger scale. So much about the exterior of the Union League Club evokes a home more than a standard downtown building. With its colonial red brick and limestone facade, the building is designed in a Georgian Revival Style common to London townhouses from the 18th-19th century. Essentially the club building is this house on Astor Street stretched vertically.

Union League Club Chicago Architecture on Jackson StreetAlso, while most skyscrapers downtown had historically utilized the “Chicago window” or windows with upper and lower sashes, on the Union League building we get muntins, the white grids that you most often find in residential architecture. Today the building stands in a stark, dramatic contrast to the buildings around it, including the Federal Center.

Then we can consider the architecture of the Chicago Club, one of the most exclusive of them all. A simple glance at its exterior and you can see that we are not supposed to see in. It’s thick stone walls create a barrier that expresses the barriers to its membership. The windows are elevated from the sidewalk so that members can see out – but no one can see in.

Michigan Avenue Chicago Club Architecture

Chicago Club Building

The Chicago Club did not welcome me to tour the architecture of the building’s interior, but I did get to tour the University Club, the Standard Club, and the Union League Club of Chicago. I know I started this post as an excuse to go inside the buildings, while I only covered the exteriors here. You’ll just have to stay tuned for Part II for a peek at the architectural interiors.

— Executive Director, Amanda Scotese 

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