ML - Michigan Avenue

2013 - Issue 5 - September

Michigan Avenue - Niche Media - Michigan Avenue magazine is a luxury lifestyle magazine centered around Chicago’s finest people, events, fashion, health & beauty, fine dining & more!

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Page 134 of 163

Union League members enjoy a high-power social network along with fine dining, fitness, art, and philanthropy. 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.) MICHIGANAVEMAG.COM 130-137_MA_FEAT_Culture_Sept_13.indd 133 133 8/7/13 6:46 PM

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