The Union League has been a bastion on Broad Street for Philadelphia’s elite since the end of the Civil War. The French Renaissance building that houses the private club occupies an entire city block just south of City Hall but most passersby know little of its storied history.
While Union League members today dine, relax, and socialize in elegantly appointed surroundings, its founding members were the target of hate mail, threats, and negative ads. In 1862 Philadelphia was a city divided.
“Just because you lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t mean you were automatically pro-Union. It just didn’t work that way,” says Union League Library and Historical Collections Director Jim Mundy.
“There were a number of old Philadelphia families who had long-standing connections in the South, socially and economically, who remained pro-Confederate during the war.” One private city club even designated separate bars for Northern and Southern sympathizers.
The exhibits in the Sir John Templeton Heritage Center explain how a group of Philadelphia gentlemen banded together during the Civil War to promote support for the Union and President Lincoln’s policies. “It’s time to make patriotism fashionable again,” was League co-founder George Boker’s rallying cry.
Also on display are some of the club’s Civil War-era treasures including bronze life casts of Lincoln’s face and hands, and a low, gray hat he wore as a disguise instead of his usual black stovepipe en route to his inauguration.
Boker and other founding members raised funds, recruited soldiers, and lit patriotic fervor through a flood of printed materials. By 1864 they were breaking ground for their permanent home on South Broad Street. Inspired by the Philadelphia model, some 700 Union Leagues were established across the North by the end of the war. Today only the Union Leagues of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia remain.
With over 3,200 members, the Philadelphia Union League, the oldest, continues to thrive. With a prime location in center city, the club has an Old-World ambiance that seems far removed from the hustle and bustle of Broad Street. Amenities include a fitness center, business center, library, meeting rooms, three restaurants, plus overnight accommodations at the 84-room Inn at the Union League.
“A home away from home” is how Chester County resident Dr. Jerry Lewis describes the League. “When we go to the opera or the symphony, we frequently have dinner at the League and then spend the night–especially if the weather is bad.” The club’s location in the theater district allows the couple to park the car and walk wherever they are going. “The staff is outstanding,” Lewis adds.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the club’s all-male membership voted to admit women. Before that, members’ wives would use the ground-floor entrance to access the women’s dining room and cocktail lounge–now the site of the new Heritage Center.
A milestone event was the 2011 swearing in of business executive Joan Carter as the League’s first woman president. Carter, who will preside over the year-long anniversary celebrations, says the club has reinvented itself as times changed: “You don’t stay in existence, and relevant and vibrant for 150 years without changing.”
One thing that’s not likely to change is the club’s core values. “We are not your typical club,” Carter says. “The Union League is a really fun place but it has as its distinction that in our bylaws, our members support the Constitution of the United States and the free enterprise system.”
The Heritage Center, she says, embodies what the club stands for. “I think all of us are extraordinarily proud of the fact that in 1862 Union League members raised regiments to support President Lincoln. We have a history that very few private clubs can point to.”
The League’s historical treasures include one of 24 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation. A full-size portrait of George Washington astride his horse was purchased shortly after the club’s founding; the Thomas Sully painting had been commissioned by Congress in 1842 but funds were never appropriated.
This legacy sets the League apart from other city clubs, says Mundy, who has made a study of the club’s extensive archives for 33 years. “Since it has such a unique history, formed during one of the great crises in American history, the League views its historical patrimony differently from most other clubs,” he says. Members donated $10 million to the anniversary campaign which funded the Heritage Center and they agreed to open the exhibit to the public.
The Heritage Center is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3pm to 6pm and every second Saturday of the month from 1pm to 4pm. Visitors ring the bell of the ground-floor entrance below the two curving staircases of the main entrance on Broad Street to gain access to the exhibit. They may also visit the Sando reading room, lined with books and decorated in the style of a 19th-century Philadelphia home.
For further information, call 215.587.6455 or visit www.ulheritagecenter.org
The Appeal of a Club
When clubs like the Union League were formed, membership was de rigeur for the man of society. Laura Claridge’s biography of Emily Post describes late 1884, when New York’s autumnal balls began. Post’s father, prominent New York architect Bruce Price, “dutifully joined all the right clubs from the Century to the Salamander, and most important, the Union, which had a yearly waiting list of 500 applicants.”
He eventually resigned his membership because the League had supported the North. Originally from Baltimore, Price’s sympathies lay with the South. Writer Cleveland Amory has explained the appeal of club life to the upperclass man of this era: “Here, he had the best of his well-bred friends, the most comfortable of his well-stuffed chairs, the best of food, drink, and cigars from his well-stocked lagers and cellars, the least irritating of reading material from a well-censored library, and the best of games from well-mannered losers. Here he could do what he pleased, when he pleased, where he pleased; here, and only here, did he find sanctuary and his four freedoms: freedom of speech against democracy, freedom of worship of aristocracy, freedom from want from tipping, and, above all, freedom from fear of women.” It was to the gentlemen’s club, Amory pointed out, that lady friends not part of the intimate family circle wrote, the letters discreetly delivered by the club servants, facedown, on silver trays.“