The complete makeover of its Rendezvous bar and grille, and update of its Wigwam fine-dining venue, has set an exciting new direction for The Union League Club of Chicago.
The vintage pool table has been sent to storage. The mounted moose and deer heads have been returned to the owner who gave them on “permanent loan” thirty years ago. And what one former club President bluntly termed the “funeral home” feeling has been put to rest for good.
Those are some of the changes that quickly become evident when comparing before-and-after views of how The Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC) has dramatically transformed two of the primary food-and-beverage venues in its 23-story, 90-year-old downtown building.
But a deeper dive into the makeovers of ULCC’s fourth-floor Rendezvous bar and grille and third-floor Wigwam fine-dining room, through renovations that collectively entailed two phases, seven-and-a-half months of construction and a total investment of $3.8 million, reveals that the projects involved much more than just getting rid of the most obviously outdated artifacts.
Like many tradition-rich clubs with older (and often historic) buildings, ULCC needed to find the right balance between maintaining members’ existing comfort levels and taking long-overdue steps to upgrade and position their facilities for current and future needs. In addition to clearing out the design “touches” that clearly evoked bygone days, this called for making many more subtle, yet equally impactful changes—and figuring out how to do so in spaces that presented many unique structural and operational challenges.
Restarting the Heart
The ULCC’s leadership had recognized for some time that the relevance of the Rendezvous, where the mounted animal heads and pool table had taken up long-term residence, needed to be addressed. “I don’t even remember the last time the Rendezvous had been touched,” says F. Michael Covey III, whose history with the club dates to when his father served as President, and who himself became its first second-generation President when elected to that role in 2014.
“Four Presidents worked on the Rendezvous project, each one moving it forward before it was finally completed under Guy Maras,” Covey says. “A task force was created that I was on, and a lot of design plans went back and forth.
“Everyone wanted to make the room livelier and more functional,” he adds. “But we also wanted to keep its soul, as the heartbeat of the club. Because it meant so much to how people used and viewed the club, there were plenty who wanted to weigh in on what to do with it. That led to a lot of iterations and tweaks.”
There was also a huge physical sticking point, related to how the Rendezvous’ main bar was built around a major structural column in the room. Some plans proposed by architects bidding for the job called for removing the column, which would be no small feat in such a formidable building.
The ULCC leadership then solicited input from Chambers, the Baltimore-based firm that specializes in club planning and design. That soon led to an important breakthrough, in the form of a napkin sketch by Chambers Chairman Robert Hickman that drew out a different approach.
“Taking out the column would have been enormously expensive,” Hickman explains. “We thought that adding a second column and building out a new serpentine-shaped bar around both of them would not only save a ton of money, it could help to reshape and revive the room, while also providing some new storage, service and display areas.”
A novel design solution that would also cut project costs significantly finally set a renovation in motion. The ULCC Board approved a $3.2 million expenditure that would include $2.7 million for a complete Rendezvous makeover directed by Chambers ($500,000 was also authorized for bathroom and fourth-four lobby improvements).
“The more ‘seasoned’ clubs often put off updates for rooms like [the Rendezvous] longer than they should, and it’s often because of the additional costs that can be involved with older buildings,” Hickman says. “This was an example of understanding how clubs need to operate so they can respond to their memberships’ needs, and concentrating on finding solutions that can help address what a space needs to become, versus just making it handsome.”
Aesthetic considerations certainly weren’t shortchanged or overlooked, however, once work on the Rendezvous finally began in January 2014. The project focused on dividing the room’s sprawling L-shaped space into four distinctive areas:
•The Carvery pub, built around a new hearth oven that “makes flatbreads, not pizzas,” stresses General Manager Mark Tunney, and also has stations for fresh sandwiches, salads and soups. While the area is designed for self-service, it’s far from a cafeteria; trays aren’t used, wait staff is available, and chefs from ULCC’s accomplished and popular culinary staff (see “A League of Their Own” in C&RB’s Chef to Chef supplement, October 2014) are on hand in an open-kitchen setting to interact with diners and help meet special requests.
• The Rendezvous bar itself, where the space between the old and new columns is now used to feature rare bourbons and scotches, and details like purse hooks under the bar and ample outlets for electronic devices encourage extended visits (in addition to food from The Carvery, a pub menu is available that is serviced through the Wigwam kitchen).
• The Federal Room, a seating area that also functions as a gathering spot around a large flat-screen television tastefully contained in a cabinet against a back wall. “There was a strong feeling that we didn’t want a sports bar,” Covey reports. “But there are many times when people will pack the place to watch games or election results, and this is the perfect setup for when that happens.”
• The Cove, where the pool table and animal trophies have been replaced by comfortable seating around a new fireplace.
Massive sliding wood partitions in pockets are in place throughout the Rendezvous to close off various areas if desired. But they are almost always left open, to encourage members to circulate fully through all the space has to offer.
“You can be in the heart of where people are mingling, or in a corner having your own conversations,” says Brooke Wiseman, the club’s current President. “It’s business-friendly, and it’s not uncommon to see people with laptops finding a space they’ll use as an ‘office.’
“At the same time, the open sight lines encourage socializing,” Wiseman adds, “It’s usually not long before you see someone in another part of the room that you want to say hello to.”
Back to Life
To build on the momentum created by the strong response to the renovated Rendezvous after it opened in May 2014, the ULCC leadership then turned its attention to reviving the Wigwam a floor below. While the club didn’t subscribe to the idea that fine dining was dying, it certainly didn’t help, Covey says, that the Wigwam, as its primary venue for that purpose, had become “more like a funeral home.”
“It hadn’t been updated in probably 15 years, and was too quiet, with lighting that was too golden,” he says. “We wanted it to be a place that was smart and elegant, but not stuffy.”
Another key objective was creating a proper showcase for ULCC’s wine offerings. “The club has an amazing wine cellar that’s been built up over the years, ” Covey says. “I’d put the breadth and depth of it up against any New York or Chicago restaurant.
“The problem was, it was all stored in two subterranean floors, and assuming we had it inventoried correctly, it would still take twenty minutes to get a bottle after it was ordered,” Covey adds. “We were not taking advantage of a great asset not only for members, but also monetarily for the club.”
As part of the Wigwam renovation (which led to its earning the Distinguished Restaurant of North America Achievement of Distinction in Dining), an eye-catching, temperature-controlled “wine wall” was created at one end of the main room, and a second display was built in the restaurant’s private-room space. Combined with adding a sommelier, providing wine pads and other marketing efforts, wine is no longer a buried treasure at ULCC. And in addition to helping to attract more overall business (Tunney reports that Wigwam covers are up 10% since the restaurant reopened this May, and average checks have jumped 12%), the renewed attention to wine has also had the desired effect of updating perceptions of all that the club can now offer.
“A member told me he came to the Wigwam and thought he and his guests would just have cocktails, but he ended up buying $200 worth of wine,” Covey relates. “That’s what we wanted to achieve—to show that it’s OK to have that business dinner or celebration here, and to go for it when you do. ”