THE BLOG
04/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Looking at Chicago History Through the Keyhole of Private Clubs

Over the years, I have lunched on occasion at the Standard Club with lawyer friends. I went to a memorial to a friend at the Union League Club of Chicago. And as a reporter, I've covered events at other clubs that blur together.

Private clubs held little interest for me. They were a backdrop to other things I happened to be doing. They felt stuffy, old-school, rich guy. They seemed like a relic, dinosaurs that stood out for years mainly for not accepting women.

But a new book changed my view. I am a sucker for buying--and reading--books by friends. And an old friend, Lisa Holton, Chicago author and former Sun-Times business editor, was the featured speaker at the Society of Midland Authors. Appropriately, the meeting was held at the Cliff Dwellers, a well-appointed penthouse overlooking downtown.

Books have been done before on the history of individual clubs, which served as watering holes and eateries for the rich and powerful when there were few other options for them.

Holton's book, For Members Only: A History and Guide to Chicago's Oldest Private Clubs (Lake Claremont Press), is the first to take a sweeping look at these clubs. The clubs played a role in shaping the city of Chicago over the past 140 years, helping transform a rough-and-tumble prairie town to a sophisticated and still rough-and-tumble world city.

Holton spins some great tales. What went on behind closed doors of private clubs was sometimes pompous, but also was sometimes momentous:

"Throughout history, city fathers have seen the benefit of what the Roman poet Juvenal called 'bread and circuses'--big events staged to placate the masses, to take the public's eye off larger problems."

She describes how the city clubs helped bring the World's Columbian Exposition , or the White City, to Chicago in 1893, transforming the city forever and helping it come back from the Great Fire and the unrest from the Haymarket Riot.

Chicago aced New York to win the Columbian Exposition. But the civic club's muscle failed to beat out St. Louis in a bid for the Olympics in 1904. St. Louis was much more of a contender back then.

I won a speech contest in seventh grade on Daniel Burnham. So his "make no littie plans" credo is burned into my memory. But I didn't know that the city clubs were behind Burnham.

Burnham belonged to most of the major city clubs and through them he authored the Plan of Chicago. The Burnham Plan, promoted by the Commercial Club and published 100 years ago, helped protect the city's lakefront and established the street grid. The clubs again helped make Chicago.

Holton wrote: "(The Union League Club's) Public Affairs Committee has produced plenty of news and controversy at the club and incited much change in the public sector."

The club pushed for removal of U.S. Sen. William E. Lorimer, who had been exposed for buying his seat. Holton reports that the club's efforts led to the 17th Amendment, requiring that senators be elected by popular vote rather than appointed by their legislators.

Recent deja news headlines about Gov. Blagojevich's 11th hour appointment of Roland Burris to fill Barack Obama's spot in the U.S. Senate show the wisdom of elections rather than appointments by politicos. Too late for the book, but the Union League Club stepped up in December, calling for Blago to resign and filing an affidavit in support of the government's criminal complaint.

The club's committee also held the system accountable in prosecutions following the deadly race riots of 1919.

And then there was the "Secret Six," a group from the Union League Club, which organized a spy operation that took on the mob, including setting up a speakeasy, known as the Garage Cafe in Cicero, to watch Al Capone. The effort fed information to the feds and led to Elliot Ness's crime-busting efforts.

The Tavern Club is another highlight in the book: "All these guys wanted was a drink, legal or not, and place to let their hair down. Way down," Holton said of the club.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Carl Sandburg, Enrico Fermi and Mayor Richard Daley the First were known to party hearty at the Tavern Club. The journos, admen, flacks and other creatives made this place home.

Some pretty raucous stuff happened at this club, including a member chasing a disrobed Aphrodite. The book reproduces a picture of the event.

The club allowed women members in, with restrictions, back in the 1930s,

Noted Holton: "Chicago was a city that drew witty wordsmiths and paid them well. And those wordsmiths filled the clubs--particularly the Tavern Club."

Ah, those were the days, By 2007, the Tavern Club was on its way out, having lost its lease. A proposed merger with the Cliff Dwellers didn't happen.

Holton has opened a rich vein of Chicago's history through the keyhole of the private clubs.

But will the clubs survive? They've endured hard times, going back to virtually all being burned to the ground during the Chicago Fire in 1871 through economic downturns and wars. Many, but not all have endured.

The clubs, leather chairs and wood paneling, may seem quaint, but they are important part of what made Chicago.