#160: Caving the Union League Club

May 6th, 2013

In a room the size of a hundred smaller ones, among carpeting and columns that screamed high tea, I stood inches from an Ivan Albright while a trumpeter diddled in the background.

Ivan Albright was an American magic realist artist you know if you’ve seen the 1940s movie version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” He’s dark and brutal, brilliant and horrid, and one of my favorite artists.

I stood inches from him as a trumpeter practiced scales that soon turned into Civil War-era military formation calls as I realized I stood in a room that in a moment reeked of more money than I would earn in a life.

I was in the Union League Club.

The Union League Club is an old-school club. For a few hundred a month, you can be a member and stay there, eat there, shag golf balls in the room I would later find above where the elevator stops. It dates to 1879, the website tells. It seems it.

It was dripped in art, I was told before I went there for an awards ceremony where I won nothing. Every corridor, every hallway, every room off to the side absolutely dripped in art from Chicagoans, 1800s to today. I went early to see, taking the stairs up floor by floor to get to my destination.

In a dining room across the way from the gorgeous art hall where I watched an Ivan Albright while an early arrivee from a Union League Brass Ensemble serenaded me, I heard the head waitstaff tell the rest about the specials so they could repeat it to the diners. Something about creme brulee.

A bathroom I ducked into had paper towels monogrammed with the Union League logo, hand sanitizer, a squirt bottle of the original Listerine (the one that tastes horrible), hand sanitizer, soap, Pinaud’s Clubman aftershave and, I noted with a chuckle, urinals that goes down to the floor like in a grade-school restroom.

On four, in a library where nerds go when they die, I sat in an orgasmically comfortable leather chair beneath a painting of a man whose girth and mustache shrieked “1800s steel baron” or “Walrus King.”

It reminded of the Diogenes Club from Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ brother’s plush club that called for silence. If the Diogenes Club had a collection of all the Federal Writers Project books under glass and a surprising amount of Erma Bombeck.

It also had a collection of first prints of Chicagoana in a locked cabinet. It included Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” I snapped a photo with my phone, the simulated shutter snap ripping through the silent room.

Five was my destination. One room was getting readied for our cocktail reception. In a room across the way, a couple was recited outrageous wedding prices. I circled a staircase past a portrait that looked like a less-bald Moriarty to go up to six.

Six was my destination too, it seemed. Staff were preparing the banquet, glasses tinking against each other like a symphony for triangle.

The art was modern on six. I didn’t like it.

In the stairway up, I came across a painting I liked a lot. It was a painting of a Chicago street, the line style an 1800s impressionist, the scene of Burger Kings and other spots the only betrayal it was more modern.

A dining room marked as reserved for the Notre Dame Club luncheon took me in. I walked past to a back room where chairs were stacked and art was painted on the walls, right on the walls. The ceiling tiles tattered and crumbled above this storage space.

Art was painted on the walls, right on the walls. An attempt at a trompe l’oeil timetable for the Albany and Buffalo, a fake spot for time cards, a deer head, all painted right on the walls in a storage space. 

Across the room had more painted paintings in painted frames. One looked like an Edward Gorey train conductor. Another was a house. I felt uncomfortable. I moved on.

I went down a hallway on seven. I walked to a door I know I shouldn’t open. I did. It was a plain white stairwell, back-and-forth staircases less ornate and art-laden than the ones below circled me up past various floors marked “N.”

8N, 9N, 10N.

At 14N, I walked through the door and take the damn elevator up to 22N. It’s tastefully decorated. I found another white stairwell to go up up.

It was getting more industrial, less comfortable. I saw a corridor off to the side. I followed it past a window peeking out onto air vents and find a room with a net for people to shag golf balls into. The room was plain and white. I was reminded of public elementary schools. A printed sheet of paper taped to the door said the Golf Room would be closed through April 26 for repairs. It wa May 3.

I went back to circle more winding featureless staircases. Up up up. At the top, nothing. A locked door that said “Danger. High Voltage.”

I went down to see if I won my award.

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You are currently reading #160: Caving the Union League Club by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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