Envisioning the Future to Leave a Lasting Legacy

The private club industry is abuzz with talk of changing lifestyles, shifting demographics, and evolving to meet member needs. In fact, the true danger for a private club lies in choosing not to evolve as the world continues to change around us. This is true for policies, programs, services, amenities, facilities, and the like. And regardless of the shape, size, or location of a particular club, all success stories have one thing in common: They began with a vision for the future. 

For years, The Union League of Philadelphia has been an exemplary model for envisioning the future and developing a thoughtful plan to achieve it. The recent unveiling of Trumbauer’s—its new rooftop restaurant—is the latest impressive achievement for a Club that is willing to make big moves and take risks, all in the name of preserving its legacy.  

Here, we dive into the intricate elements of this unique project and how its success is grounded in respecting history, committing to excellence, and overcoming challenges to achieve a desired outcome. 

Building a Legacy  

Since its inception in 1862 as a patriotic society to support the policies of President Abraham Lincoln, The Union League of Philadelphia has remained dedicated to its founding motto: Amor Patriae Ducit or Love of Country Leads. And just as its original members represented the Philadelphia region’s leaders in all industries, the Union League is now comprised of over 4,000 men and women who continue to enrich the Club’s culture and keep its traditions alive.  

With its dedication to freedom and free enterprise, the Union League has continually evolved to promote historic preservation, education, and leadership. It is this inspiring mission that has led the Union League to its prominence across the country and around the world. In the private club industry, specifically, the Union League of Philadelphia has been consistently voted the #1 City Club in the United States since 2012. How? Steadfast leadership with an eye to the future—and a plan on how to get there. 

Making Moves 

The Union League has a history of making bold yet sensible moves to provide its members with a plethora of unique amenities. In addition to carefully and strategically planning for the future of the League House, which occupies an entire city block in the center of Philadelphia’s commercial and cultural district, the Club has expanded its reach to include additional properties, such as standalone restaurants, golf courses, a hotel, event space, and more. Each new endeavor is thoughtfully planned and executed with one goal: to enhance the Club’s legacy.  

The Union League contacted Chambers in 2019 to assist with the development of a long-term Master Plan for its facilities over the next 10-15 years. While the overarching planning efforts included concepts for several of the Club’s properties, as well as opportunities to elevate various areas within the League House, ideas for the next bold transformation quickly began to take shape. During a facility tour that included a review of the aging mechanical systems located on the roof of the League House, the team began to envision an amenity unlike any other in Philadelphia—a rooftop restaurant with an unmatched view of Center City. 

Crafting Elegance 

Built in 1865, the League House is a five-story structure that boasts 250,000 SF of space. The new rooftop dining venue (fondly named Trumbauer’s after Horace Trumbauer, the architect who designed the beaux arts annex in 1911) adds a sixth story to the building. This impressive feat of architecture and engineering spans 10,800 SF, which includes 9,400 SF of indoor space and a 1,400 SF outdoor terrace. 

The sophisticated design of Trumbauer’s, with its warm, neutral color palette, high-quality materials, and expansive views, epitomizes the Club’s endless pursuit of excellence. The goal? To create a contemporary dining venue that offers a generously welcoming, yet reassuringly exclusive experience with historic context. The challenge? Ensuring that the design would feel elegant and new while respecting the Club’s history and responding to the existing building architecture. 

The central skylight, which mimics the shape of the existing arched eyebrow dormers on the building’s exterior, floods the bar area with natural light. A custom art installation hangs from the ceiling and is comprised of shapes that are inspired by the acanthus plant, a motif in the beaux arts architecture such as the Union League annex building that is often seen on Corinthian columns and other architectural details. The reflective properties of the shapes’ anodized aluminum material create a unique display of moving shadows across the skylight atrium walls, transforming the aesthetic within the atrium as light changes throughout the day. 

The bar area flows seamlessly to the adjacent upscale dining space, which contains a mixture of banquette and table seating. Exquisite meals are prepared in a new commercial kitchen, which is open to view from the dining area and bar, creating an elevated culinary experience. Lighted wine displays separate the bar area from a private dining space that is flooded with rich blue hues, wood details, and brass accents.  

The club’s sophisticated brand became a guiding light in the design, influencing everything from color schemes to artwork to intricate details that are discreetly woven into décor. This integration not only adds visual appeal but also fosters a sense of belonging and pride among members.  

“We incorporated thoughtful details throughout the interior and exterior design,” says Lee Hyden, Director of Architecture and Principal at Chambers. “We designed molding details to conceal air distribution within the recessed coffers of the ceiling; the exterior cornice detail of the new roof is inspired by the exterior secondary cornice; electrical receptacles are discreetly hidden behind booths or under the bar for members to be able to charge their devices. There are intricate details incorporated at every turn.”  

The allure of harmonious outdoor spaces is a common thread in private club design. Expansive windows surround all three sides of the rooftop addition, maximizing the views of Center City from any seat. An operable window wall creates an opportunity for a unique indoor-outdoor experience leading from the bar to the outdoor terrace, which spans the full width of the rooftop with direct access from all dining spaces. Once outside, carefully placed planters subtly separate outdoor dining tables from two soft seating areas that surround fire pits. 

Preserving History 

The original building is representative of the classic French Renaissance style. Listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1957, the League House was also added to the National Historic Register in 1979, leading to an intricate approval process through the Philadelphia Historical Commission. 

The Union League’s historical significance alone would have been enough to warrant a design concept that incorporated as much history as possible,” says Hyden, “but the historical submission process really challenged us to be even more thoughtful about key details. It elevated the design even further into something we can all be extremely proud of.”  

The scale of the building and visibility of the modern addition from surrounding streets were key concerns from a historical preservation standpoint. In addition, height and weight restrictions prompted the team to develop innovative structural systems within the parapet. Chambers studied massing and proportions to integrate with the historic building and refined roofline details to minimize visibility from Sansom Street and Moravian Street. The terrace itself is set back 15 feet within the parapet to eliminate visibility from 15th Street entirely.  

Outside, limestone walls and slate terrace pavers seamlessly integrate with the existing building materials, and black wrought iron railings surround the terrace. Notably, the railing design matches an original sketch that was conceived by Horace Trumbauer in the early 1900s but was never constructed.   

“The final railing design was modified to incorporate the Union League’s logo,” says Hyden. “It’s a subtle and elegant detail that still nods to the original design but further celebrates the Union League’s brand.” Incorporating the club’s brand into design elements adds a distinctive touch of sophistication. Personalized details such as this resonate with members and enhance their sense of exclusivity.  

Another part of the Club’s unique history? Its distinguished collection of art and artifacts. One cannot walk through any space in the League House without being impressed by the art collection that adorns the walls and hallways. Chambers’ interior design team took great care to incorporate some of these pieces throughout the dining spaces, creating an environment that is not only visually pleasing, but intellectually stimulating. 

Overcoming Challenges 

Renovating a historic building, particularly one with a 160-year history like The League House, inevitably entails navigating challenges during construction. Aaron Jaffe, assistant Project Manager at Clemens Construction Company (the general contractor for the project), explains how important it is to plan for unforeseen circumstances—from a construction standpoint as well as financially. “Working with buildings that are a century old is always unique and presents its own challenges,” Jaffe explains. “Expect the unexpected; its almost a guarantee that you will have to remediate issues.”

Jaffe also notes how important it is to understand the construction techniques of the era in which a historic structure was built. Clemens’ team has significant experience in this area and brought expert knowledge to the project team. “If you understand the original construction techniques, you have a sense of what you might find when you open the walls up—or in this case the roof. You can then be better prepared to know how to resolve issues and tie in new construction techniques and materials with the old structure.”

In the case of Trumbauer’s, the team encountered not only the inherent uncertainties but also distinct challenges they were aware of from the very beginning of the project. First, the available footprint for the rooftop addition was constrained by the fixed boundaries of the roof. Historic commission requirements imposed additional limitations within the parapet to reduce visibility from the street level, and further restrictions arose due to the necessity of relocating displaced mechanical systems onto portions of the roof. Chambers worked diligently to refine the design and optimize the available roof area, carefully balancing member experience and functionality.

The decision to cover the existing atrium to gain additional square footage introduced a new hurdle. “When we covered the lightwell with the new dining facility, we eliminated any natural light to the overnight guest rooms below,” notes Hyden. “We worked with our lighting designer and completed extensive light studies to develop a solution that could simulate daylight at the windows for those rooms.” 

Simultaneously, the placement of the new kitchen storage and prep area presented another challenge, requiring the installation of a new steel column a few inches from the Club’s historic Lincoln Ballroom. Given the historical significance of the ballroom, there was no margin for error, demanding precise design direction for the construction team to ensure success during implementation. 

Lastly, a feat that required a great deal of coordination with various engineering teams to design appropriate systems and meet building codes—extending the existing elevators and stairwells to the new rooftop level. Each unique challenge underscored the need for extensive collaboration, emphasizing the critical importance of building strong teams for renovation projects, particularly those as complex as the rooftop addition for Trumbauer’s. 

Envisioning the Future 

Trumbauer’s has set a new benchmark for private club design, showcasing meticulous attention to detail, innovative solutions, and an unwavering commitment to excellence. But above all else, it celebrates the Club’s commitment to celebrating its history and perpetuating its legacy for generations to come—and isn’t that what it’s all about? 

Have you thought about how to elevate your club spaces and plan for the future? Comment below or email us to learn how we can help! 

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