A visit to the Union League–mostly picture post

The 21st century tv next to a genre painting of animals personifies what the Union League is today. These are in the smoking room, which reeks of cigars. Our friend Ed is listening to Union League Archivist Jim Mundy.

Murray bid vigorously to take home from the University City Arts League annual auction a four-person tour. He succeeded, and so Friday, we and two friends, Ed and Sharon, went to the Union League, one of the last three Union Leagues remaining in the country. We learned from our tour guide, archivist Jim Mundy that during the Civil War Union Leagues were as numerous as mushrooms, formed all across the North and West to lend support–financial, moral, political, practical–to the Union cause.

A gas cigar lighter in the smoking room!

My own memories of the Union League were not kind–a bunch of self-important old white men.

Cigars are the jackpot this old slot machine delivered, in the smoking room.

But the club, while retaining a privileged male aura in some ways, has moved into 21st century with some grace and consciousness of its noble original mission. All of us who stood in the lobby, including Mundy, were people who would at one time automatically been excluded from the club by virtue of religion or gender. (While those rules are no longer in place, with people of all religions, races and genders eligible to be full-fledged members, feathers still ruffle easily from slights–see last week’s story on Of course poor people need not apply–it’s still a club, with hurdles for membership.


But part of what impresses me about how the organization is on its toes is it nabbed as its internet id.

A banner by African American artist David Bustill Bowser, next to a homemade American flag that a rowhouse owner hung out her window for patriotic occasions, including for the Abraham Lincoln funeral train’s passage through the city.

What impresses me historically is how the original founders, who were living in a city with vast commercial and personal Southern ties, banded together to support the not-so-popular Union at a time when things weren’t looking so good on the battle field.

A commemorative monument to Civil War soldier members, inside the front door. That’s Sharon, below.
This sculpture of Abraham Lincoln was a belated addition to a club formed to support his Union cause.

Mundy, who arranged with the Union League for the donation to the UCAL, had already taken Murray and me on a tour of The Woodlands, the fabulous William Hamilton house now being restored in Woodlands Cemetery (Flickr set here). He is a fountain of information for the organizations he devotes himself to.

The library is my favorite room for the light and space, the groin vaulted ceiling, and the appointments.
Lot Torelli, All’Amor Mio, marble, one of a pair of sculptures flanking the portal into the library.

The building itself, built in three stages, goes from its iconic brick-and-brownstown front on Broad and Sansom streets all the way through to 15th Street, where the red colors give over to the white Horace Trumbauer addition. The architecture inside is also worth noting. Mundy said the idea of the original building was an English country house. My own interpretation was the building was based on an idealized fantasy of what an ideal English country house might be, steeped in nostalgia and Anglophilia.

In a stairwell, a huge window honoring past Union League presidents. The fanlight above didn’t fit in the picture. The stained glass artist was from New Jersey.
An enormous Thomas Sully portrait of George Washington hangs in the Union League, purchased at a bargain price between $700 and $800 dollars during a buyer’s market. No one else wanted it.

The building is full of art (mostly of dead white men, or maybe I should narrow it further, dead white Republicans and a few live ones; being Republican is no longer a standard for membership). Here is a lively portrait of George H.W. Bush and a not-so-lively one of his son. W looks like he’s straight out of Mme. Tussaud’s.

George H.W. Bush, by Everett Raymond Kinstler
George W. Bush, by Mark Carder.

After listening to a load of history and admiring a load of architectural detail, we broke for lunch. Three of us ordered snapper soup just to keep with the traditional fare. Then we went down to the historical exhibit on the ground floor. We saw lead bullets and broken bones, Civil War uniforms and other artifacts.

How different is this from baseball cards? I wondered.
This is all that shows above the water of the submarine the Monitor, according to the writing of a Union soldier.

My own favorite artifacts were a checkerboard with portraits of Union commanders in the light squares, and a reproduction of a soldier’s letter (or maybe it was a journal), with a wonderful little drawing of what the submarine the Monitor looked like at sea.