The Club Seen

The Union Club

Union Club members have come to expect a certain level of service, like the discreet “call” buttons in the meeting rooms, which bring hot coffee and pastries.

And why not? Founded in 1872 as “a place where cultured gentlemen meet to read and discuss the topics of the day,” its roster has featured five U.S. presidents and the pillars of Cleveland society. Who’s there — civic leaders, CEOs, dealmakers and the club’s first female president, Mary Lynn Laughlin — is the biggest draw. (You must be invited to even be considered for membership.)

But the appointments are mighty fine too. The Union Club built its current clubhouse on Euclid Avenue at the turn of the 20th century to accommodate more members.

And the majestic sandstone structure, with its Ralph Lauren-blue awnings, grand Italian marble staircase, silk wall coverings and Persian rugs, recently got a 21st century makeover. (Yeah, there’s now a room filled with modern fitness equipment.)

But cup a brandy in the club’s woodpaneled Reading Room, among ornately framed portraits of Hanna, Bingham and Mather, and Cleveland’s storied past rushes forth. (In fact, the club’s private art holdings are so impressive, The Cleveland Museum of Art has borrowed from it.)

In the main dining room, men must sport jacket and tie to enjoy the room’s 20- foot plaster ceilings, ornamental columns and honey-colored hardwood floors. And if, by chance, one knocks back one too many cocktails, The Union Club offers discreet private guest suites.

The Hermit Club

It’s noon on a workday at The Hermit Club bar. There, in jackets and loosened ties, members sip cocktails, exchange bon mots and sneak the occasional cigarette. But they do not discuss business. “This isn’t The Union Club, after all,” says a member. After a round or three, it’s time to go. Not back to work, mind you, but to the secluded brick patio where a lunch of Welsh rarebit and croque monsieur awaits.

Following a visit to New York City’s famed The Lambs club, a social organization dedicated to the performing arts, noted Cleveland architect Frank B.

Meade returned home to build one of his own in 1904.

Since 1928, the club has occupied a Jacobean revival-style Abbey on tiny Dodge Court, an alley behind the Playhouse Square theaters. It is cramped, dark, dated and ripe with decades-old cigar smoke. Yet, there is a piano in nearly every room.

And the club’s 200 members mount fullscale theatrical productions, perform jazz and orchestra concerts and sing in choral groups.

When admitted, members undergo a secret rite of passage: clad in hermit’s robes and clutching abbot’s staffs, brothers read from dusty-old scrolls, await the mythic Wanderer, and, ultimately, break bread with their new comrades.

“People join those other clubs when they want to be seen,” explains general manager Andrew Tuzzeo. “They join The Hermit Club when they don’t.”

The Schvitz

To get to the Schvitz, you need more than a phone book. Heck, you need more than directions and a good map. What you need is a well-placed friend, an appetite for adventure, and more than a little nerve. Located off the main road, down a dubious-looking alley, the decades-old Schvitz is not just under the radar, it’s as shadowy as the Batcave.

Schvitz, Yiddish for sweat, refers to the prime activity at the joint. Hairy men roam the halls in sheets, towels or something alarmingly close to their birthday suit. The destination: a tiered, tiled steam room.

With beads — no, buckets — of sweat fleeing their pores, they kvetch about work, wives and sports. When the heat becomes unbearable, they dip into the icy plunge pool, an agony of the other extreme.

Though it’s called the Schvitz, the real draw is the steak. Following a hot shower, folks gather — still toga-clad — in the modest kitchen for cold beer, colder vodka, maybe some pickled herring on Jewish rye. With thumb and finger, diners demonstrate to the staff how thick they’d like their bone-in rib steak, which is cut to order on an old band saw. Grilled to juicy perfection and buried beneath an ungodly amount of garlic, the steaks seem like manna from heaven.

Folks gnaw the bones clean, don their street clothes and exit into the night, thankful they know how to find the Schvitz.

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