During my recent travels to Chile, I managed to spend a fair amount of time in the nation’s capital Santiago.
Arguably no other building / organization has been as instrumental in the country’s development than the historic and famed Club de la Unión. You can also find an abridged history of Chile here by Lonely Planet.
[In fact I was so taken aback by it, that I felt compelled to write this post about it in the hope that at least one more person who may never get to Chile will be exposed to its beauty and history.]
Being a member of the Union League Of Philadelphia and taking a deep interest in its history, I was eager to see and hear some of this club’s stories.
[Note: the clubs are in no way affiliated, in origins or present day operations. Although being a member of one allows access to the other through reciprocal agreements]
I was fortunate enough to be shown around by a current junior member Tomas [see below for Tomas and I, pictured on the second floor above the grand hall / atrium].
He gave a tour de force for over three hours, across the entire building that covers an entire city block square and five stories.
A Brief History Of Club de la Unión
The club first met on July 8th, 1864. As with Chilean society at large, people like to gather with friends, family and associates, and the Club de la Unión gave an extension to this habit. The club got its name from the “union” of men from different political interests.
Currently the club resides in the building I took a tour of and was completed in 1925. Below is a historical picture from two years after the building’s completion.
Picture Above: Circa March 23rd 1927
Gentlemen of one political party entered the main doors at the front of the building, while others entered an additional “main” side entrance. While in the club who only know what kinds of conversations, but Chile and the world to rights. When inside the building oozes history and importance.
During it’s heyday there were over 10,000 active members, making it the literal hub of Chilean politics and society. One can only imagine the hustle and bustle that took part in those days. Tomas showed us an extensive array of amenities and stories of services that were available during that time [see pictures below of the extensive facilities]. For example a small army of bell boys who would deliver messages the length of Chile per members’ requests.
Location Of The Club
The club is located at Avenida Libertador Bernardo O`Higgins 1091, which is on the main road that runs through Santiago.
[Get directions to the club here from Google Maps]
It’s surrounded by the stock exchange, central bank, government buildings and higher education institutions.
The club is well supported by public transport. As it’s a private members club, there is no general public access, but just being in the area as a tourist is a must see. It is definitely worth going at the very least to see the outside of the building and its situational importance.
The Club Today
Today the club boasts an impressive member roll, having 8,000 members of which many prominent individuals of Chilean society are included.
However, as Tomas explained only around 1,000 members are active. This is due to the fact that the private business centers of the city have moved away from the center and closer to the suburbs.
Being nearly 90 years old, covering an entire block, and having survived countless earthquakes, the building is as grand as it is sturdy.
Room after room is well appointed with intricate decor. Tomas showed us side rooms where musicians would play out of sight, while still in clear ear shot for the enjoyment of the members.
Above and below you can see shots of the grand atrium, a truly impressive space.
Below you can see the library. The librarian was telling us of the impressive practice, that each new member must donate a book to keep the collection alive and relevant for the enjoyment of other club members.
Being an Omega watch fan, I was glad to see the Constellation wall clock on proud display above the main entrance’s revolving doors.
There were so many salons and meeting rooms, all with a unique essence.
Bars & Restaurants
The club still has an impressive number of bars and restaurants.
On the day I visited we ate at the least formal dining room, where a jacket is required to dine.
Further there are at least three to four other dining areas that operate daily, offering all manner of options from formal to more casual “game rooms” where one can grab a drink and a snack.
One fun fact is that the main bar is said to be the longest in all of South America. Even if that is not true today, it’s still amazing to think that at one point it was.
Thinking of all the power players who must have propped it up over the years is certainly fun to indulge in while ordering your own favorite tipple.
Above you can see my lunch companions for the day, and some interesting and unique dessert options.
The bar must be 120 ft long.
One of the more formal dining options.
Art & Sculptures
The club also contains one the most significant art collections in all of Chile.
Many pieces of work have been donated by members and their families over the years.
Large scale is what comes to mind while touring the building.
To accommodate 10,000 active members at its height, the club is equipped to cater to bustling life and activity.
Members could visit the gym, take a nap in one of the 30 or so nap rooms, take a swim and even enjoy a sauna.
There is also a full pool and snooker table room, housing 10 tables.
The barber should only have one active barber today, but in years past there were over eight all chopping and trimming away to keep up with all the members’ needs.
They even have an in-house custom tailor! I won’t be leaving my London tailors Benson & Clegg anytime soon, but it’s definitely a nice touch for members to have onsite.
Going Forward / My Two Cents
I do not claim to fully understand the full scope of Santiago’s socioeconomic climate, especially with respect to the “flight” of businesses and the wealthy to the extremities and suburbs of the city.
But with it’s proximity to key government and financial buildings, in addition to its historical significance, I surely hope the club finds a way to survive and indeed thrive.
If Chile / Santiago is anything like American and British cities, the inner parts of the city may experience a Renaissance of flight back to the old centers. This can be viewed as a re-gentrification, as rents are low initially, there is typically good transportation links, culture, etc., making these areas attractive, and thus on the upswing.
Once again I would like to thank Tomas for the tour, and Club de la Unión for having me for the day. It was truly a privilege to have the opportunity to experience your building and history first hand.
I wish to see / host many Chilean counterparts at the Union League Of Philadelphia in the future. Please contact me if interested.