The University Club of Washington, DC

Over the years, the club would see many prominent members, including General Pershing and Chief Justice Taft.

Built in 1921, the University Club of Washington, DC, is a still-standing testament to the ever-evolving social scene of Washington. Originally constructed for the Racquet Club (organized in 1919), and a prime example of the Classical Revival style, the University Club was designed as an athletic club for men and included state-of-the-art athletic facilities, such as a swimming pool, bowling alley, and squash courts. Over the years, the Racquet Club – and later, the University Club, following a merger in 1936 – would see many prominent members, including General John G. Pershing, honorary member President Warren G. Harding, honorary member Vice President Calvin Coolidge, and William Howard Taft when he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Private clubs, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were established to improve the social standing and physical appearance of American cities. At the time, most of them were exclusive to wealthy white men, many of whom were prominent figures in politics, government, business, and the military. Private clubs offered them space for conversations that centered around social and civic reforms, as well as science, literature, and art. The first social club that formed in Washington was the Metropolitan Club, which was established in 1863, and others followed shortly thereafter: the Washington Club (1872), the Cosmos Club (1878), and the Alibi Club (1884). Members of clubs were also provided with lodging. 

The Racquet Club was organized in 1919 as a professional club that offered athletic opportunities for businessmen. At an organizing meeting in February 1920, 200 men became lifetime members for a due of $1,000. This, as well as the membership fees of the following year’s new members, enabled the construction of the current clubhouse at 1135 16th Street NW. Chartered in January 1920, Col. Henry May was elected as the first President of the Racquet Club, and his vice president, Jules Henri de Sibour, would be the one to design the new club building. De Sibour is known for other major commissions in Washington, such as the McLachlen Building, McCormick Apartments, and Hamilton Hotel

The building, when planned, was estimated to cost approximately $500,000. It was constructed by Harry Wardman, a prolific developer in early twentieth century Washington. His notable accomplishments included the construction of over 400 apartment buildings, numerous rowhouses, and the Carlton (1925) and Hay-Adams (1927) hotels. Completed in 1921 at a sum of $1,000,000, the Racquet Club’s new building was considered one of the finest clubhouses in the United States.

In 1936, amidst financial troubles during the Great Depression, the University Club merged with the Racquet Club, moving into its current location in December 1936. The University Club had been founded in 1904, when 40 university and college alumni organizations in Washington, DC, came together to create a clubhouse for college-educated men to socialize with one another. Its first president was future president and chief justice William Howard Taft, then the Secretary of War. The University Club’s first building was designed by famous local architect George Oakley Totten Jr. and completed in 1912. It still stands today on the west side of McPherson Square, and later served as the headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America.

In a moment of outreach and to acknowledge the suffragette movement, the University Club allowed women to dine in the main dining room (only on Sundays). In 1929, women were invited to participate in educational programs. Prominent members of the University Club included Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Melville Fuller, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute Charles Walcott, and Totten Jr.

In the mid-1980s, a round of renovations were proposed to provide facilities for women, who were allowed to join the club beginning in 1984, following a vote to amend the bylaws. The first female member was Jo Anne Murphy, an architect, and the daughter and granddaughter of club members. The club would elect its first female president, Susan Neely, then Special Assistant to the President and the Director of Communications for the Department of Homeland Security.

Designed in a Classical Revival style, the University Club building on 16th Street NW includes many key details, such as the limestone string courses, overhanging cornice, and engaged columns. Its facade is clad in red brick and includes limestone detailing. At the center, above the entrance marquee, is a large room that is faced with paired ionic pilasters supporting an entablature. Above the limestone entablature is a medallion adorned with the letters “UC” for University Club.

DC Inventory: January 25, 2024
National Register: April 4, 2024
Within Sixteenth Street Historic District



1135 16th Street, NW