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University and Whist Club history

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Delaware Public Media

Long before the towering mansion on Broom Street in Wilmington became the University & Whist Club, it’s owner proposed it as the site of another august group: the U.S. Capitol, where the fledgling nation’s Congress would meet.

Dr. James Tilton was himself Delaware’s congressman. A hero of the Revolutionary War, he crossed the Delaware with George Washington and became the nation’s first Surgeon General. The granite slab he used for autopsies is still in the basement of the club’s headquarters, historically known as the Tilton Mansion.

Washington’s fellow Virginians persuaded him that the Capitol should be sited close to home, on the Potomac River. Although he lost his bid to make Wilmington the nation’s capital, Tilton named his home Federal Hill, building the foundation for the current structure in 1802.

He entertained on a grand scale, although the doctor never ordered coffee or tea, brews he thought were bad for his guests’ health. Instead, he served rum.

In 1852, Wilmington industrialist Charles Howland bought the house and immediately hired Roger Morris Smith, an architect from Philadelphia, to draw plans to make it bigger. Smith’s plans called for a stone tower topped with an observatory that would provide views of New Jersey on a clear day. A pump house provided the luxury of running water.

The next owner, Lt. Gov. Danforth Bush, tweaked the interior to add Tudor touches such as leaded stained glass windows that exist to this day.

The Whist Club, one of the present-day club’s forerunners, was organized in 1891 to play what was then a wildly popular British card game for four players. No drinking, betting or women allowed. In 1924, the University Club was formed, a fellowship of college-educated men.

In 1958, the two clubs merged. The University set was challenged by the residential shift from the city to the suburbs. Whist was out; bridge was in.

The Whist Club moved from their home in a large Victorian on Delaware Avenue into the club’s current location, then the headquarters of the University Club.

It was a natural match. The Whist Club brought its card games and billiards to the club. The University Club offered its food service and clubby meeting rooms.

University & Whist soon established a reputation as a place to develop business and political contacts. There was a long waiting list for membership as the DuPont Co. and other prominent companies included dues as part of the package for their executives.

Women were not permitted to join the club until 1988, a full five years after the General Assembly passed a law forbidding state business with entities that discriminated on the basis of gender. It took three votes—in 1986, 1987 and 1988—to get the measure through.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.