Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
There’s a place just off Rittenhouse Square where Philadelphia’s elite come to exercise. It’s one of the most exclusive sports clubs in town, and yearly dues routinely run into the thousands of dollars.
The Racquet Club of Philadelphia near 16th and Walnut has been around for more than 125 years, and it’s home to squash, racquets and court tennis playing areas as well as a locker room, pool and fitness center. But this place is also home to some of the most exclusive social events in the city — think Caddyshack, y’all — and is complete with bars, high-end food and hotel rooms.
With about 800 members, the Racquet Club is looking to grow. But getting in is still a tough process, and you’ve got to know current members in order to be accepted. With one-time club members like Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, you’ll have to know some people in high places.
In order to be accepted into the club, candidates must fill out an application and have proposing and seconding members write letters of support and recommendation. Once those are submitted, the candidate, along with at least one of the current member supports, attends an Elective Committee meeting to be approved for selection. Once approved, membership includes a reciprocal agreement with more than 200 clubs across the world, so members hanging out in Europe can use those facilities, too.
For members who live or work in the city and who make up the vast majority of members, the initiation fee is $1,500 and yearly dues range from $975 to $4,000 depending on age and what type you purchase. In addition to those fees, members pay yearly dues of $1,500 to use all the courts — but many pay a la carte for only the sports they frequently pay. In addition, there’s a $150 quarterly minimum that must be spent at the club.
There’s also a strict dress code: In the clubhouse, members are required to wear business casual dress that is neat, in good condition, and includes long pants, collared shirts, sport coats, dresses and skirts, sweaters, blouses and appropriate footwear. Shorts and collarless shirts on men are not permitted. No flip-flips or casual clothing is allowed, and no denim except on the weekends.
Billy Penn took a tour of the Racquet Club with General Manager Derik Comalli to show you what it’s like to play racquet sports while surrounded by chandeliers, expensive art and ornate architecture. Here’s a look inside, beginning with the first lobby when you walk in the doors of the Club:
The Club was founded in 1882 by 22 prominent Philadelphians. Its current home was built in 1907 and, at the time, was dubbed “the most modern clubhouse in the country,” according to Comalli. We started our tour with a look at the court tennis area, which isn’t regular tennis.
Once only a sport for royals, court tennis came before the more well-known lawn tennis and the Racquet Club here in Philly holds one of only 11 court tennis spaces in the country. The racquet is smaller (which makes it harder, because smaller sweet spot) and players must hit the ball off a jutting-out portion of the wall so that it bounces onto the opponents side.
Because the sport is so uncommon, many of the best players in the world have played here. The court tennis pro at the club is ranked No. 13 in the world, and every three years, the U.S. Open of court tennis is held here. I tried my hand at court tennis — it certainly takes more hand-eye coordination than regular tennis does. Also of note: All the tennis balls used for this game are stitched like baseballs, as they’re made in-house.
And here’s a look at the court:
We also took at look at the squash, racquetball and racquets courts, each that look a little different and vary in size. Squash is similar to racquetball, and racquets is another sport entirely that features a smaller racquet, and a smaller, harder ball that moves faster when bounced off the wall.
The number of squash courts will increase in the next year as the racquet club undergoes a renovation to rip out some meeting rooms and add in more courts. Here’s a look at one of the squash courts that’s there now:
The walls on the squash courts are scuffed up — and members like it that way. Comalli says the plain white walls make the lighting harder. So the scuffs stay.
This is what the racquets court looks like. FWIW, I also tried this sport. It’s quite hard.
Upstairs near the courts, we noticed there was a keg sitting a room all by its lonesome. Comalli said the thing is always tapped, and a beer guy named the “Poobah” — a rotating title for whomever is appointed by the previous year’s poobah — picks the beers. On tap while we were there? Coors Light and Abita Purple Haze.
It’s recommended: Members shouldn’t drink too much. Anyone can be removed from membership if they’re misbehaving, and over-intoxication is the No. 1 reason people are shown the door.
Also on some of the upstairs floors are the locker rooms and the pool area (a non-first floor pool was a big deal when it was built in 1907!)
Though the space has been renovated, the locker room still features its original shower heads in addition to a lounge that’s an offshoot of the locker room:
While sports are a big part of life here at the Racquet Club, social life is huge, too. A large part of what members pay for is the opportunity to socialize with other Philadelphia elite. One of the opportunities where they can do so is the in-house barber-shop that’s staffed full-time:
The Racquet Club also has two different restaurants — one is a lunch-time space that features sandwiches and the like, and the other is a pub downstairs that has more options and is open for dinner Monday through Friday. Here at the Racquet Club, Chef Nick Lisotto, a former Vetri chef, does the food.
But what may make this space truly special is the art and architecture, especially on the first floor, in some of the massive rooms that are used to hold events. They’re adorned with historical relics of racquet club members past, and huge chandeliers hand from their ceilings. Comalli said weddings are sometimes held in the spaces, but they’re more often used for member events like movie nights and a weekly happy hour.
For more information on the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, visit the club’s website here.