Taste: Rediscovering the Founders Club

Silver napkin rings are all that remain of the city’s famous private dining rooms

With its Fabergé-egg ceilings, stained glass and sweeping views of the city, the 19th floor of the Bellevue-Strafford Hotel was built to inspire. Home to private clubs for most of the 20th century, its dining rooms have a rich history that includes J.P. Morgan and every U.S. president from Roosevelt to Clinton. But all that remains of that exclusive era is 250 silver napkin rings.

The J.E. Caldwell-designed rings are engraved with the names of members of the Founders Club, which opened in 1989. The last of the private societies to occupy the 19th floor, the Founders Club was a throwback to an earlier time — before the Bellevue-Strafford lost its turn-of-the-­century Titanic aura, before the hotel was shuttered for years after dozens of guests died from Legionnaires’ disease in 1976.

At the Founders Club, builder Carl Dranoff, broadcast journalist Marciarose Shestack and the late ambassador Tom Foglietta dined on snapper soup and crabcakes from chef Olivier de Saint Martin (currently chef/owner of Caribou Cafe). “It was perfect for doing private business, especially because there weren’t many places where businesswomen could go,” remembers businesswoman Judith von Seldeneck. “It was like a five-star operation, with fabulous service, and they always knew your name. There weren’t any places like it in the city.” But membership dwindled as the city’s other social clubs began to relax membership requirements, and in the mid-1990s, the exclusive 19th-floor space was finally opened to the public, with the debut of the Founders Restaurant.

Now most of the floor is closed to the masses again—this time for renovations. Every vestige of those private clubs, even the statues of Philadelphia’s founding fathers that stood in the dining room, has been erased. In their place, the Park Hyatt will debut a new, modern restaurant, a café and a cocktail lounge.