Fitler Club: The Union League of New Philadelphia

Can the staid old world of private clubs be disrupted? David Gutstadt and a slew of Just the Right People are betting on it.

Photograph by Emily Assiran

David Gutstadt thinks he’s invented something new — something posh yet casual, exclusive yet diverse, hedonistic yet philanthropic, a one-stop shop for the modern urbanite to achieve personal and social fulfillment — something he’s calling Fitler Club.

And for now, since he’s still trying to sign up members, the First Rule of Fitler Club is: TALK A LOT ABOUT FITLER CLUB.

“I want to take a couple minutes,” he says, “to talk about what we think is a really exciting project for the City of Philadelphia, and hopefully in the future bringing this to other cities around the country.”

It’s dinnertime on a bitterly cold midwinter weeknight, and cocktails and canapés are being served in the lobby of the sleek modernist box that’s home to Franklin Square Investments, which sits on Rouse Boulevard in a part of the Navy Yard development that despite being in the city feels like a suburban office park. Comcast is co-sponsoring a gathering of several dozen corporate and foundation do-gooders from around the country and spending a few days showing them how Philadelphia does good. Tonight is dedicated to the food and hospitality sector.

“I am the founder … in a new venture called Fitler Club,” Gutstadt says, talking into a wireless microphone that’s simultaneously amplifying and distorting his natural voice through a small portable speaker. “Fitler Club is what we believe is going to be the next evolution in the private lifestyle club space.” Someone like Gutstadt, a 42-year-old who has a degree in economics from Princeton and spent two decades working with top investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, might once have said he was in a business or maybe even a game — like “the finance game” — but in the current lingo, the goal is to try to occupy and command a “space.” You wonder if Elon Musk tells people he’s in the space space.

“I actually came out of the hospitality space,” Gutstadt says. “I’m a 20-year hospitality veteran.” About six years ago, he tells the crowd, he was ready to leave the hospitality finance game and move to Philadelphia with his children and his wife, the former Julia Dranoff, whose father, Carl Dranoff, has filled a lot of Philly space with apartments and condos. (“I met my wife in college at Princeton,” Gutstadt has informed me. They were both athletes — he tennis; she crew — and got acquainted during long training runs, even competing in a marathon together: “Eventually, what seems to happen to anyone who marries into a Philadelphia family, I ended up moving here. But it took around 15 years.”) Shortly after the move, Gutstadt became a long-distance commuter, lured back to work in Manhattan by the CEO of the aggressively upscale fitness club operator Equinox and charged with developing a plan for the company’s move into hotels — er, the hospitality space.

So, he says, he spent five years “racing around studying hotels.” Meanwhile, out of the corner of his eye, he was seeing the explosive growth of the co-working company WeWork, which would soon diversify its offerings by moving into housing, education and fitness. Gutstadt was noticing hip private clubs like England’s Soho House establish successful outposts in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. It began to seem clear that people are increasingly willing to put more and more of how they experience their daily lives into the hands of trusted brands. “Watching all this — I’m sitting at the pointy end of the spear and saying this is an unbelievable confluence of lifestyle and design and hospitality all coming together. Everyone gets to this moment in their life where the lightbulb goes off.”

Aha! In that moment of enlightenment, Gutstadt asked himself: What would the club of the future look like?

And he answered: “It’s got to have health and wellness. Because that’s important to people. Got to have great restaurants and social space. It’s got to be diverse and community-oriented. Everything the modern urbanite wants. We put in a co-working space. No one’s done that. What a great opportunity.”

Then he looked at the new Philadelphia he saw emerging and decided his new adopted city was ready for such a place. “You collect 2,000 or 3,000 of the most interesting, influential leaders, connectors, influencers across all segments of Philadelphia. What do you have? You have a platform that can actually do good and effect change.”

That same day, I meet David Gutstadt at the actual place where he has chosen to create the future in the private club space. He arrives wearing a groovy camouflage parka with a fur-trimmed hood and carrying two shiny black hard hats, the kind worn on construction sites by people who will never actually pick up a tool. We’re on the far western edge of Center City, in the 2400 block of Market Street, on a landing outside a huge five-story concrete-and-brick building that was once a Hudson Motor Car factory. Hudson disappeared in the late 1950s, and the building was adapted for other uses: For decades, it was called the Marketplace Design Center. Now, the original structure is undergoing a gut renovation, and a five-story steel-and-glass box has been added on top, creating nearly 300,000 square feet of space to house the new international headquarters of Aramark Corporation.

We climb some pipe-scaffold stairways up to a large, open room with ceilings rising higher than 13 feet. The concrete floor is strewn with construction debris, and Gutstadt warns me against puncture wounds. An emerging skeleton of steel wall studs is starting to define the layout of Fitler Club, which Gutstadt hopes to open early next year. We walk over to a dirty window onto which a blueprint is taped.

Rendering of a hotel room at Fitler Club. Courtesy of MRad Architecture

“We’re here,” Gutstadt says, putting a finger on the blueprint. “These are offices. This is where the elevators come up. There’s a restaurant, a private dining area, a terrace, the bar. A private area for investors. A second restaurant.” We walk toward the big windows on the building’s southwest corner, which look out onto the Schuylkill River, the riverside trail, the neoclassical facade of 30th Street Station flanked by the two modern glass towers — Cira Center and FMC Tower — that are the most glittering symbols of an ongoing shift of the city’s energy toward University City.

“What restaurant in Philly has these views?” Gutstadt asks rhetorically. “The bridges light up at night. You’ve got this beautiful landscaped promenade, like a mini version of the High Line in New York.” The roll call of features continues as he leads me through the big room. There’ll be a plush 50-seat movie theater that shares a hall with the 14 five-star hotel rooms and suites. “Two floors down are the fitness and event space,” Gutstadt says, “a ballroom, a trophy room and a bowling alley.” Plans also call for a climbing wall and a 75-foot lap pool. Gutstadt, with his Equinox experience and personal interests, will be very hands-on in the fitness center.

Early renderings of the design concepts show a sleek and modern look leaning toward Industrial Chic, with soft, muted furnishings playing off the brutal solidity of the exposed concrete building elements. But design will vary throughout. “The whole story of the club revolves around this being your second home,” Gutstadt says. “Just like your home, there’ll be different areas. One might be industrial and edgy, another clubby and comfortable.”

Rendering of the gym at Fitler Club. Courtesy of MRad Architecture

The project’s design architect, Matthew Rosenberg, who lives in Los Angeles, tells me the design concept is evolving as he gets to know this city better. “We’ve had to adjust our design sense,” he says, “and understand there’s history in the building and Philly that definitely doesn’t exist in L.A. More richness and texture … more old-school feel.”

The ultimate goal, according to Gutstadt: “I would like each component of this club to be the best example of its kind. Not just in Philadelphia, but really in the country. I want people to say: This is the greatest gym I’ve ever seen. This is the best restaurant experience I’ve ever had. And this is the best hotel room. Best private movie theater. If we’re thoughtful — I think we can achieve that. Then we can take it other places. This could be the next billion-dollar idea for the membership club model.

“The day I gave notice [to Equinox] was the day I signed the letter of intent for the space I have right now,” he adds. “I had done a lot of concepting. We had done some programming and some layouts. It was like a night job. But the moment we hit the button and I had my agreement with the landlord and the main partner in the deal, I said, Okay, this is going to be it now. That was April 2017. I started thinking about it seriously about nine months before that. Thinking, sketching, playing around — executive-summary-type stuff. But the concept — that was all just me.”

Gutstadt grew up in Toronto, and he exudes that fabled Canadian niceness, along with a strong impression that he would have done quite well if he’d gone into the sales space. But along with the niceness, you sense a core of discipline and steely resolve. Though he left the competitive world of tennis when he was only 20, tired of the grinding pressure, he pivoted quickly to running marathons. In the past dozen years, since his first daughter was born, he has turned to the much more relaxed rigors of competing in Ironman triathlons, which also involved teaching himself to swim.

When I ask Carl Dranoff for a story that illuminates his son-in-law’s character, he tells me about the rock-climbing wall Gutstadt put into the new house he and Julia built on a corner lot on 24th Street in the Fitler Square neighborhood. “I said, ‘Wait a second. You’ve got kids,’” Dranoff remembers. “‘The children are going to have their friends over. You’ll have all these kids falling off the wall.’ David told me, ‘On the contrary, it’s very safe, and they’ll be harnessed in. And they’ll get past their fears.’”

An old college friend of Gutstadt’s who has invested in Fitler Club tells me, “If it was anyone else trying to do this, I’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re crazy.’ But David is one of the most enthusiastic people I know. And he gets that glimmer in his eye, and you know he’s actually going to do this thing. He’ll find a way.”

Being the Ivy League-educated, New York-investment-bank-credentialed son-in-law of Carl Dranoff catapulted David Gutstadt into a rather elite club when he arrived in Philadelphia. Through the family, he’d been longtime friends with Dean Adler, whose investment company, Lubert-Adler, is the top private-equity real estate company in the region. Gutstadt had started working for Lubert-Adler before Equinox drew him back to New York. Adler is the co-developer of the new Aramark headquarters building. He happened to have 75,000 square feet of space available. Gutstadt also knew Michael Forman, a Philadelphia lawyer who in 2007 started an investment company, Franklin Square, that has grown in a decade to 300 employees.

“One of the reasons David looked to me to be his partner is that I’ve had success and I have a pretty good network,” Forman says. “So we relied upon the network that I’ve relied upon and who has invested and had some success with me. And they’re the right kind of people. They are good Philadelphians. This is a for-profit venture, but we’re going to set aside a certain percentage of our income for philanthropy. And we’re looking to do more than just a pure for-profit model.”

To buttress that idea, Gutstadt turned to a New Yorker, an old friend named Dan Bassichis whom he’d hired years before to be a summer associate at Goldman Sachs. Bassichis is now running Admiral Capital, an investment company he started with David Robinson, the former All-Star center for the San Antonio Spurs who’s nicknamed “the Admiral” because he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. Robinson has spent his retirement years building inner-city schools, helping athletes transition back into the real world when their playing careers end, and giving other wealthy professionals a place to invest their money that has a philanthropic component. Admiral Capital not only put $4 million into Gutstadt’s Fitler Club concept (the second largest investment after Forman’s); it brought with it an instant glow of celebrity. When Dan Bassichis spoke at the Navy Yard gathering just two days after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, he made a point to mention that because of Admiral Capital’s participation, investors in Fitler Club include someone who might have caught a touchdown pass in the big game and another who might have forced a fumble. He’s since confirmed that Zach and Julie Ertz, Holly Robinson and Rodney Peete, Brandon Graham, Baron Davis, Grant Hill and Shane Battier are all investors.

Clockwise from top left: Investor Michael Forman, Fitler Club chef Kevin Sbraga, GM Jeff Benjamin, and investors Julie and Zach Ertz, Shane Battier and Dean Adler. Battier and the Ertzes courtesy of the Associated Press; Sbraga and Benjamin courtesy of Stephen Macurdy; Foreman courtesy of FS Investments.

Beyond the celebrity, Gutstadt was able to land a few well-known Philadelphians for operational roles. Jeff Benjamin, the front-of-the-house guru who spent 20 years building a restaurant group with Marc Vetri and then sold most of it to URBN in 2016 for just under $20 million, had known Michael Forman since the early days of Vetri’s first tiny townhouse eatery. Forman serves on the board of the restaurateurs’ Vetri Community Partnership. Forman had introduced Benjamin to David Gutstadt, who was talking about a club concept, but Benjamin was working for URBN. Less than two days after Benjamin left URBN, Forman called him. Next thing Benjamin knew, he was having dinner with Gutstadt. “And within 48 hours after that,” Benjamin reports, “it was fait accompli that I’d be working on Fitler Club.” As COO, Benjamin will oversee all the hospitality components of the club. “It’s David’s vision,” he tells me, “and David has a great entrepreneurial spirit. In a lot of ways, I’m feeling the same excitement as when Marc and I started working together.”

Timing and connections also helped Gutstadt land a celebrity chef to oversee the food and beverage operations. Kevin Sbraga rocketed out of a Top Chef win and opened five restaurants, but by the middle of last year, four of them were closed, and the fifth was on its last legs. “Carl Dranoff was the landlord in a few of my restaurants,” Sbraga tells me. He knew David Gutstadt and his wife because they would regularly eat at Sbraga’s high-end eponymous restaurant in Dranoff’s Symphony House building on South Broad Street. With Sbraga shuttered and the last of the chef’s comfort-food places, Fat Ham, not long for life, Gutstadt told Sbraga, “Hey, I’m working on something interesting I’d like to talk to you about.”

“He started telling me about this private club and hotel and restaurant and fitness thing,” Sbraga recalls, “and I’m just like, ‘Wow, I don’t know what to compare this to.’ It was really interesting. I think I was his first employee.”

There’s a standard question I ask everyone I talk to who’s involved in the development of the fledgling Fitler Club: Do you belong to any clubs? The most common answer is, “No.”

“It would never come to my mind to go be part of a club,” Kevin Sbraga says. “Honestly, when David first said it, it was hard to wrap my head around, because chefs don’t do that.”

Jeff Benjamin says he worked at some country clubs when he was younger but never joined one.

Primary investor Michael Forman says he belonged to a few golf clubs but used them just for golf. He’d thought of joining the Union League, he says, but realized he’d probably never go there.

“We’ve lived in Philadelphia for 10 years,” says Fitler Club charter member Amanda Branson Gill, a documentary film producer who came to town when her husband joined a technology venture capital firm here, “and it never occurred to us to join the Union League. The Union League is fine and a real institution that is an important part of the civic fabric of Philadelphia. But it’s not a place I would ever join.”

By all accounts, the Union League is thriving, with a waiting list of people trying to get in. A club industry magazine, The BoardRoom, recently called it “a shining example of the city club rebirth.” The club’s general manager, Jeff McFadden, told The BoardRoom that more women and children are participating and that adding outposts on the Main Line and at the Jersey Shore, along with a golf club in Torresdale, has broadened the appeal. He also mentioned that the average member’s age is 57.

“Look at the Union League,” says Michael Forman. “In some ways, they’ve become the only game in town.” The Philly private club world never had a lot of players, and recent decades saw that number shrink. “I remember the old Locust Club,” Forman says. “A whole bunch of clubs have dissolved and consolidated into the Union League. I think there is an opportunity for the next generation. And that’s what Fitler Club is — it’s the next generation of clubs. There’s room for the Union League to continue to thrive and for us to thrive by providing a little bit different experience. I think our amenities will be a little bit better, like the gym and hotel. The ballroom will be different and updated. Hopefully, we can succeed.”

David Gutstadt talks politely about the Union League (Carl Dranoff is a member), but he believes, and is making a big bet, that there’s an untapped market for the kind of place he’s trying to create: the new urbanites.

As Gutstadt was conceiving Fitler Club, it became clear to him that the resurgence of the urban private membership club had started in London, where a host of clubs have opened in the past few years. “These days,” the Telegraph has reported, “the well-connected man or woman will have a bewildering range of private members’ clubs from which to choose, and new ones are springing up all the time.” The writer traced the burgeoning trend back to “anti-traditionalist establishments that emerged in the mid-Eighties (the most famous of which is probably the Groucho).” The Groucho was named as a direct winking reference to the late comedian Groucho Marx, who famously (there are many variations of the line) said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Will David Gutstadt create a club for people who would never join a club?

“I wouldn’t couch it like that,” he tells me. “I just think Fitler Club is designed for what we think the modern urbanite wants.

“We ask ourselves every day — who is our member?” he adds. “We don’t have a sheet of paper that says, ‘Twenty-five percent will be males between ages 25 and 35.’ In my mind, it’s a very organic process. It’s not ‘Are you male, female, black, white, straight, gay?’ It’s ‘Do you identify with the culture and community and the design and the aesthetic — with the whole package?’ Health and wellness. Great food. Elevated design and art and culture programming. Do you want to be part of this great community that we’re going to build that wants to have fun but is socially conscious and wants to give back to the city?”

Relentless enthusiasm aside, Gutstadt is too smart and thoughtful not to recognize the paradox of his business plan: How do you create inclusivity in an inherently exclusive setting?

When you look at the renderings and talk to the principals, it’s obvious that Fitler Club is going to be a very nice place. Architect Matthew Rosenberg tells me, “Our goal is to get members to spend as much of their day there as possible, from breakfast in the morning to lunch to dinner at night. We want to curate their day from waking up till the time they go to bed in the hotel — keep them there and show them there’s a much higher level of experience by staying.” He and Gutstadt were working on details ranging from how the surfaces look to what the door handles feel like to how each room smells.

Fitler Club is going to cost thousands of dollars a year for even the lowest-priced membership. (There’s a plan to offer “scholarships” to people who are doing exciting things in lower-paying professions.) Of course, the membership roll will be limited. (Charter members were confirmed this spring.) And from a practical standpoint, especially in the beginning, it will no doubt consist largely of friends, and friends of friends, of people who have enough money to invest in the project.

“There’s a push and pull,” Gutstadt tells me, “of who determines who gets invited and who determines who gets in. It’s a private club; somebody has to be the gatekeeper. But we’ve tried very deliberately to be as diverse as we could be from an investor-group perspective. And then at the second tier, we’ve tried to proactively identify people who are the leaders in each of their fields — the best doctors, emerging artists, celebrities, leaders of nonprofits, major institutions, leaders in academia. Business leaders are a lot easier to identify and easier to convince to join. But our commitment is that when we say we’re a club of leaders, connectors and influencers, it’s not just because they’re running a big company.”

Late in the afternoon, after Gutstadt walks me through the emerging Fitler Club space, he and I stop at a coffee shop near his house. We grab a table in the back, and he takes out his phone and swipes through photos of the architect’s conceptions. He has a slide of some preliminary membership pricing information that he isn’t ready to share completely, but he gives me a quick peek. “It’ll start at $225 a month for a younger person,” he says. “That’s not crazy. The Union League has a $7,500 initiation fee, and dues are $400 a month.” Fitler Club’s initiation fees will start at under $2,000 and step up in roughly thousand-dollar increments depending on your age; monthly dues will follow a similar tiered structure.

Gutstadt then hands me his business card. It has white text on high-quality purple stock. The club’s logo is a door with elaborately carved panels and an eyebrow skylight. It looks very British to me. But that isn’t Gutstadt’s intent.

“I live in Fitler Square,” he says. “You walk around the neighborhood and every rowhouse has these interesting doors. They’re red, they’re green, they’re yellow, purple, blue, black. We thought the door really reflected the diversity of the City of Philadelphia. We went with this door as a symbol of diversity. And symbol of second home. There’s also the mystery of what’s behind the door, but when it opens, it reveals that. So it’s kind of literal, but it stands for some other things as well.”

He has that glimmer in his eye that his college friend described, and he’s just spent a lot of time sharing his dreams and vision for this new, new thing he’s worked so hard to create. Carl Dranoff tells me, “David sees Philly as a fresh canvas. He has the benefit of not being here for 60 or 70 years, like me. And he’s seeing it from its rebirth, with so many exciting things happening, so he can see new opportunities.”

The only club I’ll ever be invited to join is the Congenital Irredeemable Skeptics Society, and it’s all I can do not to mention to Gutstadt that doors also happen to be quite effective at keeping other people out.

But it’s a new time and a new day. Glassy towers rise over West Philly. The Eagles have a Super Bowl trophy. The homegrown cable company has become a Digital Age behemoth. A Seattle-based former bookseller is thinking about doing overnight delivery of 50,000 new jobs. And David Gutstadt may have devised a door that opens onto a unique and valuable Philadelphia space.

Published as “The Union League of New Philadelphia” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.