By Sam Waltz
In what could be a nationally historic event, a City of Wilmington site once proposed to be the United States Capitol — now a preeminent fine-dining private membership club — has been sold to two prominent local businessmen.
The University & Whist Club, 805 N. Broom St., a three-story mansion looming behind tall stone walls and adjacent on the south to Padua Academy and to the west from Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, was sold in August to Delaware entrepreneurs John Hynansky and Thomas Hatzis.
Terms of the deal — called an investment by the men in the club — are not being disclosed, but all the assets and liabilities of the club, including its site said by local commercial real estate leaders to be worth about $1.7 million, have been assumed by Hynansky and Hatzis. Members approved the deal Aug. 9 in a general membership vote of the 220-member club.
It does not mean the end of the club, observers say, but rather a new lease on life, with the historic club remaining a not-for-profit membership entity as a tenant of the partnership. Full membership dues to University & Whist Club are about $3,000 a year, among the lowest in town for a private membership club.
The club expects with the new investment to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in facility upgrades, some of which already are under way, including a new kitchen, refinishing and painting, new landscaping, and patio enclosure. They also intend to hire a new manager to enhance the club’s off-site catering.
Both Hynansky and Hatzis are well-known entrepreneurs and businessmen. Along with other interests in the region and in Eastern Europe, Hynansky built the Winner Group of 15 auto dealerships — Delaware’s Audi and Porsche auto dealerships among them — which today are owned and operated by his son Michael Hynansky. With his other interests, Hatzis also owns Winner Ford of New Jersey and the Hollywood Grill.
Club President Edward Clemens said the not-for-profit University & Whist Club — which dates in part to Dec. 7, 1891, with the founding of the Wilmington Whist Club — will operate as a tenant of the for-profit partnership. In turn, the acquiring partners take over operations of the entire facility, where they expect to increase catering and will work with club members to increase membership.
The University & Whist Club is a combination created in 1958 with the consolidation of the Whist Club, formed in 1891, and the University Club of Wilmington founded in 1924. It is one of two such private membership dining and social clubs in the city, the other being the Wilmington Club downtown.
A third, the Caesar Rodney Club, existed for about 15 to 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s, before it closed and many of its members joined the other two clubs.
The University & Whist Club continues to be one of the area’s most in-demand settings for wedding ceremonies, at least two of which in recent years were attended by a notable Hollywood couple the club did not name, but said to be Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Two local Rotary Clubs also call the club home, and many boards regularly host organizational meetings there.
In addition, the club enjoys a reciprocal relationship with many of the world’s finest clubs, more than 200 of them, such as the Union League of Philadelphia and the Cosmos Club of Washington, D.C., as well as a number of Manhattan-based clubs, giving its membership the opportunity to use those clubs with member-type privileges.
The picturesque setting of the club is the famous Tilton Estate, which dates to 1802 as the home of one of Delaware’s founding citizens, who once proposed the site in Revolutionary times as a site for the United States capitol. The site was acquired in 1760s, and the nucleus of the current building was started there in 1802. It enjoyed several names early in its history, Bellevue, Hilton and Federal Hill.