In 1924, the Venetian Social Club was founded at 8030 Germantown Ave. by artisans from northern Italy. The club will celebrate its centennial in 2024.
In 1924, the Venetian Social Club was founded at 8030 Germantown Ave. by artisans – stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters – who had been brought to Chestnut Hill from the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of northern Italy to work on homes built by entrepreneurial developers Henry Houston and George Woodward. Many of the Italian workers who spoke little or no English lived in small homes on Willow Grove Avenue and constructed large homes several blocks away.
The Venetian Club, so-called because the workers’ home town was not far from Venice, was a refuge for these strangers in a strange land who had to learn the culture, language and mores of their new country. The club was a bridge between the Old World and the New World, a place where members could be themselves, speak the Friuliano dialect, celebrate the music and culture of Friuli, and support one another emotionally.
The club will celebrate its centennial in 2024 with a major banquet in September, but a year-long series of events in recognition of the 100th begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, with a special “Storytelling Afternoon” when members will discuss the history of the club and its founding families. The event is free, open to the public and light refreshments will be served.
Many of the club’s early members had been lured to the area by the plans of Houston and Woodward to create a “new village,” and their designs required skilled masons, bricklayers and tile-marble-terrazzo craftsmen to quarry, cut and set the sparkling Wissahickon Schist stone and other materials to create many of the quintessential, historic homes in Chestnut Hill today.
On Sunday, club president Rusty Lorenzon along with members Anne Henry and Robert Henry will lead off the afternoon, and others will be invited to talk about their experiences as part of the Venetian Club’s history over the decades.
“I have no Italian blood, but I joined the club 15 years ago because I love the social life,” said Barbara Schmidt, a member of the club’s 100th Anniversary Committee, “and the history is so interesting. For example, this building was a school (John Gilbert Elementary School) before it became the Venetian Club. And underneath the club there was a food market for years run by the Italian wives.”
Chestnut Hill resident Helen Marcolina Henry, who died Feb. 25, 2020, at age 92, told us several years ago that her father, Joseph Marcolina, was one of the original club members and that she was a lifelong member herself. She came to the U.S. in 1930 with her mother and sister, Severina, and graduated from Jenks Elementary School and Germantown High School.
“Pennsylvania’s Blue Laws forbidding the sale of liquor after midnight were in effect,” she said, “and almost all restaurants and bars were closed on Sunday, so private club memberships like the Venetian Club were very popular.
“Growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s, you had two sets of friends – your American friends and your Italian friends,” Henry said. “As a kid you didn’t really know where you belonged. You had a foot in two civilizations. The club was great because you knew everybody, although we couldn’t get away with anything because there were too many eyes looking all over the place.
“But woe to a woman or child who dared to venture into the holy of holies, the card room,” she added, “the place where men played Briscola, an Italian card game similar to pinochle, and drank cognac and other alcoholic beverages.”
Rina Brun Fesnak, whose father, Angelo Brun, was also one of the early members of the club, lived in Chestnut Hill for 37 years and then Wyndmoor for 36 years, before she died Nov. 15, 2022, at age 93. Several years ago she told the Local, “There was no such thing as a babysitter back then. Whenever there was an affair of any sort at the Venetian Club, you went along with your parents.
“They would be having fun with their friends while the children hung around the perimeter of the room, dancing or playing games. That is where my father taught me to dance. We did the waltzes and polkas. A lot of the old timers, we would call aunt or uncle. It was never Mr. or Mrs. And everyone spoke in their mother tongue.”
Sam Filippi, a fourth-generation member of the club, told us earlier, “As a kid growing up, you had no idea what the old timers were talking about because the younger generation didn’t speak the language. … On my 21st birthday, I had to come over here and have my first [alcoholic] drink. It was a rite of passage. Many dads couldn’t wait to get that membership for their son or daughter.”
Although women were always involved in the club, they could not become members until the early 1990s. After so many early members died, membership dropped to just under 70 in the late 1980s, but when the club finally decided to allow women to become members, the membership list grew dramatically.
Sue Ann Rybak contributed to this article. For more information about the event or the club, call 215-247-9858 or visit venetian.club. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org