Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Evan Bindelglass traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.
Located just off Grand Army Plaza, the Montauk Club is, according to a member of its events committee, the oldest private club in New York City that is still operating in an original building built expressly for it. The Venetian-inspired, stained glass-covered Park Slope beauty, which dates back to the 1890s, still stands. It's a testament to, and a physical embodiment of, the club's tumultuous yet resilient past: at once historic, progressive, celebrity-studded, scandal-tinged, and, most important, still thriving (and socializing) today. Intrigued? Good.
The story of the Montauk Club actually starts in September of 1888, when several members of the nearby Carleton Club, at St. Mark's Place and 6th Avenue, starting growing dissatisfied with the club's size and, more importantly, its location. Since the Carleton Club wasn't going to move, some of its members decided to take action. Twenty-five of them (all men) gathered in December of 1888 at the home of a man named N.Q. Pope (at Park Place and Vanderbilt Avenue) to discuss forming their own as-yet-unnamed association. On March 11, 1889, the state of New York officially recognized the incorporation of the Montauk Club. At the time, it was popular to name things after Native American tribes, and the Montauks seemed as good as any. Well, better than the alternate name: the Seatalcot Club.
"The particular business and object of this Society or Club shall be to promote social relations among its members, to provide them with a suitable Club House as a place or resort and entertainment, and to establish therein a library and collection of works of art for their improvement." - From the club's certificate of incorporation. Within weeks, the new club had 300 members, but no home. So, temporary digs were at 34 Eighth Avenue.
Eventually, with the help of local broker Leonard Moody, a $40,000 payment secured a plot of land down the road at No. 25, at the corner of Lincoln Place. A competition was held to find an architect and Francis H. Kimball was selected. He would go on to design the Trinity Buildings on Broadway in Lower Manhattan.
Moody then went on a trip to Europe (and trips to Europe couldn't be short in those days). When he returned, he found that the design had changed and the cost of the construction had ballooned. According to club historian Mary Brennan, he "basically strong-armed, brow-beat and guilt-tripped the committee and other members into coming up with the money to build the Clubhouse as planned."
Ground was broken on October 2, 1889, the cornerstone was laid on December 14, 1889, and the clubhouse was completed in 1891.
It's worth noting that the frieze over the front entrance, which depicts the groundbreaking, bears the year 1890. Nobody seems to know why that is, but it is probably what led to the celebration of the club's "majority"an old-timey term for when someone turns 21 and is no longer a minortaking place in 1911.
The Montauk Club building features arches, columns, balconies, and more stained glass than you can shake a stick at. Most of the windows in the club are stained glass, or have an element of it. There are also depictions of Native American chiefs all over the building.
There is ornamentation and terra cotta all over the place and the floors creak just the way you'd want them to in a building of its age. The roof is made of Spanish tiles. There are four stories, plus a basement and attic. There used to be extended lodging for six unmarried men or widowers on the fourth floor. They shared a common bathroom.
There was once even a bowling alley in the basement (the Frick still has one).
But the upper floors and basement were eventually sold to become private apartmentswith one particularly lovely specimen currently on the market for $5 millionand an office in order to keep the club afloat. The club's quarters themselves now occupy the first and second floors of the building, while a separate entrance leads residents up to their homes. In fact, this sale, and the sealing off of the upper floors, is the reason the club houses a staircase to nowhere.
The dining room, currently located on the second floor, used to be on the third floor. With the sale of the upper floors, all of the club's facilities had to be consolidated into the first two floors.
The club was so popular over the years that it attracted big names who weren't even members. On May 30, 1895, there were 8,000 people invited to a reception for Ohio Governor and future president William McKinley. There is no way so many people could fit in the building, so rumors of that event were likely exaggerated. Still, it was a big to-do.
Who's heard of Chauncey Depew? From 1899 to 1911, he was one of New York's U.S. senators. Prior to that, he was New York Secretary of State, a State Assemblyman, Westchester County Clerk, and a very important attorney for Cornelius Vanderbilt's railroad interests. He was rather progressive for his time, favoring both regulation and women's rights. He was even a vegetarian. Well, every year from 1892 to 1926, he made a pilgrimage to the Montauk Club, where he would address a dinner in honor of his birthday. These addresses caught national and international press attention. Think today's annual Al Smith Dinner for charity. They were reported in London and Paris and even broadcast on the radio, according to Brennan.
Here you can read his addresses from 1892 to 1899. More of his speeches are available at the Internet Archive.
Eventually, the club became an obligatory stop for presidential candidates, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy having spoken there.
You won't be surprised to learn that the club was for men only in the beginning, but Jewish men were always welcome. If you want an idea of just how progressive that was for a private club of its type, consider that into at least the 1990s, there were still New York City-area golf courses where it was known that Jews were not welcome.
Women were never excluded from all club activities, but gradually they were folded into the actual membership. There was a women's reception in January of 1892 and by 1934, there was a women's division. The left entry stairs (now used for the apartment dwellers) was originally the ladies entrance. For a time, widows of members inherited their membership privileges, but sometime in the 1960s, women became full members.
It wasn't always smooth sailing for the Montauk Club. According to Brennan, "challenges" started in 1913 with the enactment of the income tax. Then there was the first World War, prohibition from 1920 to 1933 (but don't think for one moment that alcohol stopped flowing there), the Great Depression, World War II, and the exodus to the suburbs, which left the club something of an "anachronism," according to Brennan.
The membership peaked at 701 in 1949. There was a failed 1927 plan to merge with the Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn (horseback riding, to be clear). The club almost folded entirely in 1934, but dues were restructured and other changes made to keep it open. By the 1990s, it was still open for lunch, but it was determined that it was not financially viable to keep the club open 365 days a year. The club is now only open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.
There were also some less-than-illustrious moments involving the club or its members. In 1894 and 1913, two successive bookkeepers were found to have stolen money from the club. In 1916, a member who was about to be arrested for embezzlement took his life by jumping from the fourth floor.
Brennan also recounted one incident involving the shooting of a member's wife:
Hawley Chapman was a wealthy young member of the Club who was under 24-hour care by a male nurse/companion due to nervous prostration and paralysis. Apparently, in 1891, this was what you called excessive drinking if the drinker is sufficiently wealthy and of a certain social standing. He had been expelled from the Club for non-payment, but had been reinstated when it was shown that he couldn't remember if he had paid his dues or not. The New York Times reported an unusual event at Mr. Chapman's home in November 1891. Mrs. Chapman, "a very attractive-looking woman" was found, "clad only in her underclothes, and with a big bullet hole in her left breast." The nurse, Herbert Scearvount, had shot Mrs. Chapman, reloaded his revolver, and then taken poison himself. She said he shot her in a rage after she rebuffed his advances. He said there had been a jealous quarrel with Mrs. Chapman about another man. Mr. Scearvount recovered from his injuries; sadly Mrs. Chapman was not expected to survive. Recently, the club was featured in a pair of television shows. It was used on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" (in the pilot, the interiors are about 48 minutes in) and on CBS's "Person of Interest" (see season one, episode 19, about three minutes in), where it doubled as the fictional Covenant Club.
Today, the club seems to be going strong and their recent 125th anniversary party, featuring dancing flappers, showcased a wide age range in the membership. Even today, anyone can join the club if you want. A current member of the membership committee said he can only remember rejecting one applicant and it was because of a dispute over dues. Some members grew up with their family being members. Others came as guests of members and wanted the full experience. Some saw the building and wanted to know if they could be part of the action. At least two couples at the party became members so that they could hold their weddings there.
But one of the more interesting stories is how founding club president Charles Arthur Moore's great-great-grandson, Douglas Graham Moore, Jr., became a member. It's not known if the elder Moore's son was a member, but his grandson and great-grandson were not. Then Douglas's sister Maggie moved to Cobble Hill and attended a book talk at the club, where she noticed a picture of her great-great-grandfather on the wall. She found out his story and told Douglas, who decided to join as soon as he moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University.
Is the future of this great building secure? The short answer is yes. It is just inside the Park Slope Historic District, which means that any changes to the outside will have to go through the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Thankfully, it looks like the Montauk Club will be around for years to come.
—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
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