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The Rise and Fall of New York City's Private Social Clubs

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The interior of the Yale Club. Photo by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In 1915, the Yale Club opened a giant, 22-story facility on Vanderbilt Avenue—making it then, as now, the largest private club in the world. Celebrated at the time as a sign of Yale's dominance (both in the club world and over Harvard), the new clubhouse was the high water mark for such clubs in New York's business and social life. The 1902 edition of Club Men of New York detailed 38,000 memberships in 157 clubs, and it reads like a Who's Who of the city's elite, from well-known names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Morgan to then-famous families who have all but faded from view. In terms of status, no club was more powerful than the city's first, the Union Club, founded in 1836. It, like the Yale Club and many other such organizations, still has an active membership roster today. But from the moment the Yale Club opened its doors a century ago, the role of these clubs for the city's power brokers began to wane.

[Tontine Coffee House by Francis Guy. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Modern private social clubs (which are usually seen as distinct from fraternal organizations such as the Masons or the Revolutionary War-era Society of Cincinnati) trace their origins back to the coffeehouses of 17th-century London. Coffee was introduced to London society in 1652 and took the city by storm. Coffeehouses became the place to meet and discuss current events. Soon, coffeehouses took on distinct political affiliations (and branched out to serve more than coffee); Mrs. White's Chocolate House on Chesterfield Street became both a Tory bastion and—in a move to limit who could take part in the conversation—instituted a members-only policy. While coffeehouses continued to thrive in the 18th century (and were exported to New York, where Tontine's on Wall Street was central to city life and an early home of the New York Stock Exchange), establishments such as Mrs. White's—by the early 1700s shortened just to White's—began to dominate the social scene. Club life took off in London after the Napoleonic Wars and it wasn't long until New Yorkers began to see the appeal of a private club's exclusivity.

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In the summer of 1836, a number of leading New Yorkers, including ex-mayor Philip Hone, invited two hundred and fifty "gentlemen of social distinction" to join the new Union Club. As Hone noted in his diary, the club would "be similar in its plan and regulations to the great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society of the London metropolis." After offering admission to the initial cohort of 250, the club's membership would then be expanded to 400—large enough to accommodate enough socially distinct gentlemen while still remaining exclusive. It's intriguing (and, perhaps, not a coincidence) that 400 members not only became the standard for other city clubs, but also was the capacity of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor's ballroom in her Fifth Avenue mansion. Evidently, throughout the nineteenth century, the number of people in New York City worth knowing was capped at 400—the hard part was figuring out which ones.

The Union Club's first three homes were in rented buildings on Broadway in what today would be considered Tribeca and Soho. From its inception, the club's facilities featured dining rooms (requiring formal attire), gaming rooms (exclusively for "whist, écarté, euchre, bezique, and cribbage"), and a prohibition on hosting dances, perhaps to keep it a bastion of maleness. Though some later clubs would challenge the Union Club's customs, those traditions formed the blueprint for most future organizations.

When the Union Club moved into its first permanent headquarters at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street (right) in 1855, it had few competitors. The now-defunct New York Club had been founded in 1844, the same year as the New York Yacht Club, but the demand for club memberships wasn't outpacing availability. Of course, for many New Yorkers, membership wasn't ever a possibility. When a group of German Jewish merchants were blackballed by the Union Club's admissions committee in 1852, they struck out on their own, creating Gesellschaft Harmonie, today known as the Harmonie Club, specifically aimed at German immigrant intellectuals. In 1863, seventy Union Club members stormed out to protest the club's continued support for its members in the Confederacy. The dissenters formed the Union League Club. The Civil War Draft Riots swept through New York soon after the Union League moved into its headquarters on 17th Street. While the pro-Lincoln club became an obvious target for protesters, it was well guarded and ultimately spared.

Once the war was over and the so-called Gilded Age was underway, New York's club life rapidly expanded, in part because the Union Club had simply run out of room. Even having expanded its capacity beyond the initial cap of 400 members, there was a two-year waiting list for admission.

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First came a wave of university alumni clubs in the 1860s, such as Harvard (1865), Princeton (1866), and the more wide-ranging University Club (1865), founded by a group of friends, many of whom were Yale alumni. The University Club's charter placed an emphasis on intellectual pursuits and the "promotion of Literature and Art," a central tenet of many of the new generation of clubs. No longer was it enough to provide a place to dine and converse with fellow clubmen—the Gilded Age private club was about personal betterment. It was also about doing business, though most clubs had bylaws specifically banning any "business talk" at the club. Still, being a clubman meant meeting the right people and shaking the right hands, which is one reason they've persisted to this day.

The oldest club dedicated to artists and intellectuals was the Century Association (right). Founded in 1847 by poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, the club's roster was initially limited to just one hundred men, making it the most exclusive club in town. After the war, clubs with an artistic aim proliferated. The Lotos Club (1870) was named for a line from a Tennyson poem; the Salmagundi Club (1871) took its title and literary inspiration from a collection of Washington Irving stories. During the 1860s and 70s, clubs tended to cluster around the Union Square area. Despite some pioneering New Yorkers moving up toward the new Central Park, it was still considered unfashionable to live above 34th Street, and club life reflected this. Alas, this also means that most of the original club buildings from this era are gone. All previous iterations of the Union Club before its present location on the Upper East Side have been razed; the original Lotos Club on Irving Place stood where Con Edison's tower was later built; the Union League Club's grand 17th Street home was razed, as was its later headquarters in the Jerome Mansion, the first New York City landmark to have its designation revoked so it could be demolished.

However, a few downtown clubs remain. In 1888, Edwin Booth, a noted Shakespearean actor (and older brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth), purchased 16 Gramercy Park with the purpose of converting it into the Players, a private club for "the promotion of social intercourse between the representative members of the dramatic profession...and the patrons of the arts." Booth hired noted architect Stanford White to remodel the home for club use, retaining an apartment on the top floor for himself. (White, who worked on a number of club buildings over the years, purportedly asked for membership as part of his fee.) The Players today retains much of the look it would have had in 1888, including Booth's upstairs apartment, which is kept as it would been in 1893, when Booth died there at age 59.

[The National Arts Club. Photo by James Nevius.]

Next door at 15 Gramercy Park, Governor Samuel Jones Tilden's townhouse was purchased by the fledgling National Arts Club in 1906 to become its headquarters. Tilden had purchased 15 Gramercy in 1863 and its neighbor at No. 14 about a decade later. After losing the 1876 presidential election, Tilden hired Central Park co-architect Calvert Vaux to join the two houses into one. After Tilden's death, the grand mansion became a rooming house before being rescued by the National Arts Club, whose president was noted architect George B. Post (best known for the New York Stock Exchange). Post oversaw the conversion of the mansion into a clubhouse, preserving much of Vaux's interior detailing while at the same time building a revenue-generating artist studio for members on 19th Street. While the public spaces of the club, including Tilden's dining room, were stripped of much of their charm when converted into gallery use, Tilden's parlors and library (now the bar) are among the city's best appointed club interiors.

As residential New York moved uptown in the the last two decades of the 19th century, club life moved with them. Forty-third and forty-fourth streets became a "club row." In the late 1880s, the Harvard Club hired Charles McKim to build its new home at 27-29 West 44th Street (right), which opened in 1894. (A McKim Mead & White addition was added in 1905, creating, in the club's own words, "the finest clubroom in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.") McKim's partner, Stanford White, was simultaneously hired by the Century Association to build its new headquarters a block away on West 43rd Street, which opened in 1891. In 1901, Warren & Wettmore's appropriately nautical New York Yacht Club opened next to door to Harvard, and the Yale Club opened the same year a block away (in a building that now houses the Penn Club).

Further uptown, Stanford White built the Metropolitan Club in 1894 at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue for J. Pierpont Morgan and his friends. Despite being just a block north of the so-called "Vanderbilt Row," the club's location put it a world away from more traditional clubs, like the Union Club, which was still stuck down on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. The Metropolitan was a direct answer to the Union Club's exclusivity. Though the Union Club had enlarged its membership rolls to 1500 people, many of Morgan's friends were denied entry. Morgan organized a revolt and a group of prominent Union Club members met in 1891 to found a new club with Morgan as its president. When the Metropolitan Club opened (adorned with large Ms throughout that could stand for either Metropolitan or Morgan) it was considered grand—maybe too grand. The New York Times sniffed that it would be "difficult to imagine this interior restful and companionable." This complaint didn't seem to stop people from joining. Fifth Avenue soon welcomed other clubhouses, including a majestic new home for the University Club at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street designed by Charles McKim. Sheathed in light pink granite from Maine, with windows elevated high enough above street level that members could gaze out but passersby could not look in, the club had little competition for grandeur—except, perhaps, from the Union Club, which had plans to move in across the street.

[The entrance to the Metropolitan Club. Photo by James Nevius.]

As early as the 1880s, Some Union Club members had considered putting in an offer for the University Club's 54th Street corner lot, but the more conservative faction of the club had nixed the location as too far uptown. A decade later, with commercial enterprises surrounding their 21st Street home, the club finally decided to move, purchasing a large lot between 51st and 52nd streets on Fifth Avenue. Deciding to move was hard enough—then deciding what to build at the new location was even harder. A significant portion of the membership wanted to make a carbon copy of the club's 21st Street home, enlarging it to fit the club's new location. More progressive members commissioned a design from Cass Gilbert, whose splendid Custom House was then rising on Bowling Green. Unable to make a decision, the building committee called on Charles McKim to break the tie. McKim gave the nod to the rebuilt version of the old clubhouse—so the building committee, oddly, chose to move forward with Gilbert's plan. Maybe it was simply a case of the progressives winning the battle, or maybe they'd figured that whatever McKim liked, they would prefer the opposite. Gilbert's new clubhouse opened in 1903, but the era of grand club building was already beginning to wind down.

[The Knickerbocker Club. Photo by James Nevius.]

There were exceptions: the Knickerbocker Club moved to 62nd Street and Fifth Avenue in 1915. In the same way the Metropolitan had been founded to protest the Union Club's admissions policy, the Knickerbocker Club had been organized in 1871 in response to complaints that the Union Club's membership criteria were too lax. Though admission was not based on family lineage, the club's name—taken from a pseudonym of Washington Irving's that had become a nickname for New York's founding families—reflected the idea that only a certain type of New Yorker need apply. In an age of increased anxiety about immigration, clubs and societies that reflected white, protestant heritage took hold in the late 19th century, including the Founders and Patriots club, the Sons of the American Revolution, the Holland Society, and many more. In 1913, the Knickerbocker, then located at 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue, hired the architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich (both from Knickerbocker families) to build a new clubhouse at 62nd Street and Fifth Avenue. The simplicity of the red brick, Georgian Revival structure conspicuously hearkened back to the Colonial era, a great contrast to most of the grand mansions that surrounded it.

That same year, the Yale Club moved from the West 44th Street home it had built just fourteen years earlier to the massive skyscraper on Vanderbilt Avenue (right). The club's giant headquarters was not so much a reflection of its large membership base (although gossip circulated about its lax membership criteria) as it was a hedge against future insolvency. If the move to Vanderbilt Avenue had proved economically ruinous, the clubhouse was built so that it could be easily turned into a hotel in a prime location just steps from Grand Central. Indeed, as interest in club life began to wane after World War I, one thing that kept many of the clubs afloat was their guest rooms, which could be rented by out-of-town members at bargain rates. (Most city clubs still have these rooms.) The opening of the Yale Club in 1915 neatly underlined the dilemma of exclusive private clubs like Knickerbocker and Union: without a backup plan or relaxed membership standards, how could they hope to thrive in the modern world? The Yale Club was hoping for success, but building for failure.

Despite lean years, most of these clubs still exist. What has helped many clubs balance their books is the fact that most own their property and that, as social organizations, they were—and remain—tax exempt. Most are 501(c)(7) organizations ("social and recreation clubs") though some, like the National Arts Club, qualify as 501(c)(3) educational organizations. This tax-exempt status came into jeopardy for many clubs in 1984 when Local Law 63 was passed. Prior to that, New York law exempted "any institution, club, or place of accommodation which is in its nature distinctly private" from the city's anti-discrimination laws. Local Law 63 upended that tradition, declaring that most private clubs were, in fact, places of public accommodation, no matter what their admissions policies said. What this meant, in practice, was that these all-male organizations needed to begin admitting women and minorities or risk lawsuits and the loss of their tax exemptions.

Needless to say, these beacons of New York privilege were not happy. At the Century Association, a petition was circulated warning that the admission of women would "break down the effortless, unconstrained companionship" among the male members. While the club considered ways to go back to being "distinctly private" (one option allowed by the law was to reduce membership to the magic 400 number once promulgated by the Union Club), the Century Association's membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of admitting women. Other clubs were not so sanguine, and 125 membership organizations banded together under the banner of the New York State Club Association to sue the city. In 1988, the United State Supreme court upheld Local Law 63, opening club memberships to women across the board.

[The Union Club. Photo by James Nevius.]

Today, New York's private clubs continue to play a role—albeit reduced—in the business and social life of the city. Sometimes, they are a liability: when Mike Bloomberg was campaigning for mayor, he had to resign from four "mostly white" city clubs to improve his image. Where in other places captains of industry might bond over the back nine at country clubs, in the city they meet for lunches and cocktails in Gilded Age splendor. Many still do this at the Union Club, located since 1929 at Park Avenue and 69th Street in an oversized Delano & Aldrich palazzo. The Union Club holds onto its reputation as the top New York club—but in the twenty-first century, there are fewer and fewer people for whom that distinction holds much weight.
Photo of the Century Association via the New York Public Library. Yale Club image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York.
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