Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Clubs have been a part of New York City for centuries. How else are you expected to find like-minded people in such a bustling metropolis? In the early 19th century, the Hone Club was the preeminent dinner-giving club for upper class merchants (the eponymous member was Mayor Philip Hone); James Fenimore Cooper founded the deliciously-named Bread and Cheese Club (which was sadly not devoted to food, but rather literary pursuits); The City Club was described as an “anti-bad-city government club”; and who could forget the Thirteen Club, whose stated purpose was “to combat superstitious beliefs” by hosting dinner parties with 13 guests on the 13th of the month? My favorite is the anti-club Club. Who said Gilded Age New Yorkers didn’t have a sense of humor? For the most thorough and exhaustive list, please see the King’s Handbook of 1892: pages upon pages of descriptions of every kind of club imaginable await you here.
Some clubs were more exclusive than others. The private gentleman’s club, based on the English model, has had a long history in the five boroughs. Men socialized, dined, and drank with other men of their social class in beautiful surroundings. Membership to these clubs was (and still is) difficult to obtain: money, power, and the right connections are all must-haves. But thanks to the City Museum’s fabulous photo collections, we can pretend that we are members of some of the most exclusive clubs in town.
On June 30th, 1836, invitations were sent to various gentlemen of good social standing – Astors, Van Cortlandts, Stuyvesants, van Rensselaers, basically a roll call of every influential Dutch New York family – to join the newly founded Union Club, the first club devoted to wealth and social standing in New York. For decades it set the tone for every other club. As you can probably guess, the Union Club became very popular, very quickly and there was soon a waitlist to join.
The two images below are of the club’s clubhouse on 51st and Fifth Avenue, which it occupied from 1903-1933. Designed by Cass Gilbert, its facade is a sober statement of the conservatism and wealth of the club.Their current clubhouse on Park and 69th, designed by William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich and pictured below, was described by Christopher Gray as, “chunky with rusticated limestone and a huge angled mansard roof so big it looks like a Fifth Avenue mansion gone wild.” With five dining rooms and humidors stocked with cigars, it’s clear that the Union Club is still catering to the wealthy and connected of New York.
New York society, however, is nothing if not fluid. After the Civil War, there was a huge influx of newly wealthy men who wanted access to the prestige of the Union Club. The older members of the Union Club were not impressed. They blocked the membership application of two men: John King and Dr. W. Seward Webb. Bad move. It turned out that John King was connected with J. P. Morgan and Dr. Webb was married to Eliza Vanderbilt (William Kissam’s Vanderbilt’s little sister). Morgan and Vanderbilt were so angered, they did the only sensible thing: they founded their own private club.
Dubbed the Millionaire’s Club by the press, the Metropolitan Club was singly focused on money. By 1892, 700 invitations were sent out and that alone was enough to ensure the club’s financial success. The next step was a clubhouse that alerted passers-by to the wealth of those inside. Morgan enlisted Stanford White, who told the New York Times: “The club house will stand unrivaled in its size, and although the style will be in the severest and simplest character of Italian Renaissance and the feeling of severity and solidity will be carried through the interior, the scale of the building and the nature of its materials will give it an appearance unlike that of any building in New York.”. Well, let it never be said that Stanford White didn’t have confidence in his abilities. The clubhouse was completed in 1893, on what was once the 8th Duke of Marlborough’s land. (As a interesting historical sidenote: William K. Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, would marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, for more information read Lindsay’s fabulous blog post about dollar princesses here.)
Another way that the Metropolitan Club was progressive was that they had an annex where wives and daughters of the members held events. You can almost feel the collective shudder of the Union Club. Not all clubs were based entirely on money and family lines. Here are glimpses of other privates clubs.
The University Club was began by Ivy League graduates whose goals included, “promotion of Literature and Art by establishing and maintaining a Library, Reading Room and Gallery of Art, and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper for such purposes.” Thanks to a beautiful clubhouse designed by McKim, Mead & White, you can see just how well they accomplished those goals.
The Players Club is a different kind of club than the ones mentioned previously. Founded by Edwin Booth and located in a Gramercy Park South townhome remodeled by Stanford White, the private club was home to, as one contemporary quipped, “… gentlemen trying to be actors,” and its members come from the highest social groups of both the theater and business worlds. Here you can see the two most important parts of a gentleman’s club: the billiards table and the bar (with the very attentive Connelly awaiting your order).
And finally, we have this perfect picture of members of the Yale Club, obviously having a fabulous time at a 1904 Bachelor’s Dinner.
For more images of club life in Gilded Age New York, please visit out Collection Portal here.