Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Hunt & Hunt's 1911 1st Precinct -- 100 Old Slip

photo by Alice Lum

On New Year’s Day, 1883, newly-elected mayor Franklin Edsen set out on a campaign of civic improvement.  Among his proposals was the demolition of outdated, rundown police station houses and the erection of new ones.  Only eight months later, on August 11, The Record and Guide announced that “The work of driving piles for the foundation of the new First Precinct Station House has been completed; the building will occupy the site of the old Franklin Market in Old Slip.”  The paper said the cost of the new building would be about $47,000—a considerable $1 million today.

The pilings mentioned by The Record and Guide were necessary because of the site’s proximity to the East River.  However the location between Water Street and South Street on Old Slip was well chosen.  The waterfront bustled with activity as ships were loaded and unloaded.  The sailors from these vessels came ashore looking for entertainment—and they found it.

In 1882 James D. McCabe described Water Street.  “Strains of music float out into the night air, and about the doors and along the sidewalks stand groups of hideous women, waiting to entice sailors into these hells, where they are made drunk with drugged liquors, robbed of their money and valuables, and turned helpless into the streets.  Groups of drunken and foul-mouthed men and boys lounge about the street, bandying vile jests with the women, and often insulting respectable passers-by.”

At the time architects of police buildings and schools were less concerned about functionality and working conditions than the structures' outward appearance.  The new 1st Precinct, most likely designed by Nathaniel Bush, attempted to correct those problems—but according to some critics it missed the mark regarding handsome architecture.  On March 15, 1884 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide spit its criticism of the new 1st Precinct Station House.

“Some injudicious praises in the daily papers of a station house lately finished in Old Slip for the headquarters of the First Precinct induced the hope that this might constitute an exception to the rule  Unhappily it is an unusually atrocious example of the rule, being in fact more offensive than the ordinary station house in the degree in which it is bigger and more pretentious.  The internal disposition and the arrangements for ventilation and sanitation are fondly dwelt upon by the reporters.  We are willing to believe that the station house is all that can be desired in these respects, and that practically it serves its purpose admirable.  But our business is with its architecture, which is worse than a minus quantity being positively offensive.”

The building survived almost a quarter of a century before architects Hunt & Hunt were called in to design a replacement.  If critics had panned the previous building; they would have nothing to complain about in the Hunt brothers’ design.

The new building commanded attention The American Architect, September 24, 1913 (copyright expired)
Completed in 1911 after two years of construction, it was a four-story Italian palazzo.  Three floors of smooth limestone blocks contrasted with the planar top story, capped by a striking cornice trimmed with copper antefixae.  High above the entrance the architects placed a large carved cartouche containing the Seal of the City of New York and the date of construction.

Hunt & Hunt laid out the station house based on functionality -- The American Architect, September 24, 1913 (copyright expired)

The men of the 1st Precinct found themselves not only fighting waterfront crime; but a myriad of problems related to its location.  Officer William J. McKeever attempted to stop a runaway horse in April 1919, succeeding only after being dragged.  But many of the precinct’s responses would be more dire.

photo by Alice Lum

The Socialist Movement had already grown roots in America by the time the station house was completed; but the 1917 Russian Revolution added fire to the passion of the working class who organized unions and strikes to make their voices heard.

On July 18, 1919, just as the workforce was preparing to go home for the day, the crews of the Municipal ferryboats to Staten Island walked off the job in a bid for increased pay.  Then, as now, New Yorkers depended on public transportation and a near riot ensued.

The New-York Tribune reported the following morning “thousands of Staten Islanders stood in the rain outside the slips, looking longingly at the far-away bulk of their homeland and wondering more and more audibly how they were ever going to get to it.  The crowd increased so rapidly in size and exasperation that reserves from the First Precinct were called to handle it.”

The newspaper described the chaos faced by the policemen.  “These held the crowd back and kept shouting advice to the would-be passengers, urging them to go to Staten Island by way of Brooklyn or New Jersey.  A few took the counsel.  Most of them remained.”

It was a tense time in New York.  Anarchist groups like the Black Hand terrorized civilians with letter and package bombs on an almost weekly basis.  Only two months before the ferry strike, the First Precinct detectives examined a suspicious package, thought to be a bomb.

The package was taken by detectives to the First Precinct on May 1, “and there, in the presence of numerous photographers, reporters and policemen, cautiously proceeded to open it,” reported the New-York Tribune.  This time it was a false alarm.  “It proved to be legislative manual sent to Judge Philbin from the office of the Secretary of State of New York.”

Prohibition would not officially take effect until January 17, 1920; but bootleggers were busy months before in preparation.  During the first week of January Officer Emil Zipf “discovered Gus Eronson, a sailor on a ship from Brockton, Mass., who was found in the Cortlandt Street terminal station in a peculiar condition,” recounted The Evening World on January 6.

Zipf immediately identified the problem:  “wood alcohol.”

It took a doctor, Zipf, and four special policemen to get the belligerent drunk into an ambulance.  In court he complained to Assistant District Attorney McGuire “I’d be all right if they left me alone and didn’t beat me up.”

He insisted “But I only had three drinks of one-half of one percent beer.”

As the sailor had been fingerprinted, Captain Lee sarcastically asked him, “How do you take your beer?  Straight or with seltzer.”

“Out of the bottle,” was the reply.

On the night of May 15, 1928 at around 11:30 Patrolman Edward M. Lee jumped into the East River off Coenties Slip to save a man from drowning. He earned a commendation for his bravery.  Another officer, Ferdinand A. Berthold, would gain even more attention for his actions that year.
The neighborhood around the station house was still gritty when Berthold and Lee were working here -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On the same day that Lee plunged into the river, five gunmen held up Needham Sweets Shops and made off with $2,785.  Berthold pursued them in a patrol car.  The robbers fired their guns at the officer, but he fired back only once because, he told reporters later “the streets were so crowded.”

Berthold was correct in his assessing the danger.  The single bullet he fired “hit the robbers’ car, ricocheted and struck [Stephen J.] Porter as he came out of his building,” reported The New York Times.  The businessman was struck in the leg and although his wound was superficial, he was taken to the Broad Street Hospital for treatment.

When the chase reached Washington Street, the gunmen abandoned their car and fled in separate directions.  Four of the robbers escaped, but Officer Berthold arrested  24-year old Horatio Sjambati, alias James Moreno.  The Times said “The prisoner has a police record as a burglar, according to the police.”

Within a month Berthold was back in the newspapers.  Like Officer Lee, he jumped into the East River to save a drowning man—except this rescue seems to have been a bit more troublesome.  The New York Times reported “Patrolman Ferdinand A. Berthold, who weighs 140 pounds, dived into the East River off Old Slip last night and rescued a drowning man, six feet tall and weighing 225 pounds.”

The heavy-set man had fallen off Pier 9 and the screams of passersby caught the officer’s attention.  “Berthold discarded his cap, coat and shoes, jumped into the water and was soon pulling the victim to shore,” said the newspaper.

But it was not all that simple.  While he waited for the Police Emergency Squad to arrive, Berthold hung onto the piling of the dock with one hand and onto the semi-conscious “burden” with the other.  Finally the squad lowered a rope ladder and pulled the men to safety.  Bernard Thornton, 53-years old, was taken to Bellevue Hospital.  He was the captain of a coal barge currently in dry dock.

“Berthold went home after being treated for submersion,” said the newspaper.

Obviously, not all the responses by 1st Precinct police would end so positively.  At 10:50 on the morning of September 23, 1937, Patrolman John H. A. Wilson attempted to apprehend three armed hold-up men at No. 65 Fulton Street.  The heroic officer was shot and died two days later.

photo by Alice Lum

In 1973 Chief Inspector Michael J. Codd “shut a chapter of police history,” according to David W. Dunlap of The New York Times, when he gave the order “Close old Slip.”  Once called “the most important police district in the world” by A. E. Costello in his 1885 Out Police Protectors, the 62-year old station house had completed its service.

The closing came after a regrettable period of corruption was discovered in 1972.  Suspected of taking bribes from street vendors and construction contractors, 97 of the 110 officers in the 1st Precinct were transferred.  The 1st Precinct was moved to the old 4th Precinct station house on Ericsson Place (coincidentally a similar Italian Renaissance building constructed a year after the 1st Precinct).

Two decades later, in 1993, the vacant building was taken over as headquarters of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  The Commission remained in the building for eight years; when in a $4 million renovation transformed it to the New York City Police Museum.

A private, non-profit organization, the museum offers the public a window into the history of the police department.  In addition to countless historic articles; visitors are given a chance to test their skills in a virtual firing range and to sit in a jail cell.

photo by Alice Lum

Dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers that have risen around it, Hunt & Hunt’s magnificent and monumental 1st Precinct Station House survives handsomely intact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Hallenbeck-Hungerford Bldg - 80 Lafayette St

photo by Alice Lum
U. T. Hungerford was the guest of honor at a banquet on Wednesday night, December 14, 1922 at New York City’s Hotel Biltmore.  It was a celebration of the metal mogul’s 80th birthday.  Hardware Dealers’ Magazine summed up the industry’s estimation of the man saying “Because of his prominence and years of uninterrupted service in his chosen field, Mr. Hungerford is by many called the ‘Dean of the Brass and Copper Industry.’”

photo Hardware Dealers' Magazine, January 1922 (copyright expired)

By the time of the dinner, Hungerford was also president of the Hungerford Securities Corporation, founder of the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Realty Corporation, and was involved with several other firms related to the copper industry.

Hungerford was born into the copper business.  One of 12 children of John and Charlotte Austin Hungerford, his father had built the first brass mill in Torrington, Connecticut in 1834.  U. T. Hungerford arrived in New York in 1865 as the representative and manager of Wallace & Sons, a brass and copper rolling mills in Ansonia, Connecticut; then established the U. T. Hungerford Brass & Copper Co. in 1895.

The firm’s success was unparalleled and by 1909.  Its 10-story building at the southeast corner of Park and Pearl Streets bordered on the area condemned for the construction of the new Court House.  The City tossed around the possibility of including the U. T. Hungerford building as part of an extended site.

Frustrated, Hungerford and his partner in the real estate firm of Hallenbeck-Hungerford took matters in their own hands.  They purchased land on the southwest corner of Lafayette and White Streets, extending through to Franklin Street, and began plans for a new structure.  “Harry C. Hallenbeck stated last week that he has waited upon the city for about four years to formulate a decision as to what it intended doing, and had become so tired of the delay that he proposed to begin the reconstruction of the lower portion of the Park and Pearl Streets building,” reported The New York Times on July 20, 1913.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide published a sketch of the proposed building on May 23, 1914 (copyright expired)

The plans for the new building were well underway by the time of The Times article.  In January that year The Bridgemen’s Magazine had announced that W. E. Austin had filed plans for a 17-story printing house with an estimated cost of $1.2 million—a jaw-dropping $27.5 million today.

On May 23, 1914 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the tenant list of the uncompleted building was already filling.  “U. T. Hungerford Brass & Copper Company will occupy the ground floor, basement and second floor.  The Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, Crawford Company will occupy about four floors.  Several leases will probably be signed with other tenants within the next few days, as the demand is heavy for space from lithographers, printers, publishers and the diamond trades.”

A real estate advertisement cautioned prospective tenants that space was almost gone -- New York American Real Estate Review and Forecast 1915 (copyright expired)
By now the cost of construction had risen to $2 million.  The Guide called William E. Austin’s design “the most modern building in all its appointments downtown, and is particularly adapted for tenants using heavy machinery, where strength is necessary.”

The New York Times anticipated on April 26, 1914 that the completed building “will be the finest manufacturing building down town.”  It mentioned modern conveniences like “fast contraction elevators, mail chutes, lowerators, ventilating system, etc.”

Architecture & Building published two views of the completed building in December 1915 (copyright expired

The new Hallenbeck-Hungerford building was completed before January 1915 when Architecture and Building reported on its structural integrity and mechanical operations.  It paused in its engineering report to notice that “The marble work, mosaic and tile work was done by D. H. McLaury Marble Company, the hallway on the Lafayette Street side being paneled in marble of rich appearance.”

The lobby was decidedly no-nonsense despite the gnome-shaped brackets and "marble of rich appearance" Architecture and Building December 1915 (copyright expired)
Austin had used granite for the three-story Gothic base.  Cast metal spandrels, two-story arches and carved stone details carried on the Gothic motif.  Above, nine stories of buff brick were barely ornamented; but were capped by three stories of exuberant terra cotta that picked up the Gothic theme.

High above the street whimsical gnomes and heraldic shields carry on the Gothic theme -- photo by Alice Lum

Like Architecture and Building, The Inland Printer, in March 1915, was most interested in the engineering aspects of the structure.  But it made special note of one innovative item.  “Rest-rooms have been provided for women employees.”

As intended, the building’s ability to support massive loads drew lithographers, printers and related firms.  Among the first tenants was Craske-Felt Company, Inc., electrotypers.  “Curved lead mould a specialty,” announced an advertisement in 1917.

In January 1918 the United States Marine Corps took over the Ford Instrument Company when a strike got out of hand.  The plant was manufacturing wartime articles necessary for national defense which were deemed “highly confidential.”  When 250 men walked out because a foreman had fired a fellow employee, manufacturing could not cease.

According to The Sun on January 12, Ford Instrument officials called the police for protection.  “The dilemma was then referred to the Department of Justice, which in turn communicated with the Navy Department at Washington.

“As a result, for the first time since the beginning of the war a company of United States marines marched into the city last night and took charge of the plant.”  The presence of the military changed the minds of the strikers.  “At a later hour in the night Jules Breuchaud, president of the concern, and John B. Goldsborough, treasurer, said that the trouble had been adjusted.”

photo by Alice Lum

A month after the marines left Lafayette Street, the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building would have something even more serious to contend with.  As the structure was still rising Building Systems Design had reported on the innovative air cooling system that used cool water from a deep well in the building’s basement.  The water would also be used for “flushing purposes.”

But someone decided that the artesian well water could be used more generally.  The Sun, on February 20, 1918, wrote “the owners sank an artesian well on the premises in May, 1915.  Water was pumped to the roof and distributed to washrooms and drinking faucets.”

What seemed like an efficient use of free, clean water turned out to be disastrous.  Julia Healy was 24-years old in 1915.  She and her sister, May, were both employed by Lupton Press in the building.  In August that year the sisters and other girls employed in the firm began to notice a strange taste and color to the water.

Julia and May Healy died within 14 hours of each other on September 13, 1915.  A Board of Health inspector found colon bacilli in the water—the sisters had died of typhoid.  At least a dozen other girls working in the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building contracted the disease.

On February 19, 1918 a jury ruled in favor of Dennis Healy, the girls’ father, in a lawsuit against Hallenbeck-Hungerford Realty.  He was awarded $5,000 for Julia’s death.  A similar suit for May’s death was still pending.

The publicity of the tragic deaths may have discouraged some applicants when their former employer ran an advertisement in the New-York Tribune on September 14, 1919.  “Good pay, congenial surroundings, permanent positions, opportunity for rapid advancement for intelligent young ladies over 16 years…F. M. Lupton, Publisher, 80 Lafayette st. N.Y.”

The year 1919 was one of intense labor disputes within the printing industry and tenants of the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building had their hands full.  On October 1 The Evening World reported “Further walkouts of compositors were features of the day’s developments in the labor disturbances in New York’s printing industry.”  The workers demanded a 44-hour work week and $50 scale.

At some companies, workers walked out en masse; at others foremen were informed by workers one-by-one that they were “going on a vacation.”  Among the printing firms struck that day was that of Isaac Goldman in the Hallenbeck-Hungerford Building.  Four days later the compositors of Lipschitz Press walked out, to be followed on October 9 by the workers at Bradstreet’s “in a demand for shorter hours,” explained The Sun.

The Hallenbeck-Hungerford monogram appears in the arch spandrels -- photo by Alice Lum

In the meantime U. T. Hungerford Brass Co. continued to prosper.  The successful operation demanded skilled office help and on March 14, 1920 an advertisement was placed in the New-York Tribune for a Dictaphone operator.  “Experienced, accurate transcriber, able to turn out neat, well-written work; hours 8:30 to 5; half day Saturday; state age, experience and salary desired.”  Five months later the firm was looking for typists.  “Experienced operators on Underwood machine.”  The hours were the same; but salary was “depending upon ability to produce.”

The building continued to attract large printing firms.  In August 1922 the Klim, Lindner & Bauer lithographer firm took the entire 15th floor, signing a 10-year lease at $200,000.  The same year McClure Publishing, producers of McClure’s Magazine, was in the building.

Gardiner Binding was also here in 1922--a long term tenant -- American Printer and Lithographer December 20, 1921 (copyright expired)

Around 1970 the tenant list changed from printers and publishers to governmental offices.  The Department of Consumer Affairs, the Union Dental Center and the Child Welfare Administration all had their offices in the building until 1998.

photo by Alice Lum
Then, in 1999, New York University converted the massive structure to Lafayette Hall, a residence building housing nearly 1,100 upperclass students.  It was the scene of a bizarre accident in November 2013 when student Asher Vongtau, 19 years old, went missing for two days.  He was found wedged at the bottom of a 2-foot wide shaft between the building and a parking garage.  Somehow Vongtau had fallen off the roof and become stuck between the buildings where he was trapped for 36 hours before being discovered.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lost Union League Clubhouse -- 5th Ave and 39th St

When this photograph was taken in 1898 traffic was non-existent on Fifth Avenue -- photograph by Arthur Vitols, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1876, only a few blocks north of the Astor mansions, Dickel’s Riding Academy sat at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street.  When James Gordon Bennett, Jr. returned from England that year he brought back a newly-found love for polo.  Bennett soon organized indoor polo games in the Academy.

But the riding academy would not last many years longer.  Over a decade earlier the Union Club was the most exclusive men’s club in Manhattan, if not the nation.  But trouble arose over a single member, Judah P. Benjamin.

When the War of Rebellion broke out, Benjamin accepted the post of Confederate Attorney General, and later became Secretary of War of the Southern Confederacy.  The New-York Tribune later explained “He was in the Southern States with which we had no communication; to prevent his name from being stricken from the roll of members for non-payment of dues three members, Augustus Schell, Samuel Barlow and William Travers, paid the amount due the club and retained Benjamin’s name on the list of members in good standing.”

The newspaper said “This act of friendship for a rebel in arms produced great indignation, and the contributors to the Benjamin dues fund were severely and unsparingly criticised.”  As a matter of fact, the heated differences between the pro- and anti-Benjamin factions were such that repeated threats of duels arose—although none came to pass.  The great irony, of course, was the name of the club itself—The Union.

The rift was resolved when 70 members resigned and formed a new club, The Union League Club.  “The only requisite for membership, besides unblemished reputation, should be an uncompromising and unconditional loyalty to Nation and a complete subordination thereto of all other political ideas,” said the New-York Tribune.

Perhaps to make its disdain of the Union Club clear, within 15 days of its organization on February 6 1863 the Union League Club raised a regiment of black troops.  “After the presentation of the colors the troops started for the wharf where they were to embark for Florida, and 350 members of the Union League marched at the head of the column,” reported the Tribune.

The club’s ardent patriotism would remain a vital element throughout the decades.  Starting out in rented rooms, it moved to the former Leonard Jerome mansion on Madison Square in 1868.  Within a decade the club was looking for a new headquarters.  It would be the end of the line for Dickel’s Riding Academy.

In 1879 the Union League Club held a competition for the design of a clubhouse appropriate for one of the wealthiest and most exclusive clubs in the city.  The commission went to Peabody & Stearns.  By February 1881 the building that replaced the old riding academy was nearly completed and no detail had been overlooked.  On February 3 the Gorham Manufacturing Company announced that the silver service for the club was on exhibition in its rooms.  A day later the New-York Tribune commented on it.

“Nearly 700 pieces of silver plate have been completed recently by the Gorham Manufacturing Company for the new house of the Union League Club…The material is a heavy silver plating upon hard metal.  The same design, which is remarkable for its simplicity, is followed throughout.”  The newspaper noted that instead of the shiny, polished finish expected on most tables, the Union League Club silver had “what is called a satin finish, giving a richer appearance than the ordinary polished shining silverware.”  The article listed “soup tureen; large plates with covers, for fish, game and roasts; tea, coffee and chocolate pots, and receptacles for butter, sugar and condiments.”

The expected date for the clubhouse opening was February 22; but a day after that the New-York Tribune noted that work was not yet completed.  Although the construction was done, “the building is overrun with joiners, finishers and varnishers, who are putting on the last touches.  The furnishers and upholsterers are already in the building, and a large part of the furniture of the club has been placed in the rooms.  Yesterday the heavy curtains were being hung in the library.  The shelves were ready for the books, and much of the furniture was in the room.  The billiard tables were in the billiard room, but were unpacked.”  Most of the rooms were in the same condition—just needing unpacking and decorating.  “The stained glass has not yet been placed in the sashes of the window at the head of the first landing of the main stairway, but it is in readiness.”  The newspaper now said that “unless something unforeseen happens,” the clubhouse would be ready in a few days.

Harper's Weekly published sketches of the Library and Dining Room in February 1881 (copyright expired)
Finally on March 5, 1881 the club opened its doors.  The Tribune reported that “The general room and private rooms were taxed to their utmost capacity, and the servants were continually running to and fro to supply the wants of the guests.”

There was no formal reception; but the open house lasted well into the night.  The young bachelor members found the view onto Fifth Avenue stimulating—due to the parade of feminine beauty.  “The windows fronting Fifth-ave. were occupied during the afternoon by the younger members, who received many bows and smiles of recognition from ladies on the sidewalks.”

Guests assemble in the lavish entrance hall during the reception for the Pan-American Delegates in 1889 -- Harper's Weekly, December 1889 (copyright expired)
The newspaper commented on the interior spaces, designed by Louis Tiffany, John LaFarge and Franklin Smith.  “The interior presented a gorgeous spectacle in the evening.  All the lights were burning.  The library, billiard hall and numerous reading and sitting-rooms were much admired and closely inspected.”  On the walls hung about 100 portraits of “men of eminence” painted by well-known artists.  The art collection included bronze and marble busts and statues, engravings and oil paintings. 

Peabody & Stearns had created a $400,000 hulking pile of brick and brownstone born of the unexpected marriage of Italian Renaissance and Queen Anne.  Variously shaped gables and chimneys poked through the high hipped roof, while balconies, pilasters, columns and carved panels created a visual overload.

Newspapers called the new building “impressive” and “greatly admired.”  The Sun said “The building itself is  in every way worthy of so costly a site.  There are few more luxurious clubhouses in the world.”  Century Magazine was a bit slower to applaud.  In March 1882 it wrote “The Union League Club House (Fifth Avenue, New York) has, it is hardly fanciful to say, the qualities of its defects.  The latter have been frequently pointed out in detail since the completion of the building, but so far as they strike the ordinary eye, they may be pretty sufficiently summed up in saying that the edifice seems an architectural negation of repose.”

A turn-of-the-century postcard provides a glimpse at the contrast in materials.

The magazine stressed that “repose” was an important quality of monumental architecture.  And despite that fact that the critic felt that the Union League Club had an “absence of architectural dignity as a prominent element;” it found Peabody & Stearns’ fanciful approach a bit refreshing.  He admitted that there was “a certain animation and sprightliness, which in themselves are by no means displeasing.”

Nevertheless, he summed up his evaluation sarcastically.  Any one “who has reached it after a walk of five miles up Broadway from the Battery… may be able cordially to admire only its large red mass and the unusual circumstance that it has a visible, instead of merely an inferable, roof.”

Not forgetting its roots, on April 17, 1890 the Union League Club gave a glittering reception for General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The Union general had just turned 70 years old.

Fifth Avenue Events, published in 1916, remembered the event. “The club-house was beautifully decorated.  American flags bedecked the entrance lobby and main stairway; everywhere were streamers, banners and festoons of bunting; before the library windows were banks of flowers, and ferns and geraniums covered the mantel.  Red, white, and blue flowers were banked before the stage, which was draped with the Stars and Stripes.  A portrait of General Sherman in uniform, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1875, occupied a place of honor, draped with flags and a victor’s wreath.”

The importance of the event was evidenced by some of the guests: Secretary of the Interior John W. Nobel, Vice President Levi P. Morton, senators, generals and foreign diplomats from Russia, Chili, Brazil and Peru.

The Sherman reception was but one of many held for men of importance.  On February 10, 1913 The Sun said “Its receptions and banquets have been famous for half a century, and among its guests of honor have been some of the most prominent men in the history of their day.  Beginning with the name of Abraham Lincoln, the list embraces hundreds.”  The newspaper listed names like General U. S. Grant, Major-General Philip H. Sheridan, Edward M. Stanton, Rutherford B. Hayes, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Prince Henry of Prussia and many others.

On June 21, 1900 Governor Theodore Roosevelt arrived in New York City from Philadelphia where his name was presented as running mate for William McKinley.  Reporters thronged around him as he stepped off the train.

“Please don’t ask me any questions.  I have nothing to say, absolutely nothing upon any subject,” he announced.  When asked about his plans, he replied “My plans as yet are not fixed very far ahead.  Tonight I shall stay at the Union League Club and tomorrow I intend to go to Oyster Bay, where I will rest for a few days.”

No reporters would get through the Union League Club doors to accost the esteemed politician.

Ever-patriotic, the Union League Club is decked out for McKinley and Hobard in 1896 photograph by Robt. L. Bracklow from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The tradition of supporting black soldiers continued into the 20th century.  When the United States entered World War I, the Buffaloes—a regiment composed entirely of black soldiers—prepared to fight.  On March 24, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the regiment “marched up Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon to the stirring strains of ‘Dixie’ and received its colors, the gift of the Union League Club, from the hand of Governor Whitman.  Since ‘Dixie’ first was a tune to live or die by the Union League Club has presented the stands of colors to negro regiments, and in times less stressful than these those regiments have made enviable records.”

A decade later, as the Great Depression cast a pall over the country, the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Union League Club had been engulfed by business buildings.  On August 28, 1929 the club announced its plans to erect a $1 million clubhouse on Park Avenue at 37th Street.

Two years later, on January 24, 1931, the clubhouse closed its doors.  The New York Times remarked the following day on the changes along the avenue.  “The empty windows now look down on an avenue completely changed during the fifty years the club has maintained its position as one of the city’s landmarks.  Quiet homes and the horse-drawn, rubber-tired traffic are gone…Traffic snarls stayed downtown on Fulton and neighboring streets.  Shrill whistles of the ‘police control’ did not pierce the ears of club members.  Bearded young men with stove pipe hats and congress gaiters escorted young ladies with enormous bustles and trailing skirts on strolls down Fifth Avenue.  That era of club life and observation has become history.”

In 1931 the club was vacant.  Traffic has increased.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Plans were filed soon after for the erection of a 47-story office building on the site.  The grand clubhouse sat empty and silent for a year—until 1:00 in the morning on January 26, 1932.  Somehow a fire started in the basement.  Within an hour and a half “the entire structure was a raging furnace that seemingly defied the efforts of a small army of firemen to put it out,” reported The Times.

The newspaper said “Among the 300 spectators who gathered to watch the destruction of the historic old Fifth Avenue building were a handful of elderly gentlemen who are members of the club that was founded Feb 6, 1863.”

By morning the Union League Clubhouse was a gutted shell.  On its site today stands a soaring black glass office tower.  That the monumental and quirky clubhouse stood here for half a century is generally forgotten.

photograph by the author