|The Century Association at the time of its completion in 1891 - photo NYPL Collection|
Holt may sound a bit snobbish; however the membership of the association (which preferred not to call itself a “club”) reads like a virtual Who’s Who of the literary and artistic world – early members including Calvert Vaux, Asher Durand, Winslow Homer, Edwin Booth, Joseph W. Harper and Thomas Cole.
William Cullen Bryant most often gets credit for founding the group in 1847 “to promote the advancement of art and literature;” however there were several erudite gentlemen responsible including William Kemble, William H. Appleton and Asher B. Durand. The name of the club reflected the founders’ intentions to limit membership to no more than 100 – a carry-over from the earlier Sketch Club also founded by Bryant.
Membership was offered to “Artists, Literary Men, Scientists, Physicians, Officers of the Army and Navy, members of the Bench and Bar, Engineers, Clergymen, Representatives of the Press, Merchants and men of leisure.” In effect, anyone with wealth, breeding and education.
After the Civil War, the club established its first permanent headquarters on East 15th Street. As the century ground to an end, the members began talking of a new, roomier clubhouse uptown. On November 4, 1898 a committee was formed to locate and purchase a site “somewhere within the territory bounded by Fourth-avenue, Fiftieth-street, Sixth-avenue, and Twenty-third-street, for a sum not to exceed $200,000.”
A committee member noted that a prime lot on an avenue or corner was unnecessary as “we are not in any sense a ‘window club’…The main object we shall hold in view will be to obtain accommodations for a good and commodious picture gallery and a handsome library, besides, of course, the usual parlors and sleeping apartments.
“The purchase of the new site will be made just as soon as possible, and a building then put up to suit the taste of our members.”
The plot of land chosen was at No. 7 West 43rd Street, midblock, and the building “to suit the taste of our members” would be sumptuous. Club member Stanford White was given the commission and he created a 4-story Italian Renaissance palazzo using granite, terra-cotta ornamentation and brick. Wreath-encircled round windows on the fourth floor tie elegantly with the rectangular windows below creating a single design element. A balconied Palladian window supported by strikingly-grained marble pillars and a classical balustrade above the cornice create an aura of stateliness. The building set the bar for future fashionable men’s clubs.
|The Racquet Club (far distance), the Academy of Music and the Century Association in 1892 - photo NYPL Collection|
|Reading Room, 1896|
|Tudor-inspired Dining Room, 1896|
With its annual art exhibitions, lectures and elite artistic and literary membership on its side, the association won the case.
In 1969 the Yale Club opened its membership to women, sending a shock wave through the men’s clubs of Manhattan. The esteemed University club finally voted for inclusion in 1987. The Century Association, however, stuck to its 140-year-old tradition. No women.
The stance would be short-lived, however, when finally in 1989 the club’s exhaustive legal battles failed and women were finally admitted.
|The Century Association as it appeared on May 21, 1892 - photo NYPL Collection|
It is, according to the Association website “an association of…artists, and amateurs of letters and the fine arts…Its main activity is conversation”
contemporary photographs taken by the author