Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Lambs Club Building - 128 West 44th Street

The Lambs Club in 1918, three years after the mirror-image extension was added -- Photo NYPL Collection
High brow Victorians viewed those in the theatrical profession as slightly beneath them. As elite gentlemen’s clubs sprouted around the city in after the Civil War, a group of actors and musicians formed their own club, The Lambs.

Founded in 1874 its expressed purpose was to provide “the social intercourse of members of the dramatic and musical professions with men of the world, and the giving of entertainments for mutual amusement and instruction.”

The club was named after British drama critic and essayist Charles Lamb and his wife, Mary, who hosted a weekly open house for those in the theatre, its meeting place was called “the Fold” and its members, “Lambs.” Continuing the tongue-in-cheek language, the President and Vice President were the “Shepherd and the Boy,” and yearly outings were known as “Washings” or “Shearings.”

In 1897 the club moved into its first permanent home at 70 West 36th Street; however within a matter of years it outgrew the facility. Members would regularly stage both private and public productions called Gambols (satiric revues).  These eventually led to the need for their own, private theatre when contention arose among members over the use of certain public venues.

In 1902 the Lambs decided to erect a new clubhouse “The club had not intended to build for four or five years,” announced De Wolf Hopper, the Shepherd, “but at an information meeting last night it was decided to put up a new building, to contain our own theatre for gambols, etc., within a year.”

The club approached architects McKim, Mead and White – all of whom were members – to design the new clubhouse. Lots were purchased at Nos. 128 and 130 West 44th Street, near the Broadway theatre district, for the new structure.
The original Lambs Club in 1905 -- drawing from nyago.com
Stanford White headed up the design – a brick and marble Georgian building with terra-cotta embellishment completed in 1905. A marble street-level base supports an impressive second story of high French windows and paired Ionic columns. Between the arched windows of the third floor, lambs’ heads peer down from the Flemish-bond brickwork.

The first floor housed the lobby with its row of telephones, a billiard room and a grill room. The banquet hall faced 44th Street behind the large second floor windows. The Lambs’ private theatre was installed on the third floor, while above were offices and sleeping rooms for the members.

The Lambs Club as it appears today -- architectural rendering provided by Andrew J. Hickes, rendering.net
Ten years later the building was doubled in size by architect George A. Freeman who added a mirror-image addition.

The atmosphere of the club was distinctly different than that of other gentlemen’s clubs. “While many of the clubhouses of the Big Town display constantly the dignity and spirit of Greenwood Cemetery on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the Lambs is as full of snap and ginger as an outlaw bronco, a bunch of freshly lighted firecrackers, or a schoolboy the first day of vacation,” quipped The Times in 1914.

“While other clubs are renowned because of the magnificence of their homes, the opulence and social position of their members, the excellence of their libraries and art collections, their exclusiveness, picturesqueness, eccentricities and efforts toward civic, political and economic improvement, the Lambs base their claim to fame on the individual members.”

Indeed, the halls and rooms were home over the years to such members as the Barrymores (except Ethel), Irving Berlin, Cecil B. DeMille, David Belasco, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Ridgard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Fred Astaire, George M. Cohan, Spencer Tracy and thousands of others.

The membership did not include, however, females. “The Lambs permit no women other than housemaids and scrubwomen to pass their portals, and then only by the servants’ entrance,” noted The Times. There was the time, however, when a well-known Broadway actress strode into the club around midnight, walked into the crowded grill room and announced “Good evening, gentlemen.”

The actress then walked out, leaving the group of Lambs dumbstruck.

Members were passionate about their club, no more evident than in 1954 when the will of comedian Joe Laurie, Jr. requested that his ashes be cast into “a roaring fire some winter’s day in the fireplace at the Lambs Club.”

Problems came in 1974 when the club was in danger of losing the building to a $350,000 mortgage. In December a fund-raising gala was held to try to stave off receivership. It was all too late.

In May of the following year the building was taken over by the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene which announced its intention “to clean up Times Square.”

The Chatwal's Art Deco-inspired lobby -- photo LHW.com
Thirty years later Indian-born businessman Sant Singh Chatwal purchased the building, converting it to the Chatwal Hotel. After a renovation that took several years, the hotel opened in 2010. Stanford White’s turn-of-the-century interiors were, for the most part, gutted and replaced by sleek neo-Art Deco spaces.

Some of the original detailing survives in the Chatwal interiors -- photo LHW.com
The exterior of the former Lambs Club was designated a New York City landmark in 1974.

1 comment:

  1. However, it should be noted that The Lambs - the theatrical club that erected this building - did continue to survive and thrive. It is located on 3 West 51st Street. www.The-Lambs.org

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