Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stanford White's 1893 "The Metropolitan Club"

photo by Jim Henderson
In 1891 every man of high-breeding in New York belonged to at least one of the scores of exclusive gentlemen’s clubs that dotted the city. That year, however, The New York Times bemoaned changes within the paneled walls of the Union Club – indisputably the most prestigious and elite of all of them.

The newspaper lamented “the youthful element which had crept into the club and which didn’t care a rap for traditions.”  Referring to the younger generation of members that had begun to control the club's operation, it said “There was more levity and less regard for the old-time courtesies and traditional ways of club life, and gradually the older and perhaps better element began to waver and lose active interest in the organization.”

Things came to a head when, that same year, the upstarts flexed their black-balling muscle and refused membership to several well-connected gentlemen.  In doing so they not only insulted the potential members but their sponsors.

Most significant of these were John King and Dr. W. Seward Webb.   King, the President of the Erie Railroad was recommended by J. Pierpont Morgan.  He was declined because “he ate with his knife” (a reference to his social graces).  Dr. Webb, the President of the Wagner Palace Car Company and brother-in-law of Frederick W. Vanderbilt, was black-balled over a disagreement with a member that had occurred years earlier in college.

Shortly after Webb’s name was passed upon, the Goelets, the Vanderbilts, J. P. Morgan and other disgruntled members began meeting separately to form their own club.

Tagged by the press as “the Millionaires’ Club,” the group drew up rules, established a committee to find a clubhouse site, and tossed around prospective names. Land was purchased at 5th Avenue and 60th Street just north of Cornelius Vanderbilt's enormous mansion for $480,000 from the Hammersley estate. While the bulk of the clubs were centered around 5th Avenue in the 40s, it was widely agreed that the proposed site would soon be within the new club district.

With the signing of the contract for the site, The Times also noted that “It is said that one of the best-known club architects in the country has been approached with reference to preliminary plans for the new clubhouse [which] will probably surpass any social clubhouse in New-York in costliness and elegance of its appointments, and the land and house together will easily foot up over $1,000,000.”

The architects, indeed, were among the “best-known” and the plans (eventually) would be for the most expensive and elegant club in the country. McKim, Mead & White were chosen, with Stanford White in charge of the designs.

Yet the fabulously wealthy members were none too anxious to decide upon a plan. In August 1891 excavation for the foundation had been proceeding for two months yet nothing had been decided upon in terms of style of architecture. While most of the controlling members were away in Europe, a McKim, Mead & White spokesperson said that the members “do not know exactly what they do want, and until they do, the draughtsmen cannot make their drawings, of course.”

By December there was still no progress. “The architects who are in charge of the plans for the house do not hold out much hope of an immediate decision,” reported The Times, “and it begins to look as though the decision might hang fire until Christmas.”

Then there was the issue of the name. Early on, in March 1891, the “Millionaires’ Club” settled on a name. It was one that raised eyebrows and caused a wave of controversy across the club scene. The group, including names like Vanderbilt, Morgan, Whitney, Goelet, Roosevelt, Babcock and Lorillard, decided upon “The Metropolitan Club.”

The problem was that there already was a Metropolitan Club.

Immediately The New York Times wryly accused the new club of “venting spite upon Postmaster Van Cott’s letter carriers.” The original Metropolitan Club, which limited its rolls to wealthy Jewish members, was housed in a clubhouse at 58th Street and 5th Avenue.

The Times went on to sarcastically suggest that “it may be advisable, if necessary for the convenience of postmen or otherwise, to distinguish the two houses, to let the present house be known as Metropolitan Club, Sr., and to call the new house Metropolitan Club, Jr.”

Finally in February 1892 a decision was announced regarding the style of the building.  According to Stanford White “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.”
The grand marble staircase in 1951 -- photo from author's collection
The building would be clad in white marble with its entrance on 60th Street, turning its shoulder to the more public 5th Avenue. Inside a grand marble staircase 15 feet wide would lead from the great hall, which was faced in Numidian marble, to the reading room, two card rooms, a billiard room and a library 40 by 60 feet. Ceilings were painted in European-style scenes and walls throughout were of cherry, oak or mahogany.

Perili's Dining Room ceiling - photo by Lily Bart
The third floor housed the dining hall, a breakfast room, smoking room and three large private dining rooms. There were 22 suites for overnight guests, a bowling alley, wine rooms and, most innovative of all, a ladies’ annex.

The Billard Room in 1896 -- photo NYPL Collection
The club planners executed a coup de grace against the established clubs by including a separate wing for the wives and daughters of members. “Once the palatial clubhouse is opened,” said The Times, “every woman in town whose husband is of the necessary social standing will exert all her powers of persuasion and compulsion with a view to making her spouse a Metropolitan Club man.” Here these women would be able to give teas and grand dinners “with all the environments and luxuries of a modern palace.”

“No other New-York club holds out this attraction to them, and consequently the women who want to be in the social swim will be forced to persuade their inferior halves to enlist under the Metropolitan Club’s banner,” quipped The Times.

Nearly every man on the Board of Governors of the club was a multi-millionaire and the club promised by the Spring of 1892 to be the wealthiest and most exclusive club in the world. So elite was its membership only a year after formation that there was no attempt to recruit new members. After its initial 400 invitations were sent out in 1891 no further efforts were made. Well-heeled gentlemen across the city were astonished when they received no invitation or solicitation. The extremely select status of the existing 700 members in May 1892 already guaranteed the club’s very comfortable existence.

In 1893 the spectacular white marble palazzo was completed. White’s design was restrained and unpretentious. The carriage court was protected by ornate wrought iron gates that the AIA Guide to New York City over a century later would say “keep we plebs at bay.”

Stanford White's magnificent black iron and gilt carriage gates - photo by Alice Lum
Inside the major spaces were decorated by Parisian interior design firm Gilbert Cuel. The ceiling paintings were executed by French artist Perili and the American Edward E. Simmons.

Entrance Hall -- photo by MZI Global Marketing
An annex was created in 1912 when Odgen Codman, Jr., renovated the mansion abutting the club on 60th Street into an assemblage of bachelor apartments.

For a century, the Metropolitan Club has been a dignified respite for New York’s elite. Even when, on May 15, 1953, 56 housekeeping employees struck in protest, The Times reported that they “were on an appropriately discreet and decorous sit-down strike.” Even labor problems at the Metropolitan Club, it seems, are handled with politesse.

Stanford White’s beautiful white marble creation is often over looked by New Yorkers and tourists alike, possibly because of its doorless 5th Avenue façade. It is, however, one of the city’s most remarkable architectural masterpieces.

2 comments:

  1. I don't know if you ever noticed the plaque on the Fifth Avenue corner of the Metropolitan Club stating that the land for the club was purchased from the Duchess of Marlborough, but I was impressed to see that you got the history right. The formative meeting for the club took place in February 1891 within a month of the settlement of the Hamersley estate, which had been in the courts since Hamersley's death in 1883. Hamersley's wife, Lily, by now married to the eighth Duke of Marlborough, was the beneficiary of the estate during her lifetime and one of its three trustees, but she did not own the property. Two of the founders (and two of the three signers of the purchase deed), Cornelius Vanderbilt II and William C. Whitney, were friends of Lily's, and Whitney became, in 1898, the racing partner in England of Lily's third husband.

    submitted by Sally Svenson, author of "Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854--1909): A Portrait with Husbands"

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    1. Thanks for all the additional information. Very informative.

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