Friday, June 10, 2011

John Russell Pope's Neo-Georgian 221 East 71st Street


The beautifully-proportioned colonial-style building on East 71st Street, a little slice of Williamsburg in Manhattan, is a pleasant shock to those who are not expecting it.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the social reform movement had caught the notice of some moneyed socialites.  Among these was the young Mary Harriman whose father, E. H. Harriman was a railroad tycoon.  Inspired by the “Settlement Movement” that was fueled by the likes of Jane Addams’ Hull House, Harriman set out to make a meaningful mark in New York.  With nine other debutantes she founded the The New York Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements in 1901.  The ponderous name would later be shortened to The New York Junior League.

The League’s influence and membership grew until, in 1928, it was necessary to move its headquarters from a brownstone townhouse on East 61st Street to a larger building with ample facilities.  A plot of land was purchased that year at 221 East 71st Street and John Russell Pope was commissioned to design a clubhouse.
While Pope was responsible for other impressive structures – the 1912 Jacobean Revival DeKoven mansion on Park Avenue, for example – he would be remembered for his classically-inspired structures like the National Gallery of Art, the Jefferson Memorial, and Richmond, Virginia’s Union Station.  For the Junior League he turned to the Georgian period.

Situated well east of the center of social activity, the land was less expensive and perhaps made a statement by the wealthy young women whose expressed interest was in the underprivileged.
Construction was completed in 1929 and the inauguration was held on December 19 of that year.  The formal red brick building followed strict 18th Century lines, including the many-paned windows, roof-top balustrade and scrolled broken pediment stone door frame.  Seven stories tall, it successfully pretended to be only four.

The $1.25 million building boasted a “great hall in Georgian Style,” which would be used for receptions, benefits, lectures and dances.   On the top floor was a swimming pool under a skylight.  There were two squash courts and guest rooms for members who stayed over.   But the facilities were not just intended for the use of the members – there was also a large nursery that could temporarily accommodate up to 25 infants rescued from unsavory home situations.
Even before the formal opening the clubhouse was already in demand.  A week prior to the inauguration (during which Eleanor Holm, an Olympic swimmer, showed off her talents), a debutante luncheon was hosted by Mrs. Henry Slack and daughter Rosalie Hick Slack for Miss Alice Vanderbilt Morris, II.

Of all the distinguished speakers in the Great Hall, perhaps none appeared so frequently as Eleanor Roosevelt.  She was here no fewer than three times from 1935 to 1943, speaking on topics from “the supreme importance…of personal moral standards and ethics” to World War II.
The Great Depression and World War II significantly distressed the League’s financial situation and in 1947 the grand Georgia building which The New York Times deemed the League's “swank clubhouse” was offered for sale.   The Junior League found temporary quarters elsewhere while awaiting the newly-acquired Vincent Astor house at No. 130 East 80th Street to be readied.  (When they finally moved in during May of 1949, The Times remarked “The Junior League of the City of New York once more is dwelling in marble halls…after ‘roughing it’ for nearly a year in a storage warehouse.’)


The building on East 71st Street was purchased by Marymount College and on September 15, 1948, Cardinal Spellman dedicated the building.  The AIA Guide to New York City later applauded the move, saying that the staid Georgian style of the building was “a comforting image for those Catholic young women.”

Nearly a century after its construction, Pope’s dignified Georgia building on East 71st Street has changed little.  Although some of the spaces – such as the nursery and the squash courts – have been renovated into classrooms, most of the interior design remains.  Even the pink-tiled swimming pool is there.
photographs taken by the author

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