Friday, March 30, 2012

The 1927 Neo-Tudor Block Club -- Nos. 21-23 South William Street

photo by Alice Lum
Crooked little Stone Street earned its name by being the first street in New Amsterdam to be paved with cobblestones in 1658.  In 1676 Mayor Nicholas De Meyer was living in a house that engulfed the lots that would later become Nos. 41, 43 and 45.  The prosperous De Meyer also owned a windmill which was “very conspicuous” on contemporary maps.

Even earlier Dutch explorer Adriaen Block had lived on the site.  Block, who died in 1627, mapped much of the coastal and river valley areas of present-day New Jersey, Long Island and Massachusetts between 1611 and 1614.  He established trade with the Native Americans in the region, named Block Island and Rhode Island, and it was his 1614 map that first documented the name New Netherland.

It was Adriaen Block who determined that Long Island and Manhattan were, in fact, islands.

On December 16, 1835 fire broke out at 25 Merchant Street.  In the subfreezing temperatures, firefighters were frustrated as water, drawn from holes chopped in the ice of the East River, froze in the hoses.  Before the raging fire was extinguished the following day, between 500 and 700 buildings were destroyed and 17 blocks of downtown lay in smoldering ruins.  The devastated area included Stone Street.

Within a year the area was rebuilt with nearly identical stone-faced Greek Revival commercial buildings that stretched through the block from Stone Street to South William Street.   The buildings survived throughout the 19th century despite soaring real estate values in the growing Financial District and office buildings redefining the neighborhood.

Then on December 20, 1926 the property at Nos. 21 and 23 South William Street, which extended through the block to Stone Street where the mayor’s house had stood 300 years earlier, was purchased by Block Hall, Inc.   The group was a newly-formed club composed of businessmen in the banking and marine insurance industries.  The president, Gresham Innis, announced that the land “will be improved by the club with a seven-story clubhouse.”

In deference to the historic site the club was named in honor of Adriaen Block and would be a private social, athletic and luncheon club.  The idea of luncheon clubs had originated in 1887 with the Down Town Association which erected the first such club at 60 Pine Street.  At the time, downtown businessmen were increasingly inconvenienced as the residential neighborhoods moved further uptown, making traveling home for lunch difficult.  A private luncheon club resolved the problem and eliminated only other option, which was scrambling for tables at the few acceptable restaurants in the area.

The Block Club commissioned architect William Neil Smith to design its new clubhouse.   The club that chose its name to commemorate a Dutch explorer surprisingly went decidedly English in its choice of architecture.   In 1905 Smith had designed a neo-Gothic fa├žade just north of the plot, which abutted the remarkable 1903 Flemish Revival facades by C. P. H. Gilbert.

Gilbert's 1903 Flemish Revival buildings and Smith's Gothic Revival structure provided a fitting setting for the Block Club's Tudor clubhouse -- photo by Alice Lum
By February Smith was ready to share his plans.  The New York Times reported that the new clubhouse would be “after the English manner.”  The charming design would include “A tiny garden with shrubs and flowers on the sidewalk level and an ivy-covered balcony on the third floor.”

More than 100 members had joined the club before the first brick was laid; lured not only by the prospect of an exclusive new luncheon spot, but by the planned “squash, racquets and handball courts and a gymnasium on the fourth floor,” as reported in The Times.

The upper floors, behind the steep tiled roof, contained the athletic areas of the club -- photo by Alice Lum
Block Hall was completed later that year.  Its charismatic neo-Tudor design blended harmoniously with the other historic-based buildings at the bend of South Williams Street to create a uniquely picturesque setting.  Smith combined projecting porches, half-timbering, many-paned windows and a steep, three-story tiled mansard roof to give the illusion of a rustic English structure.

The clubhouse became an important venue for the annual squash tournaments in which exclusive mens’ clubs including the New York Athletic Club, the Princeton  Club and the Yale Club vied with the Block Club for bragging rights.

Things went well for the club until October of 1929.  Then many of the prosperous members who made their fortunes in banking and insurance were wiped out by the Great Depression.  The club struggled to pay its mortgage of about $360,000 until finally, in 1932, the Corn Exchange Bank foreclosed.   The club reorganized as the Block Hall Luncheon Club and continued on, leasing the building from the bank.

In August of 1945 the bank sold the structure to Robert Norden, the owner of the restaurant in Fraunces Tavern.  In place of the luncheon club, Norden opened a new restaurant.

While the skyline of lower Manhattan changed month-by-month throughout the 20th century with soaring modern skyscrapers replacing older structures, the picturesque and bending South Williams Street remained.  The group of quaint, unrelated buildings still charm tourists and New Yorkers alike with their old European feel.

Turning onto South William Street from busy Mill Lane is like stepping onto a little European street -- photo by Alice Lum
In 2006 the former Block Club was converted to an “eating and drinking establishment” on the ground floor—appropriately a pub in keeping with the architecture—and five upscale apartments on each of the upper floors.

1 comment:

  1. The varied streetscape of architectural styles and diverse businesses and restaurants on Stone Street make for a lively and energetic destination among the towering corporate towers. Funny, but what many developers and builders still do not understand to this day is that its pockets of human-scaled preserved buildings like this, with character and details, that are preferred and enjoyed even and copied in so many planned town communities across the country, yet so few plaecs like Stone Street exist in most urban areas.

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