Friday, June 1, 2012

The 21 Club -- Nos. 19 and 21 West 52nd Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1871 construction began on a long row of brownstone rowhouses along West 52nd Street.  Around the corner on Fifth Avenue the great white marble St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nearly completed and impressive mansions had already begun filling the area.  Architects Duggins and Crossman designed the row.  The handsome homes would be appropriate to the high-toned neighborhood.

Two bays wide, they rose four floors above a deep, rusticated English basement.   The architects added unusual touches, like the unique carved frames around the windows.  Above the arched fourth floor windows, a handsome cornice with scrolled brackets stretched the length of the row.

The carved window frames were highly unusual -- photo by Alice Lum
The row was home to well-heeled families through the turn of the century.   The wealthy Frederic E. Lewis lived at No. 23 for years.   Lewis drove an impressive Renault motorcar in 1914 while Mrs. Lewis busied herself with charity affairs. 

As World War I erupted the street was still a fashionable enclave, despite the encroachment of business along Fifth Avenue that was pushing mansion owners uptown.  On Valentine’s Day 1918 Mrs. Lewis held a meeting in her parlor “for the purpose of arousing interest in the social service work” in more than 40 hospitals.  The group’s goal was “the care and reeducation of those who have become almost useless to themselves and their families on account of infirmities,” explained The Sun.  Among the prominent  socialites sipping tea that afternoon were Mrs. John H. Sheppard, Jr.,  Caroline Shippen and Mrs. Francis C. Wood.

In the meantime Leonard A. Hochstader was living next door at No. 21.  On March 28, 1917 he had leased the house “for a long term of years” from Frederic R. Halsey.

While the Hochstaders and the Lewises were living respectable lives at Nos. 21 and 23 West 52nd Street, young Jack Kriendler devised a way to make money.   When the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 banning the sale of alcohol, the Fordham University student saw an opportunity. 

He convinced New York University student Charlie Berns to open a speakeasy with him.   They pooled all their money and then borrowed more; the plan being that once they made enough money to pay for their tuition, they would quit the business.

The boys opened a “cup joint” in Greenwich Village they called the Red Head.  Patrons would drink coffee or tea from cups that were refilled by pitcher-toting waiters--except the coffee and tea was actually liquor priced at $1 per ounce.

The boys eventually moved their business to the basement of 88 Washington Place.  This speakeasy—complete with the iconic peephole and buzzer—was called the Fronton and patrons included the mayor, Jimmy Walker, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Cops would show up as well, but not to raid the place like the Federal revenue agents might.  They were interested in a sip or two from a coffee cup.

And then they made the move to the big time.  They established Puncheon uptown on 49th Street.  Now quality food was served along with only the best alcohol.  The staff dressed in evening clothes and only well-dressed and properly behaving patrons were admitted.   The former college boys were suddenly in the forefront of the speakeasy owners.

Puncheon was well-known and patronized by celebrities, politicians and power-players.  With success and notoriety, however, came the Feds.  One particular raid annoyed author H. L. Mencken who wrote “Why raid a place that is serving good liquor and not poisoning anybody?”  The boys quickly learned to store the liquor in the attic of an adjoining house.  If supplies ran low, a staff member would go across the roof and retrieve bottles through the skylight.

By now, the moneyed families of West 52nd Street had abandoned their homes, giving up the unwinnable battle against “commerce.”   The once-proud brownstones were converted to business purposes one-by-one.  It would be the next move for Charlie and Jack.

The Great Depression hit Puncheon’s wealthy patrons hard.  But it was the construction of Rockefeller Center forced another change in location.  In 1928 the boys received $11,000 from Columbia University, who owned the land, to vacate. With the wrecking ball closing in, a new place had to be found.  No. 21 West 52nd Street was perfect.  Not only could Jack and Charlie buy the building, they could buy the land—an unusual circumstance at the time.

Puncheon was renamed “The 21 Club” and before the old building was destroyed, the impressive cast iron fencing and gate were removed and installed at No. 21 West 52nd.

The elaborate cast iron fence was rescued from the old Puncheon Club on 49th Street -- photo by Alice Lum
When the club opened there were 38 other speakeasies along what would become known as “Swing Street.”  But "21" stood out.  The owners spent liberally to create the atmosphere in which its wealthy patrons would be comfortable.  After a full year of renovations the club opened.  White linens, velvet upholstery and glittering crystal chandeliers outfitted the dining room upstairs.   The wood-paneled barroom mimicked an English gentlemen’s club.  There was no music—this was a club of distinction—and prices were set above average to discourage riff-raff.

Jack and Charlie went a step further.  They commissioned engineers and architects to devise ingenious contraptions caricatured in cartoons and comedies today.   Should the doorman push any of the four alarm buttons signaling an impending raid, the bartender would press another.   Immediately the liquor shelves would give way sending the liquor bottles to the basement down custom-made chutes.  There special drains were outfitted with stones and sand so no trace of alcohol would remain.  Only the broken bottles would greet the inspectors, and there was no law against having broken bottles in one’s cellar.

photo by Alice Lum
Upstairs liquor closets were secreted behind hidden panels.   They were activated by a mechanism in the coat rod.  When touched correctly with a metal coat hanger, the panels would swing open revealing the small wine room.

Most elaborate, however, was the liquor vault below.  Charlie and Jack purchased the house next door at No. 19 in 1931.   A portion of the abutting basement wall was taken down and builders erected a false wall—virtually undetectable—using the same bricks.  The 4,000-pound door was over a foot thick.  Any revenue agent who tapped along the wall would hear no tell-tale hollow sound.   When a meat skewer was inserted into a small hole in the mortar a mechanism would swing the wall open. 

And just to make things more secure, eleven other identical holes were randomly drilled between the bricks to throw off any eagle-eyed agent.

The hidden vault was a safe place for New York’s most notorious playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, to entertain lady friends with absolute certainty of not being discovered.  He had a private booth built into the vault area.  Should a raid occur, neither the public nor his wife would find out about his indiscretions.

Notoriety attracted the notice not only of the Feds, but of competing gangsters.   When Charlie and Jack refused to admit Legs Diamond as a partner, he ordered a hit on the pair.  Luckily for them, the weekend that the hit was to be happen, Diamond was assassinated by another mob.

In the final days of Prohibition, in June 1932, the club was raided for the last time.  Frustrated and insistent, the Feds probed and tapped, dismantled and searched, and finally, after twelve exhausting hours, gave up.  Despite a pile of broken glass bottles and the unmistakable odor of gin they could find nothing.  The ingenious mechanisms and contraptions worked again.

With the end of Prohibition, the club gained mainstream respectability as a restaurant and high-end bar.   In May 1937 Mrs. Vincent Astor and actress Elsa Maxwell hosted a benefit party for the Musicians Emergency Fund here.  The management donated the entire club for the occasion and among the guests were W. Averell Harriman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt,  Mr. and Mrs. William Paley, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst and dozens of other luminaries.   The plan of two college boys to make quick money selling bootleg alcohol to pay for school had come a long, long way.

On one evening in the 1930s, along with regular no-name patrons were celebrities Joan Bennett, Tallulah Bankhead, Clark Gable Charles Laughton, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Gary Grant, Irene Dunne, Katherine Hepburn, Norma Shearer and Edward G. Robinson.  In 1944 Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart celebrated their first date at Table 30.

During World War II Ed Sullivan broadcast his radio show from "21" and Humphrey Bogart had a regular table.  Throughout the 20th century Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush were served here—in fact George W. Bush is the only president not to dine at "21" since Franklin Roosevelt.

The reputation of the club’s high-level cuisine—pheasant, grouse, partridge and terrapin, for example-- was added to by its wine list.   Fine old cognacs and rare vintages were stored in the cellar.  And special patrons kept their own bottles here.  

Throughout the years, items offered by famous patrons filled the rooms.  One of the first of the jockey figures was given by John Whitney and Alfred Vanderbilt.   Howard Hughes donated model airplanes and the pool stick used by Jackie Gleason in “The Hustler” is on display.

The famous jockeys are not merely decorative -- each honors a specific athlete -- photo by Alice Lum
In mid-century the walls between the two houses were opened, creating a single structure.  The third floor was converted to a sort of men’s club with the addition of a gym and sauna, an on-call masseuse, and dry cleaning and theater ticket services.

The restaurant has been part of cinema history, used as a set in “Spellbound,” “All About Eve,” “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Wall Street.”

In the 1985 Pete Kriendler, the brother of founder Jack, sold "21" to Marshall Cogan, who closed it for renovations.   New Yorkers warily waited for the reopening, then breathed a sigh of relief—Cogan had sympathetically redone the interiors.  It was just as it had been.  

Ten years after he bought it, Cogan sold 21 to the Orient-Express Hotels Trains & Cruises.  The famous liquor vault behind the secret door in the cellar was remodeled into a private dining room.  In 2004 while renovations were being done on the third floor, a hidden vault was found.  Inside, forgotten for four decades, were uncashed checks and securities. 

photo by Alice Lum
The brownstone houses at Nos. 19 and 21 West 52nd Street would long ago have been demolished for a modern office building had two aspiring college boys not come up with an unlikely scheme to make money.  Today they survive as the last 19th century residences on the block and the last speakeasy in Midtown.

The 21 Club houses a wine collection valued at $1.5 million, among which are bottles owned by Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart.    The houses, easily overlooked on the side street, have one of the most intriguing histories of Manhattan buildings.

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