Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The 1893 Pequod Club - No. 267 W. 25th Street

Although the first floor facade has been obliterated, the spirited Queen Anne design survives above. -- photo by the author
Henry Clay Miner was a well-known name in New York theater.  The impresario operated a number of prominent theaters, most notably the Browery Theatre, and pioneered the concept of circuits—booking acts into a string of popular venues rather than a single theater.  Miner grew wealthy in the theater business.  But he had another passion: politics.

By the summer of 1892 Miner had attained the leadership of the Third Assembly district of the Tammany Hall administration.   Late 19th century politics in New York City was a fraternity of graft, corruption, and vicious infighting.  For the moment Henry Miner was riding the wave.

Social-political clubs were formed in each assembly district along party lines and were traditionally given Native American names.  On August 5, 1892 The Sun reported on the nearly-completed Comanche Club of the Third Assembly District of which Miner was president.   Earlier that year, another club was being formed further uptown.

On February 18 the Pequod Club of the City of New-York was incorporated by three members: John C. Sheehan, and Judges David McAdam and Charles P. Andrews.  The New York Times reported that “The objects are to secure the success of Democratic principles and to secure the active participation in politics of those who have been indifferent to political duties.”

It all sounded rather idealistic and high-minded.   But for political bosses like John C. Sheehan, to “secure the active participation of those who have been indifferent to political duties” could mean a little arm-twisting.

If Henry Miner was riding high in 1892, Sheehan was riding higher.  He moved from Buffalo in July 1886 owing over $5,000 to his creditors, but “found himself almost immediately secretary of the Aqueduct Commission at a salary of $4000 a year,--a snug berth for a man to get who had left his native city under a cloud,” remarked Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper.

Powerful political connections came in handy and in February 1892 Sheehan was appointed Police Commissioner at an annual salary of $5,000 (about $125,000 today).  He added to his income with a partnership in the law firm that served as counsel to the Excise Board, drawing between $4,000 and $5,000 a year despite never having had a case in court.  He was the senior partner in a contracting firm routinely given contracts for public projects in Long Island City that amounted to about half a million dollars.

And now he was chairman of the political organization, the Pequod Club, with none other than Frank Tweed as secretary.

The 13th Assembly District encompassed part of the Tenderloin District; an area of brothels, gambling dens, saloons and crime unequaled perhaps anywhere else in the world.  Henry Miner owned several properties in the 23rd Street area—the main entertainment district in the 1890s—including a plot at No. 267 West 25th Street.
Miner donated the land and paid for a handsome new clubhouse to be built for the Pequod Club. Three stories tall, the brick and brownstone structure was an up-to-date mix of Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles.  The asymmetrical fa├žade featured arches and pilasters and creative brickwork.  The wide arched entrance above a short flight of steps on one side was visually balanced by a large, triangular Queen Anne sunburst parapet on the other.

Unlike most of the political clubs, as attractive as it was on the outside, the Pequod Club was equally comfortable inside.  Munsey’s Magazine noted that “The typical Tammany club is characterized by great simplicity.  There are many chairs, a few tables, and a platform.  It is a place where men can drink and smoke, and dress as they please.”

Years later, in 1928, the Pequod Club still retained its handsome street level details -- NYPL Collection
Within a year of his becoming a Police Commissioner and chairing the new Tammany organization, Sheehan was being eyed suspiciously.  In December 1893 The New York Times reported on an investigation of the police department by the New-York Society for the Prevention of Crime.   Its findings suggested that Commissioner Sheehan used his political and police power to coerce policemen to join the Pequod Club, to bully saloon operators into buying tickets for the club’s annual outings, and instructed police captains to ignore the operations of saloons that sold liquor on Sundays and brothels.

According to the committee, one police official “worked so zealously in his efforts to do honor to the District Leader-Police Commissioner, late of Buffalo, that he sold, or claimed to have sold, $750 worth of tickets [to the annual boat outing].”  The officer reportedly had said “Of course the people who bought these tickets, especially liquor dealers, were delighted to have the opportunity of buying Pequod Club tickets.”

The State Senate got involved, establishing the Lexow Committee to investigate corruption.   When Sheehan was ordered to produce the books of the Pequod Club, he smugly refused saying that because it was a social club publishing names of members would be improper.  The refusal to make the account books public led to an indictment.   But The New York Times noted that “no attempt was made to arrest Commissioner Sheehan.  He was permitted by the authorities to enjoy the seclusion of his home.”

The Christian Work: Illustrated Family Newspaper was astonished at the testimonies of corruption under Commissioner Sheehan.  “The most startling admission the Police Commissioner made was that he believed that poolroom keepers had paid money to the police for protection and that he had been utterly unable to find out who received the money.”

The periodical ranted “Such revelations of official incompetency, if not absolute knavery, have seldom been made…If exposure of rottenness could secure the redemption of a city, the redemption of New York would be sure.”

As the investigation and inquest went on, the Pequod Club and John C. Sheehan continued with business as usual.  In September 1894 it held its second annual excursion.  The steamer Sirius was chartered and The Times reported that “It is expected that she will have on board more than 1,500 guests, members of the club and friends, with its President, John C. Sheehan."

Outings like this kept Sheehan and his cronies in a favorable light with the constituents of the 13th Assembly District.  On the day following the boat trip The New York Times reported “Although 1,800 men of all classes went out to have a jolly time, and had not to pay one cent for repasts and refreshments without stint, there was not a solitary instance of intoxication, fighting, brawling, or dishonesty noted, and the only accident was to one of the members of the club, who was struck in the mouth with a baseball while playing the game.”

The nearly 2,000 revelers were given white flannel yachting caps and marched from the Pequod Club to the Hudson River.  Upon their return that night the “the Assembly district was ablaze with red fire, bonfires, pyrotechnics, lanterns, calcium lights, and colored lamps…The handsomest drapings and display of Chinese lanterns were at 464 West Twenty-third Street, Commissioner Sheehan’s home.”

Despite his popularity with the masses, Sheehan’s immense political power was weakening in the glare of the Lexow investigations.  The Times reported on an “anonymous circular issued from the Pequod Club policemen to their fellow-policement, exhorting them to ‘lay aside every assumed or imaginary grievance that we may have, and stand together like men.”

But the newspaper recognized a chink the hitherto impenetrable blue wall.  “A great part of the police force has been ‘standing together’ in the most shameless fashion,” it said, “…but now the honest men have ground for courage, and many of the dishonest ones are getting ready to ‘rat,’ to secure such safety for themselves as they can.”

Accustomed to doing whatever he wanted, legal or not, on election day 1894 Sheehan ordered that ballot clerks give out only those ballots he authorized.  When they were asked by authorities why full sets of ballots were not put out, “They said they had directions from Police Commissioner Sheehan not to give such ballots unless the voters asked for them,” said The Times on November 7.

The Chairman of the “Committee of Seventy” went to the Pequod Club and threatened a doubtlessly surprised Commissioner Sheehan that he had committed a felony and was liable to be arrested.

“Mr. Sheehan did not fancy their determined position,” reported The Times, “and he rescinded his order.”

But despite the scandals and criminal investigations, Sheehan remained Commissioner and head of the Pequod Club—for a while.   When he came back to New York in March 1898 after having spent four weeks in Florida for his health, he was met at the Pequod Club by 300 members and a brass band.

However while he was gone discontent had taken seed.  “The anti-Sheehan element, which three weeks ago started a demand for his resignation as leader of the district, was not present” in the joyful celebration said The Times.  An “anti-Sheehan element” was inconceivable before now.

Suddenly there was more than one Democrat interested in leading the 13th Assembly.   Richard Croker waged full-scale war against Sheehan.  By June 1899 former Sheehan supporters were defecting.  One former member told a reporter “Sheehan is rapidly losing his adherents and that the [opposing] organization is certain to win in the end.”

And indeed, Sheehan lost.  On April 10, 1900 he addressed the Tammany General Committee in the Pequod Club.  According to The Times he “thanked those who supported him the in the fight and those who had remained loyal since his defeat, and declared that he did not care whether or not he retained the leadership so long as he could stand for decency and fairness in the administration of the affairs of the district.”

Ironically, Munsey’s Magazine put some of the blame for his defeat on the comfortable Pequod clubhouse.  “The Pequod Club, over which John C. Sheehan presides, has fine quarters, and this fact was used against him in the district fight,” it noted in October 1900.

It was the end of the line not just for Sheehan and the Pequod Club, but for the traditional Tammany Hall in general.  Munsey’s noted “Many changes have taken place in Tammany Hall.  Today it has apparently reached the summit of its power.”

Sheehan soon found that without his political clout, he and his club were fair game.   In September tobacco merchants Robert C. Brown and George L. Storms sued the club for an outstanding cigar bill of $480; despite the club’s having paid over $12,000 to Storms and Brown over the past nine years.  On July 12, 1901 Judge Fitzgerald put the club in receivership over the outstanding bill.

In the meantime Croker organized his own club, the Horatio Seymour Club.  By 1903 Sheehan had left Tammany Hall and most of the Pequod members had moved to the Seymour Club.   On November 9, 1903 The New York Times reported that “The career of the Pequod Club…is closed for good and all apparently.  The last bits of furniture were removed and placed in storage Saturday, and the clubhouse made to take on a dismantled and deserted appearance.”

The final indignation for John C. Sheehan came on April 30, 1904 when the Pequod lease ran out and the Horatio Seymour Club took it over.  The building, which The Times said was “one of the handsomest political district clubhouses in the city,” was being redone by workmen the day before.  They “incidentally were cutting away the old name from the brownstone over the doorway.  A new name will go on the stone today, and all will be in readiness for a grand entry to the new home this evening,” said The Times.

The Seymour Club would remain at No. 267 West 25th Street for decades—in 1936 it distributed food cartons to about 600 needy families in the assembly district.    Then throughout the 1950s and 60s it became a film center, home to the Rembrandt Film Library, the Hadassah Film Library, and Contemporary Films, Inc.  Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, other film organizations moved in:  the Young Directors’ Center, New Day Films, the Bureau of Communication Research, Inc., the Lutheran Film Library and the Center for Understanding Media among them.

The building underwent two conversions—one in 1969 and another in 1979—during one of which the handsome Romanesque Revival ground floor was obliterated—its architectural details stripped away in favor of a slathering of flat painted plaster.

In 2008 the former Pequod Club was transformed into a photographer’s studio on the ground level with an amazing single-family residence above.  The cigar smoke-filled spaces that once reverberated with political tirades are now part of a 10-room, $6.5 million apartment.
The kitchen of the renovated political club gives no hint of its former life -- photo streeteasy.com

UPDATE:  The Pequod Club building was demolished in the spring of 2014.

2 comments:

  1. Amazing, I live in the area and just yesterday I stopped to gaze at that unusual building and wonder what it could have been in the past. Its neighbors on each side are interesting, too. Thanks for your great blog.

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  2. Sorry to say but I think that this building is being demolished. The two tenements to its east are also in the process of coming down. The Utah House building on the corner is OK, though.

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