Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Former Stable at No. 65 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum

At the time of the Civil War, as the Fifth Avenue residential district inched ever northward, the block of West 44th Street was developing into a “stable block.”  The offensive smells and noises that emanated from the private carriage houses and public livery stables often resulted in their being relegated to designated blocks.  In 1865 Andrew Luke and Benjamin Jones built four side-by-side stables at Nos. 43 through 49.  By the last decade of the century the block would be lined with such structures.

In 1904 The New York Times reported on the lease of “65 West Forty-fourth Street, a private stable, to John Wanamaker.”  By now Mr. Wanamaker’s newly-leased stable was among the last of the old structures still standing.  The block was undergoing significant change to one of upscale hotels and clubs.

Seven years earlier the high-class Royalton Hotel had opened at No. 44, in 1903 the Hotel Mansfield was completed at No. 14, and right next door to the Wanamaker carriage house the magnificent Algonquin Hotel opened its doors in 1902.

Being sandwiched between two stables posed a problem to the luxury hotel.  The Algonquin would solve that problem in a surprising way—rather than purchase and demolish the structures, it renovated them as annexes.  John Wanamaker’s lease would not last long and by the spring of 1906 the little carriage house at No. 65 had received a startling makeover.

At street level the carriage doors and openings were replaced with a café front and the upper floors were transformed with a Mediterranean touch.  A hooded oriel projected above the first floor cornice, and tall grouped windows clustered below a deeply-overhanging cornice at the top story.   Where horses had recently munched oats, the hotel installed its Pergola Café.

Reflecting the Algonquin's name, Native American faces adorn the pilasters -- photo by Alice Lum
Among the first entertainments here was Mrs. John H. Judge’s luncheon on April 7, 1906.  The New York Times reported “A novelty in the way of a luncheon was given on Thursday in the Pergola of the Hotel Algonquin…The hostess was Mrs. John H. Judge.  By a generous use of pink carnations and ferns an out-of-door effect was gained.  The luncheon was served at small tables, and instead of the guests progressing, as they often do, the hostess progressed.”

The little stable building got a significant make-over from the hotel -- photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Just about a year after Mrs. Judge’s innovative luncheon, on January 20, 1907, the Rocky Mountain Club was incorporated.  New York City was home to more and more wealthy men from the West—many of them involved in mining and railroads.  The newly-organized organization sought to bring together the western men with similar interests, both socially and politically.

The club used the Hotel Knickerbocker on West 45th Street for a few years, then in 1913 renovated the upper floors of No. 65 West 44th Street as its clubhouse.  On December 28 the organization held its housewarming of the space it called the “Eastern Home of Western Men.”

The upper floors became the clubhouse of the Rocky Mountain Club -- photo by Alice Lum

At the ceremony, President John Hays Hammond explained the purpose of the new quarters.  “We desire to provide a home or clubhouse for men who have lived in the West and have an interest in the West who are now living in New York, or for men who come to New York and want the advantages of a club where they can meet their friends.  We have all the Western papers on our files, and we try to keep the home atmosphere.”

The New York Times noted “The clubhouse has been made by remodeling what formerly was the annex of the Hotel Algonquin.  The restaurant and café of the Algonquin, called the ‘Pergola,’ still occupy the ground floor, but there is a separate entrance for the clubhouse leading to the second floor of the building, where are the lounging room, reading room, and café.”

The third floor housed the game rooms—pool room, card parlor and billiard rooms.  The opening between the hotel and the clubhouse on the second floor was retained.  Western-inspired artwork hung throughout the new clubhouse.  The café and dining room exhibited paintings of Glacier Park by John Fery, and paintings of the Arizona desert by Albert Lorey Groll.  Upstairs paintings by William R. Leigh hung in the pool and billiard room, including his “The Stampede,” “Sunset Over the Bad Lands,” and “The Poisoned Pool.”  A collection of related paintings by Edwin Willard Deming in the card room depicted the “passing of the Indian and the buffalo.”

The Rocky Mountain Club held monthly meetings and lectures here.  The high-powered men from the west often had more significant issues in mind than card playing and Western fraternity. 

On April 9,1914 with the Mexican Revolution raging, American citizens with interests in the Mexican oil fields were endangered when all diplomatic relations between Mexico and the U.S. broke down.   American warships were posted in the area to protect American citizens and property around Tampico, Tamaulipas.  When Mexican soldiers raised rifles at American sailors, things got dangerously tense.

On May 24, 1914 The Times reported that “In order to afford a comfortable home to refugees from Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Club, at 65 West Forty-fourth Street, has offered the hospitality of its clubhouse to them.  Many of those who fled from Tampico and other danger zones in Mexico are already in the clubhouse.”

photo by Alice Lum

In March 1915 the steamer Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine.  On board was American mining engineer Leon Chester Thrasher.  “There is reason to believe…that Mr. Thrasher’s death will be made the basis of a vigorous protest to Berlin and a demand for prompt reparation to the victim’s relatives,” said The Times.

That was not good enough for the politically-active men of the Rocky Mountain Club.  The members would remain highly critical of President Woodrow Wilson for dragging his feet regarding the United States’ entrance into the war.   When Theodore Roosevelt initiated plans to organize a volunteer Army to aid France, the Rocky Mountain Club energetically worked to recruit troops in the Western states.  Wilson rejected Roosevelt’s plan and disbanded the volunteer Army; and once again club members were vocally disgruntled.

The club members by now had started a building fund for a $1 million clubhouse and in January 1917, just four months before the nation would enter the war, more than $500,000 had been collected.  But the members were distracted by the suffering of thousands in Belgium and Northern France. 

On the evening of January 29, 1917 the club held a dinner in honor of Herbert C. Hoover, the Chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium.  John Hays Hammond stood before the assembled members and announced that the entire building fund would be donated for war relief efforts.

Hoover was himself a member of the Rocky Mountain Club.  He told the group, which that night included millionaires like August Belmont and Otto H. Kahn, of the plight of the 10 million people in Belgium and Northern France.  “The feeling that the food supply of the community may cease at any moment; that your women and children are in jeopardy, and the feeling of every thinking man that a disturbance by the population only means blood in the streets; that there is no possible salvation or solution; a population which shivers at rumors; it goes beyond the ability to describe.”

In donating its half a million dollars, Hammond stressed that “While the Board of Directors have not given up the plans for a new home for the club, they have unanimously decided to co-operate with Mr. Hoover.”

Following the war the club turned its focus to helping war-weary soldiers from the Western states reincorporate into American society.  The Rocky Mountain Club never got its $1 million clubhouse and on March 4, 1928, it disbanded.

The Hotel Algonquin retained ownership of the little building and it was in the Pergola Café that the famous Algonquin Round Table group first began meeting in 1919. 

The clubhouse upstairs was taken over by the Beethoven Association, a group which, as the name suggested, focused on the music of Ludwig von Beethoven and provided “beneficient activities,” as described by The New York Times. 

The association hosted receptions and concerts, such as the dinner for about 50 guests given in honor of Gunther Ramin on January 11, 1933.  Ramin was the organist at Bach’s historic St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig and was in the United States doing a three-month concert tour at the time.

In April 1934 the Beethoven Association leased the magnificent Henry Seligman mansion at No. 30 West 56th Street as its headquarters.   The Algonquin retained possession of the little building as an annex to the hotel.

photo by Alice Lum

Today a bar-restaurant occupies the former Pergola Café space; however the century-old renovations made by the hotel remain essentially unchanged.  It is a quaint relic of the first stage of development of the block; and a charming solution by a high-class hotel of an annoying problem of an abutting stable.

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