Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stanford White's 1907 Colony Club, No. 120 Madison Avenue

Scaffolding obsures the street level in 2014.

At the turn of the last century, every well-established and moneyed gentleman in Manhattan boasted membership to at least one exclusive club.  Many held memberships to half a dozen or more.  The wide-range of clubs—based on professional, recreational or simply social interests—provided the men a place of refuge and conversation; but also a place to stay during the summer months when their mansions were shuttered and the families were off to Newport and other resorts.  The toniest of the gentlemen’s clubs erected lavish palaces as their clubhouses.  Women, on the other hand, had nothing.

European cities already had fine clubhouses for women’s organizations; but while Manhattan had no shortage of ladies’ organizations, none of them had an established clubhouse.  In 1905 that was all about to change.

In Newport in 1900 Florence Harriman (the wife of J. Borden Harriman), Anne G. Morgan (daughter of J. P. Morgan), and Helen Barney “first talked of the desirability of having a common meeting place for women such as a well appointed clubhouse offers to men,” reported the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper said that the Colony Club “was really formed in order to build and own the clubhouse;” rather than the clubhouse being built to accommodate a club.

The club was officially organized in December 1903 and two years later was ready to build.  The New-York Tribune remarked “Oddly enough, it is not the regular clubwoman set at all that is to erect what will undoubtedly be a fine and, in many respects, unique clubhouse, but a group of wealthy women who have, as a rule, small use for women’s clubs, never are guilty of reading ‘papers’ and evince small concern over the higher education of women, the progress of their sex and the other things which clubwomen go in for.”  While the highly-critical judgment was, in fact, somewhat off base; the Colony Club would nevertheless emerge as not only the most exclusive women’s club in the country, but the most expensive.

The club roster, which was limited to 700, included the likes of Mrs. John Jacob Astor.  The initiation fee was $150 and the annual dues was $100.  The combined $250 would be equivalent to about $6,500 today.  It was definitely one means to keep the riff-raff out.

In 1904 millionaires Charles J. Barney, J. Pierpont Morgan, Frank Polk and Julian Gerard, who composed the clubs advisory board, paid $200,000 for three brownstone-fronted houses at Nos. 120, 122 and 124 Madison Avenue.  On February 26, 1905 the New-York Tribune noted “The tenants are to be asked to vacate by May 1, and by the 15th of the month the houses will be demolished preparatory to erecting the new structure.”

The women’s initial idea of “A modest little house where the members could stay overnight, meet friends, leave parcels or take luncheon” slowly grew in grandeur.  Theirs would be a magnificent clubhouse to rival any of the gentlemen’s clubs in the city.  Mrs. John Jacob Astor came up with the idea that the building “should include some provision for athletics.”

The women of the Colony Club hired Stanford White to design their structure which the Tribune said would be “in the severest Colonial style.”  Construction took two years, and as the building rose, Elsie de Wolfe was put in charge of the interior decorations.  The former actress had already turned American interior design on its head by stripping rooms of their fussy Victorian trappings and replacing them with light colors, white-painted French furniture, and minimal ornamentation.

On October 21, 1906, she explained to The Sun “When a woman reaches her hotel after a day’s journeying in cars or motor I do not believe she cares an infinitesimal bit whether or not her bed is of gilded wood with cupids rampant on the four corners, neither does she care whether the curtains fall in classic folds from ceiling to floor and whether the name of a celebrated artist adorns one corner of the pictures…What they want first of all is a good bath and after that they want to find that the lights on the dressing table are properly arranged so that they can sit there and get some idea of how their hair looks after it is combed and other important data of the same kind.”

She said of the decorating project “While it has been a tremendous responsibility, it has been a tremendous pleasure as well.”

Four months later, on February 16, 1907, just four days before the official opening, the New-York Tribune reported on the nearly-completed structure.  The Colony Club “has now erected the finest clubhouse of its kind on this continent, and it is doubtful if London, with its dozen or more women’s clubhouses—the Lyceum, Bath and Empress, notably—or Paris, with its French counterpart of the London Lyceum, can boast anything in the way of a woman’s clubhouse so complete, artistic and beautiful.”

The newspaper noted the architect’s careful research for the building.  “Many an old Colonial inn and mansion was studied by Mr. White for the completion of his design, and it is interesting to note that he regarded the building, both inside and out, as one of his most successful efforts.”   Western Architect and Engineer echoed that sentiment, saying “he considered it one of his best pieces of work.  And yet he has the buildings of the Metropolitan Club (the millionaires’ club), the University Club and the Harvard Club of New York standing as wonderful monuments to his architectural genius.”

A pergola, visible from the street, hints at the roof garden.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the MCNY http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GIOYS57&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

Including the land and the $50,000 in furnishings, the completed clubhouse cost a staggering $500,000—about $12 million today.  The exterior was clad in dull red brick, trimmed in white marble.  Six stories tall it mimicked an 18th century mansion with splayed lintels, a slate-shingled mansard behind a unique and intricate railing, and a two-story “veranda” accessed on the second floor by French doors.

On the first floor were the “strangers’ reception room,” the office, reading and writing rooms, the Trellis Room (which would repeatedly get press attention), and the tea room.  “Generally speaking, the building is finished in white woodwork with mahogany doors and glass knobs,” said The Sun.  Elsie de Wolfe had seen to the furniture, nearly all of which was custom-designed.  The newel posts of the main staircase drew special attention—they were made of cut glass.

The Sun made special note of the Trellis Room.  “The walls of this winter garden consist of diamond shaped trellises with opaque glass interstices, the whole laden with growing ivy.  A fountain in an alcove, with real flowers growing about a marble Cupid from Paris, is a feature of this unique and exquisite room.  Blue and buff form the color scheme of the tea room.  The reading room, which is done in Adams, has curtains of tapestry woven from some of the old embroideries in the South Kensington museum.”

The Trellis Room featured latticed walls and a fountain -- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1910 (copyright expired)

Below ground was the swimming pool Mrs. J. J. Astor so wanted.  It sat within a green-latticed room lighted by glass grapes “with electric fairy lamps hidden in the foliage.”  On the walls were large Venetian mirrors “which rise from the water’s edge to the ceiling.”  The pool was the second largest in any club in the country.
The ceiling of the swimming pool was lattice and vine covered -- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1910 (copyright expired)

The swimming pool level was a haven for relaxation.  There was also a medicinal bath, 14 “resting rooms," dressing rooms, a lounging room, manicure, massage and other rooms.  “All are finished in white marble and Pompeiian cement,” said The Sun.

On the double-height second floor was the gymnasium, 33 by 60 feet that included a running track.  The 75-foot long Louis XV Assembly Room was on this floor and was intended for lectures, dances and other large functions. 

Wealthy club members enjoy luncheon amid Japanese lanterns and potted palms -- The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1910 (copyright expired)
There were eleven bedroom suites on the fourth floor, each with its own bath.  Also on this level were two squash courts.  Above was the main dining room and a “general restaurant where members may entertain men friends.”  There was also a roof garden invisible from the street.

Even with all its athletic facilities, The Sun noted that the club would not be quite as forward-thinking as its European counterparts in one area.  “The Colony Club will not follow the English women’s clubs in this respect, there will be no billiard or smoking room.”

Like the men’s clubs, the Colony Club would offer members a place to stay.  “The women who flit back and forth between New-York, London and the Continent, and the unchaperoned girl or young woman, can put up at the club, enjoying not only material comfort, but protection such as no other place could offer, while the facilities for athletic exercise and medicinal baths of all kinds will be unrivaled, it is said, by any club house in the world,” reported The New York Tribune.

The Western Architect and Engineer described the club as “essentially American in both its purpose and its methods, and is an organization for women on exactly the same lines as those which govern men’s clubs.  Besides being a social organization, it is a literary and athletic club as well.  Its membership includes practically all the women of social prominence about New York, as well as the leading women authors, actresses, musicians and artists both in New York and elsewhere.  It is founded upon a basis very much broader than any man’s club, but follows quite closely the main ideas of our own Bohemian Club.”

Century Magazine, three years later, considered what the Colony Club had achieved since its opening.  “As a club, very little; as an influence, a great deal,” it decided.  The club instituted a regular Tuesday “club-day” during the winter months for “free and tolerant discussion.”  The magazine said “it is impartially apportioned among literary, artistic, and civic topics.”  Politically- and socially-sensitive topics were openly discussed.  “Although probably the majority of the members are not themselves advocates of woman-suffrage, the subject has been included among the topics of chief interest to the sex,” said Century.  One day it is the future of the drama which is discussed; another the lot of the poor whites in the South; again, woman’s invasion of modern industry.”

The members staged exhibitions like that of 18th century furniture and decoration in 1910.  Club women loaned old silver and china, and Chippendale, Adam and Sheraton pieces from their homes.  Another exhibition was of mezzotints—copies of Reynolds, Romney, Gainsborough and Horner, for example.  Once again the works were loaned from the members’ mansions.

The assembly hall was used by the members not only for entertainments, but for “any purpose which does not conflict with the governing board’s standard of what is suitable.”  Therefore, when women sympathetic to the cause of the striking shirt-waist workers needed a place to meet, they used the room.

On New Year’s Day 1912 Mrs. Philip Snowden spoke on the subject of marriage at the Colony Club.  Her lecture, reduced by a newspaper to a sentence, was “Marriage, which makes two one, is a lifelong struggle to discover which is that one.”

In 1900 the wealthy Mrs. Thomas Hastings had founded the Ladies Four-in-Hand Club.  It was somewhat shocking in that it offered well-bred women the opportunity to enjoy coaching by driving the coaches themselves.  The Sun reported on April 7 that year “Twenty-five members were enrolled at the start, among whom were Miss Gulliver and Miss Barney, who are named as among Mrs. Hastings most ardent supporters at that time.”

Mrs. Thomas Hastings prepares to drive The Arrow from in front of the Colony Club -- photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress.

By 1912 the club owned its own coach “The Arrow” and the women ran it daily between the Colony Club and Dyckman Street.  The coach left the Colony Club at 10:30 in the morning, returning at 4:00 and included “a stop of nearly two hours for luncheon in Bronx Park,” according to The Sun.

Topiary trees decorate the second floor balcony in 1908 -- photographer unknown  from the collection of the MCNY http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GIOYS57&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
After only seven years in their magnificent clubhouse, described by Club Women of New York as “a fine specimen of the colonial style of architecture,” the Colony Club laid plans to move.  On February 28, 1914 the membership voted to buy land at the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 62nd Street as the site for its new headquarters.  “It became evident months ago that the club had outgrown its present home in Madison avenue,” reported The Sun on March 1.

On September 15, 1917 the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide reported that the Madison Avenue building had been purchased by Mrs. Nicholas F. Brady “for about $400,000.”  The Guide noted that “Until the termination of the war the use of the house has been given to the Red Cross.  Mrs. Brady’s husband is the youngest son of the late Anthony M. Brady…He was a member of the Red Cross mission to Italy last July.”  The clubhouse was used first as a convalescent hospital, then as a nurses’ mobilization center.

As the Real Estate Record and Guide had predicted, with the end of World War I the Red Cross moved out and Mrs. Brady offered the clubhouse to the new Carroll Club for Catholic girls.  “The Carroll Club represents a new idea,” said Gas Logic.  “It is a social as well as commercial association for Catholic business women.”

The Carroll Club women did not update Elsie de Wolfe's lattice-work Trellis Room.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the MCNY http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GIOYBEO&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915
The Carroll Club did little alteration to the building.  The pool was used for swimming instruction, the assembly room for drama classes.  There were typing classes and in the large kitchen cooking classes were held.  “The Carroll Club’s ambitions are sky-high, in keeping with the enthusiasm of the fairy god-mother who prefers to remain in the invisible background and wave her wand, incognito.” 

TOP --The vines are gone, but the lattice ceiling and the Venetian mirrors survive as Carroll Club girls learn to swim. -- 
BOTTOM:  Members use the former Assembly Room for thespian classes -- photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the MCNY http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UP1GIOYBEO&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915

In 1956 the Carroll Club moved to No. 22 East 38th Street and the building was sold to Simon Brothers, a real estate development firm.  The company sold the property a year later and on May 28, 1957 The New York Times reported on the conversion that was underway.

“The newest and most elegant addition to the off- Broadway theatre movement will be a six-story building containing three small playhouses…It will house two proscenium and one arena-style theatres, each seating about 200 persons.  The theatres will be operated simultaneously, with the production emphasis on original scripts with new acting talent.”

The developers, surprisingly enough, decided to keep many of the existing facilities.  “To be called the Seven Arts Center, the building—which will also house a restaurant, bar, swimming pool, art gallery, and lounges for its theatre patrons.”

The Center opened on February 27, 1958 and offered along with live theater, a Ballet Russe dance school, modern and Indian dance classes, art exhibition and lecture spaces.  Among those who made their debut on the live stage here was Mia Farrow, who appeared in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

In 1963 the building was purchased for about $500,000 by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  Helping to raise the funds for the purpose were trustees like Lillian Gish, Joel Schenker and Philip Wittenberg.

Upon announcing the purchase the Academy said “Extensive alterations, estimated at $100,000 will be necessary.  The changes will be supervised by Giorgio Cavaglieri, architect.”  Thankfully, Cavaglieri was already well-known for his historic architectural preservation work.

The exterior was restored in 2003 and, at the time, the original glass grape lighting fixtures of the swimming pool level had survived, the lattice-work was still intact as were the original fixtures of the ballroom.

Despite the tragic loss of the two-story porch, Stanford White’s handsome neo-Federal Colony Club still stands out as a distinguished, magnificent landmark.

non-historic photographs taken by the author


  1. Stanny's use of brick pattern was considered somewhat provocative i once read. definitely one of his masterpieces

  2. Great history, great post. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for this wonder piece of history! I searched & searched & thanks to you was able to find the beautiful mansion which housed The Carroll Club. I belonged to it in the early 50's & our little theatre group performed in the ballroom...I only remember ot was acrpss from the JPMorgan mansion...but I really thought it was no longer in existence ....until now! Thank you again!

  4. Thank you for these historically & thoroughly articles you have written for all to enjoy - they are amazing!