In 1876, only a few blocks north of the Astor mansions, Dickel’s Riding Academy sat at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. When James Gordon Bennett, Jr. returned from England that year he brought back a newly-found love for polo. Bennett soon organized indoor polo games in the Academy.
But the riding academy would not last many years longer. Over a decade earlier the Union Club was the most exclusive men’s club in Manhattan, if not the nation. But trouble arose over a single member, Judah P. Benjamin.
When the War of Rebellion broke out, Benjamin accepted the post of Confederate Attorney General, and later became Secretary of War of the Southern Confederacy. The New-York Tribune later explained “He was in the Southern States with which we had no communication; to prevent his name from being stricken from the roll of members for non-payment of dues three members, Augustus Schell, Samuel Barlow and William Travers, paid the amount due the club and retained Benjamin’s name on the list of members in good standing.”
The newspaper said “This act of friendship for a rebel in arms produced great indignation, and the contributors to the Benjamin dues fund were severely and unsparingly criticised.” As a matter of fact, the heated differences between the pro- and anti-Benjamin factions were such that repeated threats of duels arose—although none came to pass. The great irony, of course, was the name of the club itself—The Union.
The rift was resolved when 70 members resigned and formed a new club, The Union League Club. “The only requisite for membership, besides unblemished reputation, should be an uncompromising and unconditional loyalty to Nation and a complete subordination thereto of all other political ideas,” said the New-York Tribune.
Perhaps to make its disdain of the Union Club clear, within 15 days of its organization on February 6 1863 the Union League Club raised a regiment of black troops. “After the presentation of the colors the troops started for the wharf where they were to embark for Florida, and 350 members of the Union League marched at the head of the column,” reported the Tribune.
The club’s ardent patriotism would remain a vital element throughout the decades. Starting out in rented rooms, it moved to the former Leonard Jerome mansion on Madison Square in 1868. Within a decade the club was looking for a new headquarters. It would be the end of the line for Dickel’s Riding Academy.
In 1879 the Union League Club held a competition for the design of a clubhouse appropriate for one of the wealthiest and most exclusive clubs in the city. The commission went to Peabody & Stearns. By February 1881 the building that replaced the old riding academy was nearly completed and no detail had been overlooked. On February 3 the Gorham Manufacturing Company announced that the silver service for the club was on exhibition in its rooms. A day later the New-York Tribune commented on it.
“Nearly 700 pieces of silver plate have been completed recently by the Gorham Manufacturing Company for the new house of the Union League Club…The material is a heavy silver plating upon hard metal. The same design, which is remarkable for its simplicity, is followed throughout.” The newspaper noted that instead of the shiny, polished finish expected on most tables, the Union League Club silver had “what is called a satin finish, giving a richer appearance than the ordinary polished shining silverware.” The article listed “soup tureen; large plates with covers, for fish, game and roasts; tea, coffee and chocolate pots, and receptacles for butter, sugar and condiments.”
The expected date for the clubhouse opening was February 22; but a day after that the New-York Tribune noted that work was not yet completed. Although the construction was done, “the building is overrun with joiners, finishers and varnishers, who are putting on the last touches. The furnishers and upholsterers are already in the building, and a large part of the furniture of the club has been placed in the rooms. Yesterday the heavy curtains were being hung in the library. The shelves were ready for the books, and much of the furniture was in the room. The billiard tables were in the billiard room, but were unpacked.” Most of the rooms were in the same condition—just needing unpacking and decorating. “The stained glass has not yet been placed in the sashes of the window at the head of the first landing of the main stairway, but it is in readiness.” The newspaper now said that “unless something unforeseen happens,” the clubhouse would be ready in a few days.
|Harper's Weekly published sketches of the Library and Dining Room in February 1881 (copyright expired)|
Finally on March 5, 1881 the club opened its doors. The Tribune reported that “The general room and private rooms were taxed to their utmost capacity, and the servants were continually running to and fro to supply the wants of the guests.”
There was no formal reception; but the open house lasted well into the night. The young bachelor members found the view onto Fifth Avenue stimulating—due to the parade of feminine beauty. “The windows fronting Fifth-ave. were occupied during the afternoon by the younger members, who received many bows and smiles of recognition from ladies on the sidewalks.”
|Guests assemble in the lavish entrance hall during the reception for the Pan-American Delegates in 1889 -- Harper's Weekly, December 1889 (copyright expired)|
The newspaper commented on the interior spaces, designed by Louis Tiffany, John LaFarge and Franklin Smith. “The interior presented a gorgeous spectacle in the evening. All the lights were burning. The library, billiard hall and numerous reading and sitting-rooms were much admired and closely inspected.” On the walls hung about 100 portraits of “men of eminence” painted by well-known artists. The art collection included bronze and marble busts and statues, engravings and oil paintings.
Peabody & Stearns had created a $400,000 hulking pile of brick and brownstone born of the unexpected marriage of Italian Renaissance and Queen Anne. Variously shaped gables and chimneys poked through the high hipped roof, while balconies, pilasters, columns and carved panels created a visual overload.
Newspapers called the new building “impressive” and “greatly admired.” The Sun said “The building itself is in every way worthy of so costly a site. There are few more luxurious clubhouses in the world.” Century Magazine was a bit slower to applaud. In March 1882 it wrote “The Union League Club House (Fifth Avenue, New York) has, it is hardly fanciful to say, the qualities of its defects. The latter have been frequently pointed out in detail since the completion of the building, but so far as they strike the ordinary eye, they may be pretty sufficiently summed up in saying that the edifice seems an architectural negation of repose.”
|A turn-of-the-century postcard provides a glimpse at the contrast in materials.|
The magazine stressed that “repose” was an important quality of monumental architecture. And despite that fact that the critic felt that the Union League Club had an “absence of architectural dignity as a prominent element;” it found Peabody & Stearns’ fanciful approach a bit refreshing. He admitted that there was “a certain animation and sprightliness, which in themselves are by no means displeasing.”
Nevertheless, he summed up his evaluation sarcastically. Any one “who has reached it after a walk of five miles up Broadway from the Battery… may be able cordially to admire only its large red mass and the unusual circumstance that it has a visible, instead of merely an inferable, roof.”
Not forgetting its roots, on April 17, 1890 the Union League Club gave a glittering reception for General William Tecumseh Sherman. The Union general had just turned 70 years old.
Fifth Avenue Events, published in 1916, remembered the event. “The club-house was beautifully decorated. American flags bedecked the entrance lobby and main stairway; everywhere were streamers, banners and festoons of bunting; before the library windows were banks of flowers, and ferns and geraniums covered the mantel. Red, white, and blue flowers were banked before the stage, which was draped with the Stars and Stripes. A portrait of General Sherman in uniform, painted by Daniel Huntington in 1875, occupied a place of honor, draped with flags and a victor’s wreath.”
The importance of the event was evidenced by some of the guests: Secretary of the Interior John W. Nobel, Vice President Levi P. Morton, senators, generals and foreign diplomats from Russia, Chili, Brazil and Peru.
The Sherman reception was but one of many held for men of importance. On February 10, 1913 The Sun said “Its receptions and banquets have been famous for half a century, and among its guests of honor have been some of the most prominent men in the history of their day. Beginning with the name of Abraham Lincoln, the list embraces hundreds.” The newspaper listed names like General U. S. Grant, Major-General Philip H. Sheridan, Edward M. Stanton, Rutherford B. Hayes, James G. Blaine, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Prince Henry of Prussia and many others.
On June 21, 1900 Governor Theodore Roosevelt arrived in New York City from Philadelphia where his name was presented as running mate for William McKinley. Reporters thronged around him as he stepped off the train.
“Please don’t ask me any questions. I have nothing to say, absolutely nothing upon any subject,” he announced. When asked about his plans, he replied “My plans as yet are not fixed very far ahead. Tonight I shall stay at the Union League Club and tomorrow I intend to go to Oyster Bay, where I will rest for a few days.”
No reporters would get through the Union League Club doors to accost the esteemed politician.
The tradition of supporting black soldiers continued into the 20th century. When the United States entered World War I, the Buffaloes—a regiment composed entirely of black soldiers—prepared to fight. On March 24, 1918 the New-York Tribune reported that the regiment “marched up Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon to the stirring strains of ‘Dixie’ and received its colors, the gift of the Union League Club, from the hand of Governor Whitman. Since ‘Dixie’ first was a tune to live or die by the Union League Club has presented the stands of colors to negro regiments, and in times less stressful than these those regiments have made enviable records.”
A decade later, as the Great Depression cast a pall over the country, the Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Union League Club had been engulfed by business buildings. On August 28, 1929 the club announced its plans to erect a $1 million clubhouse on Park Avenue at 37th Street.
Two years later, on January 24, 1931, the clubhouse closed its doors. The New York Times remarked the following day on the changes along the avenue. “The empty windows now look down on an avenue completely changed during the fifty years the club has maintained its position as one of the city’s landmarks. Quiet homes and the horse-drawn, rubber-tired traffic are gone…Traffic snarls stayed downtown on Fulton and neighboring streets. Shrill whistles of the ‘police control’ did not pierce the ears of club members. Bearded young men with stove pipe hats and congress gaiters escorted young ladies with enormous bustles and trailing skirts on strolls down Fifth Avenue. That era of club life and observation has become history.”
|In 1931 the club was vacant. Traffic has increased. photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult_VPage&VBID=24UAYWH0Q0Q0&SMLS=1&RW=1280&RH=915|
Plans were filed soon after for the erection of a 47-story office building on the site. The grand clubhouse sat empty and silent for a year—until 1:00 in the morning on January 26, 1932. Somehow a fire started in the basement. Within an hour and a half “the entire structure was a raging furnace that seemingly defied the efforts of a small army of firemen to put it out,” reported The Times.
The newspaper said “Among the 300 spectators who gathered to watch the destruction of the historic old Fifth Avenue building were a handful of elderly gentlemen who are members of the club that was founded Feb 6, 1863.”
By morning the Union League Clubhouse was a gutted shell. On its site today stands a soaring black glass office tower. That the monumental and quirky clubhouse stood here for half a century is generally forgotten.
|photograph by the author|