Saturday, October 25, 2014

The 1911 Chemists' Club -- No. 52 E. 41st Street

photo by Historic Districts Council
As the first decade of the 20th century faded, the brownstone homes between Fifth and Madison Avenues had begun falling.  Tall commercial structure replaced the residences as homeowners escaped northward ahead of the tide of business.

In January 1910 architects York & Sawyer filed plans for a building that would be a bit different.  The New-York Tribune explained that the proposed “ten story clubhouse and office building” would be erected “for the Chemists’ Club, of which Dr. Morris Loeb is president, at Nos. 50 and 54 East 41st street.” 

Private men's clubs had evolved from strictly social clubs to include more specific organizations.  There were athletic clubs like the New York Yacht and the Links; political clubs; clubs for alumni of various universities; erudite clubs like the Century or Grolier; and professional clubs for members with occupations ranging from acting to the legal and engineering trades.

The neighborhood was not totally unexpected for a professional club; the United Engineering Societies Building was completed in 1907 at No. 29 West 39th Street three years earlier.  Within a month of the filing of the plans, The New York Times remarked on the rapid development of the 41st Street block. 

“In the centre of the block, on the south side of East Forty-first Street there has recently been finished a six-story office building.  Adjoining it to the west, at Nos. 40, 42, and 44, a twelve-story office building, exclusively for doctors and dentists, is about to be erected, while to the east, at 50 to 54, the new ten-story Chemists’ Club is in process of erection.  Both of these new buildings will cost about $200,000.”  The cost of the new clubhouse would translate to about $4.75 million today.

The Chemists’ Club was, in 1910, just 12 years old; having spun off from the American Chemical Society in 1898.  Its president, Professor of Chemistry Morris Loeb of New York University, was the major force behind the construction of a permanent home for the club.  Born into the wealthy New York banking family, he not only pushed hard for his vision, but financed much of it.

The New-York Tribune reported on what readers could expect.  “It is to be an artistic structure of white marble, in the style of the French Renaissance of the Louis XVI period, finished with Ionic pilasters and balconies at the second story and similar decorative balconies at the top story.” 

The Club would take up the lower five floors, leaving the upper floors for laboratories.  On the main floor was a large auditorium with balcony for lectures and meetings.  Social rooms and a dining room were on the second floor.  The New-York Tribune noted “The fourth and fifth floors will be devoted to living and sleeping rooms for the members, below which will be the library and museum.”

By the time the building opened on March 17, 1911 two stories had been added and the construction cost had risen to $500,000.  The three-day ceremonies began with Morris Loeb handing the key to Dr. Russell W. More, the new club president.  Unlike the ceremonial openings of other buildings and clubs, the remarks that day were less general.  “A special address was delivered by Prof. Jaques Loeb of the Rockefeller Institute on the ‘Physiological Developments and Recent Experiments in the Mechanism of Life,’ which he is now carrying on at the institute,” reported The New York Times.

The newspaper noted “One of the special features of the building is the board room, which has been fashioned to represent a laboratory in the days of alchemy.”  That reproduction space included a “vaulted roof, flag-stoned floor, iron-bound chest, high writing desk—even the fireplace with strange black pots and alembics upon it, and, overhead, just outside the door, a winding stone stairway just like those by which the wizards of the black arts used to steal away from prying eyes to juggle with fire and crucibles, transmute base metals to gold, conjure up devils, and otherwise qualify for execution at the hands of the public hangman.”

Over the conference table where the directors met hung a huge stuffed salamander, “held in high esteem by the alchemists of bygone times,” said The Times.  Actually, it was not a salamander.  One of the members explained to the paper “We couldn’t find a salamander anywhere, though we searched high and low, so we had to get the next best thing—an alligator.”

Morris Loeb received a private laboratory on an upper floor.  This was partly a response to his generous contributions to the building fund.  In 1907, when the clubhouse was first proposed, he donated $50,000.  He later added another $25,000 to the fund.

On Saturday, March 18, a dinner was held for the members and a classical concert on Sunday brought the opening ceremonies to a close.

The New York Times, on March 10, explained the need for the additional floors.  Calling the building “absolutely unique in the world,” the newspaper said additional laboratories had been included to be leased by outside chemists who could not afford their own space.  “There are no less than three laboratories, fitted out with all sorts of apparatus, and open to any chemist who presents proper credentials and satisfies those in charge of the place that he is what he represents himself to be.  As soon as he has done this, he may hire one of the laboratories by the week or month and set to work immediately to conduct any experiments he pleases, even a most secret nature, since nobody will disturb him once he has taken possession.”

The Club itself now engulfed six floors.  “Above are offices occupied by chemists of all descriptions—bacteriological chemists, analytical chemists, chemical engineers, and others with all sorts of impressive titles and letters after their names.”

The Chemical Museum “will rank ahead of anything of its kind in this country,” predicted The Times.  “It is the aim of those interested in it to have on file typical samples of every chemical that may be of interest.”   The club’s library was already nearly unsurpassed in the country, containing chemistry books and periodicals.  Chemists nation-wide shipped donations to the library.

The Chemists’ Club Building would see lectures and meetings on a vast range of scientific topics.  On April 6, 1912 the American Peat Society held a meeting here to discuss the problems of waste lands and peat swamps.  One of the topics of the meeting was the proposal to drain the New Jersey “Drowned Lands” and turning them into farmland.

Morris Loeb had been reelected President of the club that year.  On September 2, 1912 he and his wife hosted a reception in the clubhouse for hundreds of chemists attending the 8th International Congress of Applied Chemistry.  Scientists from as far away as Japan, China and South Africa mingled with American and European chemists. 

That night Professor Loeb no doubt basked in the success of the building he had so long envisioned and worked for.  It would be the last grand function he would attend in the Chemists’ Club.

In 1912 New York and the country at large suffered the terror of a typhoid epidemic.  On September 21 Loeb developed signs of typhoid fever.  After suffering only a little more than a week, complications of pneumonia set in and his condition rapidly declined.  Eighteen days after falling ill, Morris Loeb died on October 8 at his country home in Seabright, New Jersey.

In reporting on his many significant scientific and philanthropic contributions, The New York Times said “Among the monuments to his memory is the fine new home of the Chemists’ Club, at 50 East Forty-first Street, which was built and equipped primarily through his efforts and his generosity.”

In 1913 the Chemists’ Club opened its library—by now considered to be the largest chemical library in the country—to the public.  It was an unselfish and unusual move for a private club.  Although the library was reserved for members only on weekends and Mondays; on all other days non-members could make use of the vast collection.  “In addition a Department of Research has been established which will be open to the public on the payment of fees,” reported The Times on February 27.

The club would also see the presence of the world’s most esteemed scientists; as was the case on September 22, 1915 when Thomas A. Edison was guest of honor at a dinner here.  That year began, as well, discussions on various topics sparked by World War I which would last for years.  On October 8 I. F. Stone, President of the National Aniline and Chemical Company, predicted that at the end of the war benzol would be used instead of gasoline to power automobiles.  The war had necessitated the need for alternate fuels and Stone pointed out that “careful experiments for automobile purposes show that benzol has a motive power about 25 per cent greater than gasoline” and he predicted that the cost would be significantly lower.

A year later, on September 25, 1916, an afternoon session of the American Chemical Society announced that alcohol derived from sawdust—a common industrial waste product—made an efficient and inexpensive fuel for automobiles.  “There is no longer any question of commercial success in the manufacture of alcohol for automobiles,” said chemical engineer Arthur D. Little.  “Experiments have shown that alcohol can be manufactured for sale as low as 25 cents a gallon, and at that price it will undoubtedly be preferable to gasoline.

“Alcohol is cleaner than gasoline for use in internal combustion engines, and it will not explode or easily catch fire, and it will develop practically as much horse power as gasoline.”

It appears that the nation was paid more heed to John Rockefeller than to Arthur D. Little, however.

As the United States joined in what had been a purely European conflict, anti-German tensions at home developed.  On April 1, 1918 the New-York Tribune announced that “’The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry’ to-day will publish an article demanding that alien enemy German members be thrown out of the Chemists’ Club, 50 East Forty-fifth [sic] Street.”

The Club stood behind its members, disregarding what could have been negative public opinion.  A spokesman responded “To my knowledge no enemy aliens are members of the club, but if the writer of that article can prove that there are, the club would feel indebted for such information and would promptly expel any members whose Americanism was not 100 per cent.”

Under pressure--or in an effort to prevent problems--almost a month to the day afterward the club distributed a communication and questionnaire to its members.  The notice announced new rules:

That the German language shall not be used in conversation in the club.
That all disloyal criticism of the United States government of the Allies must be avoided in the club.
That any member, resident or non-resident, whether an American citizen or not, whose sympathies favor the enemies of this country, is requested to resign.

The Chemists’ Club continued to be unafraid of standing up against the mainstream.  On July 1, 1921 the President of the club, Dr. John B. Teeple, and American Chemical Society Director Charles H. Herty, spoke out against the Volstead Act.  Not only did they assert that “vast business enterprises, involving millions in revenue and certain necessaries of modern life, are threatened with disruption by Federal and state legislation restricting the production of alcohol;” but Teeple went so far as to say that the Anti-Saloon League “has been guilty of misrepresentation of facts in attempts to force prohibition legislation.”

The club’s and the society’s efforts, of course, were unsuccessful and Prohibition became law.  Nevertheless when a conference of industrial alcohol manufacturers was held, it convened in the Chemists’ Club auditorium.  The conference included Prohibition enforcers and manufacturers of legal alcohol (such as for medical purposes).  According to Brigadier General Lincoln C. Andrews, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of prohibition enforcement, who had called the meeting, he sought “to win the cooperation rather than to arouse the resentment of legitimate manufacturers of alcohol.” 

The New York Times said “He admitted that the Government’s policy in liquor law enforcement in the past had at times embarrassed them and he desired to avoid this in [the] future.”

Meetings regarding warfare had, during the First World War, centered mostly on fuels and chemical components of ammunition.  When World War II erupted, the topics repeatedly focused on chemical warfare.  For years the devastating effects of the enemies’ use of agents like mustard gas, sneeze and nausea gas were discussed at the Chemists’ Club lectures and meetings.

In the 1970s the Chemists’ Club sold its neo-Classical home.  Renovated as a boutique hotel, it reopened as the Dylan Hotel.  York & Sawyer’s handsome and refined fa├žade remains intact, carefully preserved and restored.

non-credited photos taken by the author

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