Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Soldiers and Sailors' Clubhouse -- Nos. 283-285 Lexington Avenue

In 1836 Samuel Ruggles's ambitious Gramery Square project sprouted a new road to the north—Lexington Avenue, named in honor of the Battle of Lexington 51 years earlier.  It would be a few decades before Lexington Avenue saw extensive development as it stretched northward into the Murray Hill neighborhood.

But by the last quarter of the century Lexington Avenue had become a vibrant residential area.  In 1882 Charles Buek & Co. added a row of six speculative, matching rowhouses at Nos. 279 through 289 Lexington Avenue.  The firm was active in the area at the time, most often acting as both the developer and architect.  Such was the case with the new row.

The four-story brownstone residences were apparently designed in three sets of pairs—an A-B-A-B-A-B scheme.  The stoops and entrances of each pair were centered side-by-side, flanked by sharply-angled three-sided bays.  The result was an undulating, lively blockfront.  The windows of the bays, set at divergent angles, caught cooling breezes in the heat of summer.

The crisp angles of the bays were carried out in the decorative elements.  The popular Eastlake Style of decorative arts was reflected in the incised line carvings and rigid geometry of the entrances and openings.

Buek & Co.’s completed homes sold quickly to well-to-do professionals at a range of prices.  Marmaduke Tilden purchased No. 285, the least expensive in the middle of the block for $37,000; while Charles M. Fry, president of the Bank of New York, spent $50,500 for the more desirable corner house at No. 279.    The prices would be equivalent to about $885,000 and $1.2 million today.  Aside from the mere cost of the homes, the financial status of the new owners is evidenced in the “all cash” sale of No. 281 that year for $45,000.

Within the next decade subtle signs of change along the upscale block were being seen.  On October 29, 1891 an advertisement in The Sun showed that No. 283 was being operated as a boarding house.  “Nicely furnished bachelor apartments, with bath and attendance.”

In 1907 that situation would change, however, when the wealthy Dr. Royal Whitman purchased No. 283 in April.  Three months later architect S. S. Gage filed plays for “remodeling” the home for Dr. Whitman.

With the United States’ entry into World War I, the War Camp Community Service formed the Soldiers and Sailors’ Club House in the old Earlington Hotel on West 27th Street.  Here enlisted men could relax and find accommodations while in the city. 

Although the New-York Tribune reported on June 2, 1918 that the club, “run exclusively for enlisted men,” allowed them to have “a quiet evening together;” neighbors on the block may have had a different view a week earlier.   The newspaper reported that “Eighteen buglers got together at the Soldiers and Sailor’s Club” to play."

The end of the war brought waves of returning military men home; many of them passing through New York City.  In 1919 Mrs. Cornelia Barnes Rogers, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and General John J. Pershing made the Club permanent.  The professed purpose was to “promote the general welfare of men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States and its Allies, and their families, by maintaining and offering club and lodging rooms.”

Presided over by Mrs. Rogers, the Club became established at No. 261 Madison Avenue.  Servicemen could find lodging and meals at a subsidized price, along with a place to relax with comrades.   One soldier penned a letter to the editor of the New-York Tribune on October 25 1922, expressing his appreciation for the club’s kindness.  It read in part:

For fully six hours I wandered along the ‘Main Streets’ of Gotham.  The only representative of Uncle Sam in uniform I saw were military recruiting officers.  This was my second time in the great city, and knowing full well how odd I looked in uniform (anyway, I felt quite odd), I decided to locate a soldiers and sailors’ club.

Well, here I am, the belief that money is one’s only friend in New York has been shattered, for right here, in the heart of the metropolis, the service man will find the same old sincere friendliness and patriotic desire to assist the man in uniform to the end.

But the Madison Avenue accommodations were already being taxed.  The public may have first heard of the problem on April 6, 1927 during a dinner at the Ritz-Carlton organized by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club of New York.   Speaking that night were Major General Douglas MacArthur, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore D, Robinson, and Mrs. Francis Rogers.

General MacArthur warned the audience of the threat of another major war and the need to prepare.  “With the Red menace in Russia, Poland in disorder, Rumania threatened with secession, France fighting in Morocco, Nicaragua in revolution, Mexico in confusion and civil war raging in China, it does not seem unlikely that our streets will again be filled with marching men and our country again have need of our services.”

Francis Rogers took the opportunity to speak of the Club’s need for larger quarters.  And a potential space had already been selected—the former Dr. Royal Whitman home at No. 283 Lexington Avenue.  A fund-raising campaign for $350,000 for the new clubhouse had already been kicked off.

Wealthy New Yorkers were attracted to the cause through benefit concerts and other events.  On Tuesday afternoon, August 2, 1927, for instance, Mr. and Mrs. John E. Berwind hosted a concert at their Long Island summer estate, Minden.

The Club prepared to move into the Lexington Avenue house in November; nevertheless the need for funds was on-going.    On November 13, 1927 The New York Times pointed out “The club is one-third self-sustaining, the other two-thirds being raised through contributions.”

The newspaper noted “During the last year more than 2,000 men who applied for night lodging were regretfully turned away because of lack of accommodations, but in the new and permanent building…better facilities will be provided.”  It urged “This club is the only one of its kind in the city.  It is an organization which welcomes men in every branch of the United States services.”

The new clubhouse was formally opened on November 17, 1927.   Army and Navy officials spoke, stressing the need for “an environment which tended to uplift the service men and to keep them out of unwholesome temptations.”  The total cost of property and renovations amounted to $300,000.  Donors had provided fully-furnished bedrooms as memorials; one was dedicated to the memory of the Unknown Soldier.

Military visitors would enjoy “various rooms, including poolroom, canteen and bedrooms,” reported The New York Times.  Service men were charged five cents per night for their rooms, and meals could be had “at nominal prices.”  Colonel William M. Chadbourne spoke of the importance of the club in keeping the soldiers away from negative influences.  “Before these clubs came into existence, and before the Eighteenth Amendment, the men too often stopped at the first bar-room they encountered and remained there until they were broke.  The contrast now is that the men are more refined and more efficient because of the opportunities given them to meet under ideal surroundings.”

Included in the “ideal surroundings” was a dog which was routinely the object of lonely servicemen’s attentions.  “Chubby, the club’s mascot, who grew up from a pup at the old club, which was located at 261 Madison Avenue, was installed in his new home, and wore the army and navy colors,” commented The Times.

Not all the activities in the new Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club would be pleasant ones.   One month to the day after the club’s opening, the United States Navy USS S-4 submarine was operating off Cape Cod near Provincetown, Massachusetts.  As the sub began to surface, it was accidentally rammed by the Coast Guard destroyer Paulding.

The crew of the Paulding lowered life boats; but there were only an oil slick and air bubbles as evidence of the accident.  A desperate rescue operation was started; but foul weather frustrated progress.  When the sunken submarine was located, rescuers banged on the side.  Six of the 40-man crew were trapped in the torpedo room.   The men communicated through Morse code.  Little by little the oxygen was running out.   The last message from the torpedo room was “Is…there…any…hope?”  All 40 aboard the S-4 perished.

On Christmas Eve a memorial service for the lost men was held in the Soldiers and Sailors’ Club.   Navy Chaplain Stanton W. Salisbury from the Brooklyn Navy Yard spoke of the “supreme sacrifice” the sailors had made “for by the catastrophe which befell them a lesson would be learned for the future avoidance of such disasters.”

Rev. H. Percy Silver, rector of the nearby Church of the Incarnation, was less military in his view of the disaster.  The New York Times reported “Dr. Silver pleaded for the abolition of submarines, and said that the United States should urge at ‘every council of the nations of the earth the destruction of such inhuman and cowardly instruments of war.’”

On April 21, 1928 the John Ericsson Society presented the club with a $450 radio set.  At the ceremony, in which General Peter E. Traub presented the set to Francis Rogers, a large detachment of wounded Marines from Nicaragua were present.  For years the servicemen at the club would broadcast radio programs from here, notably for events like Memorial Day.

Throughout the next decade fund-raising events continued to be held to offset the costs.   In addition, generous gifts from Manhattan’s millionaires were occasionally received.  On May 7, 1928 John D. Rockefeller and Edward S. Harkness both gave checks of $10,000.  Nevertheless, the popularity of the club soon added to its financial and spatial needs.

The club which had seen 2,000 servicemen in 1926 welcomed more than 83,000 in 1935.  During that year the Soldiers and Sailor’s Club reported “sleeping accommodations were furnished to more than 17,000 soldiers and sailors, and 54,000 were served in the club’s canteen.”  The price of the rooms by now had risen to 50 cents.

In 1940 Americans watched uneasily as the first full year of World War II unfolded abroad.  On September 16 that year the Selective Training and Service Act was passed, initiating the first peacetime military draft.  The swelled ranks quickly impacted the Soldiers and Sailors’ Club.

Shortly after dawn on October 7, 1940 a policeman on his rounds came across three U.S. soldiers sleeping in a doorway next to the clubhouse.  They had had to be turned away the night before.  The men were brought into the clubhouse for hot showers and coffee.

Harold E. Nicolai, who had been director of the Club for 19 years, explained that at its maximum, there were beds for only 75; but mattresses placed on the floor of a recreation room brought the guest list up to 105 that evening.  Despite that effort 275 men had to be turned away.

“We want desperately to provide decent accommodations and surroundings for every possible man, but the budget just won’t stretch that far,” he told reporters.

Francis Rogers told The Times, “Because of lack of the voluntary contributions that would make it possible, there is no immediate prospect of expanding the facilities of the club to meet the tremendously increased demands on its hospitality.”

But the impassioned Mrs. Rogers forged ahead.  During a luncheon on women’s roles in national defense at the Hotel Biltmore on March 15, 1941, Francis Rogers made herself an “unscheduled speaker.”  She told the assemblage that she had her eye on No. 285 Lexington Avenue, next door, which would double the club’s facilities.

A rush of fund raising events followed, including the Red, White and Blue Ball at the Ritz-Carlton the next month.  And on February 15, 1942 the Rosalind Russell Valentine Party was held at the clubhouse.  Noticeably absent was the actress, “due to her work in Hollywood,” but she provided the gifts and entertainment.  The orchestra from the Broadway show Let’s Face offered to play “for general dancing.”

The expansion, deemed financially unfeasible in December, was nearing completion six months later in May 1942.  The surprising accomplishment was made possible mostly by an $84,000 gift from the USO.

Other organizations donated full rooms.  The New York City Colony club gave two rooms, “in addition to maintaining the one which it donated to the original building,” reported The Times.  The Manhattan chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution furnished a bedroom, as did Sorosis, which had furnished a room in the original building.  The “Green Garden” in the rear of the combined houses was a contribution from the Garden Club of America and the Garden Club of Rye.  Potted plants and trees, Norway maples and dark green umbrellas offered a place for the military men to eat outside.

The expanded facility now afforded sleeping accommodations for 150 men; a number which could be doubled by putting up cots if necessary.  Three entire floors were dedicated to dormitory accommodations with “new gray marble shower baths on every floor.”

More than 1,200 people attended the opening on June 17, 1942.  The New York Times jibed “There were almost as many generals as enlisted men present.”

The club was praised six months later by high-ranking military officials during the 27th annual Club luncheon at the Plaza Hotel on January 11, 1943.  Vice Admiral Adolphus Andrews called the club “as shipshape as any ship I have ever boarded;” and Major General Thomas A., Terry spoke of the increased discipline of the Army, declaring that the Soldiers and Sailor’s Club was “greatly responsible for this condition.”

Lt. General Hugh A. Drum found himself the target of some rather awkward questioning, however.  “The general refuted assertions of excessive drunkenness in the armed forces, and also reports of excessive sickness, particularly those attributed to venereal diseases,” reported The New York Times the following day.  He countered the questions saying “it was safe to assume that the service men today were better behaved and healthier than any American soldiers during the forty-five years he has been with the Army.”

The war years kept the Soldiers and Sailors’ Club busy.  In 1944 more than 1,000 servicemen were served Thanksgiving dinner and a formal New Year’s Eve dance was held that same year.  Throughout the war, dances were held every week.  For those young men who did not know how to dance, dancing classes were added in 1945.

Today the club has the all-encompassing name of the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club.  It still operates from the combined Lexington Avenue rowhouses, offering lodging, meals and recreation to American servicemen at affordable rates.

The twin stoops, now lost, originally rose to doorways where the balcony now sits.

Although the widening of Lexington Avenue meant the loss of the brownstone stoops and the stone facades have been painted, the last surviving houses of Charles Buek & Co.’s 1882 row are otherwise little changed.

photographs by the author

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