Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The 1897 West Side Republican Club -- No. 2307 Broadway




On May 1, 1897 the Real Estate Record & Guide made a mistake.  It announced that a 32-foot wide "club building" was being planned for the Boulevard, between 83rd and 84th Streets.  It listed the owner as the newly-formed West Side Republican Club, the architect as J. A. Schweinfurth, and the builder as Frederick P. Forster.  (The Boulevard, by the way, would soon be renamed Broadway.)

Apparently Frederick Prentiss Forster quickly brought the error to the editor's attention.  Seven days later the Guide issued a correction, explaining that Forster was the owner and the West Side Republican Club his lessee.

The matter would have been important to Forster, a Harvard-educated attorney who had recently dived head-long into real estate development on the Upper West Side.  He was simultaneously at work on several projects in the area, using different architects.  Included was his own expansive, five-story mansion just around the corner at No. 270 West 84th Street.

The Guide had gotten the architect correct, at least.  Boston-based Julius A. Schweinfurth had been the chief designer for Peabody & Stearns in the mid 1880s.  His brothers, A. C. and Charles Schweinfurth, incidentally, were also successful architects.  The West Side Republican Club house would be, most likely, his only New York City commission.

(Interestingly, years later in 1911 the Real Estate Record & Guide would mistakenly attribute the work to architect and West Side Republican Club member Charles H. Israels.)

Schweinfurth worked most often in the Colonial Revival or related neo-Georgian style.  For Forster he produced a distinguished American Georgian-inspired clubhouse which looked much like a private mansion.  The Indiana limestone base featured a columned portico.  Above, two stories of pink "wash" brick were trimmed in white stone.  Quoins, splayed lintels and six-over-six windows reflected the 18th century theme.  But the focal point of the design was the impressive deeply-inset Palladian balcony with its Ionic columns and wrought iron railings.

The newly-completed clubhouse was illustrated on the back of the Club's menus.  from the collection of the New York Public Library.
Political clubs were highly important and went far beyond mere social clubs.  They were the headquarters of ward politics, where candidates were nominated, campaign speeches made, and city and state issues debated.  In these clubhouses members boisterously celebrated victories and jointly mourned defeat.

Nevertheless, the West Side Republican Club, like the others, had all the obligatory amenities of an upscale social club--recreation areas like bowling alleys, billiard and card rooms, a library, and dining room.

In 1900 the Club had 450 members.  And it set itself apart from most such clubs by including females.  The Women's West End Republican Club shared the building, boasting 250 members that year.

It was here in December 1902 that Park Department President William R. Wilcox announced the plans to transform Seward Park in the impoverished Lower East Side to a "model park" with playground space for tenement children.  But speeches and announcements more often dealt with, of course, politics.

"Governor" John Sergeant Wise, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, railed against William Randolph Hearst here on October 25, 1906.  The New-York Tribune said he "told some things...that must have produced a ringing in [Hearst's] ears."

In language that smacked of 21st century campaigning, "Mr. Wise told of Mr. Hearst's 'unconquerable greed for power' and his 'disloyalty to all with whom he has become associated' and arraigned him for attempts to 'align class against class to promote his selfish ends,'" said the Tribune writer.

The Club scored a coup over all the city's other political clubs in June 1908.  President William Alexander Wise was so confident that William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman would be the Republican candidates in the Presidential race that he commissioned a large "TAFT & SHERMAN" flag well before the event.

On June 20 the West Side Republican Club members waited anxiously for word from the Chicago convention.  Then, eight minutes after the telegram arrived, the giant blue flag with white lettering was "waving in the dusty gusts of upper Broadway--the first campaign flag to taste the breezes in little old New York," reported the New-York Tribune the following morning.

An annual break in the political agendas was the collegiate chess tournament held here.  Begun in 1891, the Columbia-Yale-Harvard-Princeton contest became a tradition at the West Side Republican Club.  The tense tournaments started at 9:00 a.m. and lasted into the evenings for three days every December.
Well-dressed Ivy League players battle it out at a 1907 chess tournament here.  American Chess Bulletin, February 1907 (copyright expired)

Surprising many, in the fall of 1912 Frederick P. Forster leased his 84th Street mansion to the Club.  The Club announced it was taking advantage of the larger space; but Forster's motivation for giving up his home was not revealed until a year later.  He was sued by several of his legal clients for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from estates in his control.

Forster sold the Broadway building in January 1913.  The new owners gutted the elegant interiors, removed the portico and installed a store front.  In March 1913 the new ground floor was leased as the uptown branch store of the upscale Fifth Avenue "J. Fields," retailer of furs and dresses.

For years J. Fields advertised women's items like "gowns, dancing frocks and afternoon dresses" along with "tailleur suits."  The high-end character of its stock was evidenced in the seasonal clearance sale in June 1914, when "distinctive models" of evening gowns were discounted at $20--about $490 in 2016.

In the meantime, the upper floors of the building were leased to the Manhattan School of Dancing in August 1914.  It was joined, by 1916, by the Ad. Newberger dancing school.  While Newberger offered classes in traditional dance, it lured the younger set with modern, popular dances.  A year later, for instance, it was teaching students the "New Hawaiian Trot."

Ad. Newberger taught Physical Education as well as dance classes.  New York Tribune, Sunday October 15, 1916 (copyright expired)

Then in 1917 J. Jorgenson & Son, jewelers, leased the entire building.  The retailers commissioned architect Aymar Embury to renovate what was now described by the Record & Guide as a "store and office building." 

Jules Jorgenson and his son William leased the building until September 1921 when they purchased it from landlord Gifford Pinchot.  The jewelers-turned-property owners leased a portion of the upper floors to the Jewish service organization, B'nai B'rith.   Some activities of the 69th Annual Convention of the Grand Lodge of District No. 1 were held in B'nai B'rith Hall here that year.

In 1940 the West Side Republican Club sold its 84th Street clubhouse to a synagogue and the much scaled down Club moved back into rooms on the upper floors of its former Broadway home.  The following year a tragic incident occurred.

On October 28, 1941 the Republican leader of the 5th Assembly District North, Daniel Widdi, was making a speech here when he suddenly collapsed before the assemblage.  The 59-year old former candidate for State Senate had suffered a fatal heart attack.

Now known as the District Republican Club, the group remained here until 1945 when the building was once again sold.  At the time the street level store space, formerly home to the Jorgensen jewelry business, was occupied by Rappaport & Son, children's clothing store.

Another renovation followed, resulting in a store on the first floor and mezzanine, and stock rooms on the upper floors.   The ever-changing building became home to the Circle Theater by 1970 (it left in 1974 for its Sheridan Square location), a Charivari women's apparel shop (Selma Weiser, Charivari founder, purchased the building in 1985), a grocery store and a drugstore.


In November 2014 developer Joel Scheiber's Waterbridge Capital purchased the building for $25.9 million from Barbara Weiser, daughter of Selma Weiser.  While the ground level of the former West Side Republican Club bears no hint of its former elegant appearance; the upper floors, where spirited political debates and Ivy League chess tournaments took place, are astonishingly intact.

photographs by the author

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