|The striking English facade was added in 1905. photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The Fortnightly Review explained that it "owes its existence to the fact that ladies were dependent for their instruction on the riding schools, which were not always as exclusive as might be desired. So a great many of the best known men in New York clubbed together and bought property in Fifty-eighth Street, where they put up a club-house at a cost of $60,000." (The price would be in the neighborhood of $1.5 million today.)
The property, between Fifth and Madison Avenue and stretching through the block to 59th Street, was owned by the Astor family. The Riding Club's headquarters was as much elegant social club as stables and riding space. The Fortnightly Review said "It consists of a large ring two hundred feet square, on which an immense general sitting-room looks out through a partition wall of glass; a general dining-room; separate dining-rooms, drawing-rooms, and reading-rooms for ladies and gentlemen, and private dressing-rooms where the ladies can keep their habits and dress at the club. The stables are very fine and complete in every way."
The Riding Club's founders successfully set out to make theirs the most exclusive in the city. Membership was limited to 400, "and election to the club is a very difficult matter," said the magazine. "The club is most particular about the social standing of its members, and also makes a high standard of horsemanship a necessary qualification." Members paid an initiation fee of $200 and an annual dues of $100.
Although women would not become members, wives, unmarried daughters and children of members were admitted. Shortly after moving into the new clubhouse the group removed the word "Gentlemen's" from its title. Fortnightly Review opined "The club has contributed in an incalculable degree towards raising the standard of woman's riding in America."
Wallace's Monthly, in April 1888, wrote "The swellest coteries of lady riders are, of course, the guests of the Riding Club on Fifty-eighth Street" and noted "The ladies, in a great variety of plain colors, flock to the club from morning until evening. They have their own lockers, dressing-rooms and bath-rooms." The magazine added that the clubhouse was "distinguished by butlers and stewards in knee breeches, and with their calves so padded that the prince of Wales would feel quite at home with one to wait upon him."
|Women wore ankle-length riding habits and rode, of course, side-saddle. New-York Tribune, July 19, 1896 (copyright expired)|
The New York Tribune, on June 7, 1891, described the women's accommodations. "To begin with, hallboys and liveried footmen guard the double entrances on the Fifty-eighth st. side. The ladies' parlor and reception room...is a long room, beautifully furnished, with rich carpeting and rugs, and handsomely decorated and ornamented."
The article mentioned the dressing and locker rooms "which are fitted up with an elegance that puts to shame the highest efforts in like rooms of any other club in town," and described the grand dining room on the third floor with its mahogany table that could be extended to more than 70 feet. There were also areas strictly for men-only--like the billiard room.
|Children of members could ride and receive instruction during the day, before 4:00 Harper's Young People, June 3, 1884 (copyright expired)|
Members enjoyed afternoon "music rides," from 4:30 to 6:00, during which an orchestra played. The New York Times noted on January 18, 1897 "These rides are enjoyed not only by wives and sons and daughters of members, but many of the gentlemen drop in on their way home from business for a refreshing spin around the ring before the dinner hour."
Those not riding could indulge in the afternoon tea, from 5:00 to 6:30. The New-York Tribune explained on July 19, 1896 "Members and their guests may quaff tea while watching the evolutions of the equestrians, and listening to the orchestra, led by Martin J. Schligg."
When the club signed a renewed 20-year lease in 1896, the its membership had grown to 500 with names that read like the Social Register. Among them were John Jacob Astor, William E. Dodge, Elbridge T. Gerry, Elihu Root, James A. Roosevelt, William Rockefeller, Odgen Goelet and C. Oliver Iselin, to name only a few.
The appearance of automobiles did not affect the Riding Club. The horses here were for sport, not for transportation. And although the neighborhood immediately surrounding its property was now filled with massive mansions and first class hotels, the club not only stayed put, but updated its club house.
On May 7, 1905 The New York Times reported that a "battalion of workmen [had] piled into the building with axe and saw and hammer and began the work of translating the old familiar environment into memory." The club had commissioned architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, best known for designing train depots, to renovate the old structure into an even more lavish one.
The newspaper said "the building will be of early Norman design, with all the pointed wall effects, the tessellated balconies and entrances, and bay windows that this type of architect suggests." Gilbert paid special attention to the color scheme of the facade. The brick was contrasted with warm yellow caen stone, and the metal elements were given an antique green patina. The Times said "The combination as seen in the model presents nothing less than a symphony of soft, delightful tones."
The $200,000 renovations were completed in November that same year. The Riding Club had the appearance of an English manor house. And the interiors, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, were spectacular.
Among the new features was a "terrace scheme" that spilled down from between the second floor sitting rooms, smoking rooms and library to the ring. An indoor garden, The Times described it as being "treated in accordance with the utmost art of the landscape gardener, and, merging with the space immediately surrounding the entire ring, which will be treated in old Venetian garden effect." The newspaper opined that it formed "a picture not to be seen anywhere in this city, if indeed in the world."
Equally dazzling was the third floor with its "immense billiard room and cafe." There were dressing rooms and baths for the females here, as well. The fourth floor housed two large dining rooms, "separated by a palm garden, with fountains and statuary."
The ventilation system had been completed overhauled, so that now the air in the stalls and the ring was changed every eight minutes. The Times noted that "to all practical purposes the riders will exercise in open air."
The building became headquarters for the Red Cross in 1917, following the country's entry into World War I. The elegant fourth floor, with its fountains and statues, now became a factory of sorts. The Sun explained on December 30 "the top floor of the Riding Club has been converted into a workroom where surgical dressings will be made. The facilities of the club are open to members and their Red Cross friends."
|A limousine waits outside the Riding Club around 1915. photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
With peacetime the Riding Club returned to its high-end norm. On December 20, 1919, for instance, Mrs. Frederic C. Thomas held the debutante reception for her daughter, Mary, here. And the years-old tradition of indoor polo matches resumed as well. On January 23, 1921 The New York Herald announced that the West Point cadets, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell would all be participating in polo matches in February.
Abutting the 59th Street side of the Riding Club was the Hotel Savoy, erected in 1892. Early in 1924 the Boomer-du Pont Properties purchased the leasehold on the hotel. The group had already purchased the Waldorf-Astoria in 1918 and the Willard Hotel in Washington DC in 1920. Now it expressed interest in replacing the Savoy with a 33-story hotel estimated to cost $18 million.
On April 18, 1924 it was announced that Vincent Astor had sold the property occupied by the Riding Club for $2 million. The buyer was Boomer-du Pont Properties. But the new owners were faced with a problem: the Riding Club held a long term lease on the land.
For two years things continued as normal. On January 29, 1926 the annual Riding Club Hound Show was held in the club. The high-end dog show was a favorite of the fox hunting class. But pressure mounted. On November 6 that year The Times reported that the recently formed Savoy-Plaza Realty Corporation "has been eager to purchase the lease held by the Riding Club." Negotiations for the purchase of the old Durland Riding Academy property on West 66th Street near Central Park, it was rumored, were being held.
|A postcard pictured the new hotel. The site of the Riding Club was directly behind, in this shot, to the right.|
When the Riding Club moved out, the real estate operators wasted no time in demolishing the handsome structure, just two decades old. The new 31-story Savoy-Plaza opened on September 29, 1927. It survived until 1965 when it was replaced by the full-block International Style General Motors Building.