Monday, February 17, 2020

The Lost Tilden Clubhouse - 2128-2130 Broadway


By the time Irving Underhill took this photograph, the lower floors had been altered to showrooms and the upper floors to apartments.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Samuel Jones Tilden was the 25th Governor of New York and the loser in the 1876 Presidential election to Rutherford B. Hayes, despite having clearly won the popular vote.  He fought tirelessly against the corrupt Tammany Hall under the control of William M. Tweed.  

So when the Tilden Club was organized in January 1901, it was necessary for its founders to clarify its purpose.  Although a Democratic group, former Senator Jacob Cantor told reporters on January 4 "It is a mistake to call the club an anti-Tammany organization...Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of the new club will be its insistence upon freedom of speech."  The New York Times noted "A house will be leased in the neighborhood of Seventieth Street and Broadway and will be fitted up for club purposes."

In fact, on May 4, 1901 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the "Tilden Building" had purchased the small buildings at Nos. 2128 and 2130 Broadway.  Exactly a month later The New York Times reported that plans had been filed for the clubhouse.  "The building is to cost $40,000," it said (about $1.2 million today).  Designed by John H. Duncan, it was to be a sumptuous meeting place.

"A feature of the clubhouse will be the beefsteak room in the basement," said the article.  The first floor would hold the smoking room and café, the second the restaurant and library, and on the third floor would be the dining rooms and "card parlors."  "Sleeping apartments" and private baths for members would be in the top floor.

Construction was completed early in 1902.  Duncan had produced a stone-faced Beaux Arts structure that smacked of a Fifth Avenue mansion.  French style railings fronted the upper windows and the fourth floor took the form of a steep mansard fronted by a full-width balcony.  Two rows of stone balustrades, their posts topped by large urns, flanked a handsome metal railing.

But at some point, apparently during construction, the members rethought their needs.  The top floor now held the club rooms, meeting and sleeping rooms, while the rest of the building was leased to the well-known restaurateur James T. Clyde for his new Clyde's Restaurant.   According to The Sun later, he intended his restaurant "to become a rival of Delmonico."

Before long Where and How To Dine in New York wrote "This restaurant has received the approbation of New York's best society.  Exclusive little dinners by the score of given here; college men find it an ideal rendezvous; beef-lovers find it a paradise.  Everybody has heard of Clyde's 'beefsteak dinners' served in a dungeon.  But it requires a whole building for the expression of this many-sided restaurant."

The "dungeon" was in the basement where rough chestnut beams stained dark green ran along the ceiling and the walls were painted "by celebrated artists," according to the guide.  

The first floor held the Old English grill room, "fitted up in Flemish oak after the style of an old tavern."  Its masculine decor included a large Italian marble fireplace, but "women seem to enjoy it quite as thoroughly as the men."  At the rear was the grill where patrons could see their steaks being prepared.  Steaks, four inches thick, hung in a glass-fronted refrigerator for six months before being "cut down like cheese" and broiled on a revolving spit.  When done, they were wheeled to the table to be carved in front of the guests.  New York memorabilia decorated this room, including autographed portraits of every President, one of Queen Victoria, and hundreds of portraits of horsemen, stage celebrities, politicians and yachtsmen.  The first tavern license issued in New York and play bills dating back to 1712 were exhibited.

The second floor held the ladies' restaurant, decorated in red, green and cream and described by Where To Eat in New York as "quiet, dainty."  Clyde reserved the best for the third floor where the private dining rooms were located.  They were designed so that they could be opened up into a single, grand room.  "They are decorated in French gray and cream, a striking ensemble, all except one, the gold room, the most beautiful of all."  The high-end tenor of the restaurant was reflected in the dinnerware.  The china was Limoges and the glassware Baccarat.

Only Japanese waiters were hired.  A string quintet played between 7:00 and 9:00 and from 10:30 to 1:00 a.m.  "In this quintet are Probansky, the famous 'cellist from the Damrosch orchestra, and Saslovski, violinist from the symphony orchestra," said the guide.

During the warm months a roof garden was opened.  It featured a rustic garden with cedar railings and "Pagoda houses."  During the daytime the tables were sheltered by umbrellas and at night patrons enjoyed the cooling breezes under the stars.


The menu was diverse, including rack of lamb a la Clyde, crab meat a la Clyde, broiled lobster, and, of course, the famous beefsteak.  Dining at Clyde's was not inexpensive.   A beefsteak dinner in the "dungeon" cost $3 a plate--just over $90 in today's money.

On March 7, 1903 the Masonic Standard reported that Clyde had broadened his menu.  Calling the restaurant "a favorite resort for those who wish to enjoy the best that life has to offer," it announced that "the East Indian culinary artist, Prince Ranji Smile and retinue of servants" had been hired to prepare Indian cuisine once a week, on Thursday.


"Bachelor apartments" were touted in this 1903 advertisement.  Masonic Standard, March 7, 1903 (copyright expired)
James T. Clyde's lease apparently included access to the fourth floor.  His advertisements offered bachelor apartments as well.

In the meantime, that floor saw a flurry of meetings.  The Tilden Club inaugurated its rooms with a dinner in June 1902 at which former President Grover Cleveland spoke.  It was repeatedly the scene of politically-charged meetings and dinners.  At a dinner in February 1903 Senator Edward W. Carmack of Tennessee gave the principal speech in which the group's candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination was announced.

The West Side Association moved its headquarters to the building.  On October 2, 1902 the Record & Guide reported that the first fall meeting of the group "will be held at its new rooms, Clyde's, No. 2128 Broadway."

Perhaps the most socially significant event to take place at Clyde's was the bachelor dinner party hosted by millionaire F. Ambrose Clark, son of Alfred Corning Clark and Elizabeth Scriven Clark, on September 20, 1902.  Although there were just twenty guests, they came from the top echelon of Manhattan society.  The Sun reported "The Golden Room of the restaurant was decorated with American Beauty roses.  A string orchestra and a negro quartette alternated in furnishing the music." 

As was customary, the guests were given mementos by the host.  There were two that night, one a crescent-shaped pin with two horses' heads (representing the "finish of a race," or bachelorhood," according to The Sun) with diamond eyes.  The other was an eight-inch tall gold loving cup.  Between the three handles were china cupids.  The Sun noted "After the dinner there was a vaudeville performance."

But circumstances which James T. Clyde could not control brought an early end to his restaurant.  In July 1903--one of the most important months of the year for roof gardens--there were twenty-four rainy nights.  To make things worse Broadway was torn up as construction of the subway commenced.  In August that year Clyde applied for assignment--the first step in bankruptcy.  The Sun noted "He has many friends and it is expected that he will be able to adjust matters with his creditors."

But he could not.  Remodeled, the restaurant was taken over by the Café de Paris, operated by Charles Schrug.  It opened in the spring of 1904.  The Broadway Weekly, on March 31 reported "The interior was completely altered and richly decorated."  At least one other restaurant owner was pessimistic, telling a reporter "He will close it in a week."

Schrug lasted more than a week, but not by much.  On May 11, 1904 The Morning Telegraph reported that the restaurant was in receivership.  The article noted "The receiver may continue the business for ten days."

It was most likely the financial problems of its back-to-back major tenants and the subsequent loss of income that seriously hurt the Tilden Club.  In September 1904 the building was lost to foreclosure.

The building housed other political groups, like the 15th Assembly District Organization and the campaign offices of Congressman Jacob Olcott, through 1906.  But major changes were to come when owner Robert E. Dowling leased it to Conreid Hubert in September that year.  Hubert's 20-year lease came with a rental of $10,000 a year--more than quarter of a million in today's dollars.

By now Broadway was becoming known as Automobile Row as automobile related firms stretched northward from the Times Square area.  The New-York Tribune reported on September 22, "The structure was originally built for the Tilden Club.  The lessee is a dealer in automobile supplies.  The building will be altered extensively."  And indeed it was.

John H. Duncan, who had originally designed the building, was brought back to alter the ground floor to a showroom and the upper floors to offices for Hubert's Auto Improvement Company.  Here the firm showed car parts like vulcanizers, carburetors, speed indicators and automatic starters.  By 1909 space was sublet to other automobile firms like the Anglo-American Rubber Co.

Another renovation resulted in apartments on the upper floors, known as The St. Helene Bachelor Apartments in 1914.  By now the showroom was home to the Dunlop Wire Wheel Corporation.


Automobile Topics, February 7, 1914 (copyright expired)

Although the St. Helene was called "bachelor apartments," tenants of both sexes moved in.  The majority of them were involved in the arts--mostly music or the theater.   Among the residents in 1914 were actress Ruth L. Trufant, known on stage as Maida Athens; F. Clarenz Rivers who operated his Ecole de Danse in his studio (The New York Press called it "one of the most popular of the schools for instruction in the modern dances on the upper West Side"), and vocal instructor Grace Whistler.  On October 18, 1914 the New-York Tribune reported "Pupils have come to Miss Whistler, asking for lessons, to such an extent that she has finally opened studios in this city at 2128 Broadway...Miss Whistler has inaugurated studio receptions the first Sunday of each month."

Ruth Trufant was deeply troubled when she moved in.  She was known to theater goers for her performances in plays such as Babes in Toyland, It Happened in Nordland, and The Tattooed Man.  The New-York Tribune said she "had made a reputation as a stage beauty."  

But in 1904, while she was living in the Hotel York she was wooed by its millionaire owner, Henry G. Williams.  They carried on a love affair during which he repeatedly promised to marry her, and repeatedly put it off.  Then in April 1912 he handed her $7,000 "and told her he was already married and had a family," as reported by the Tribune.

Crushed, she sued him for breach of promise that July.  She lost the case and appealed.  Two years later, in April 1914, the appeal was dismissed.  The New-York Tribune reported "She was living then at the St. Helene, 2128 Broadway."  


Ruth L. Trufant, (Maida Athens) from the collection of the Library of Congress
On April 27 the newspaper reported that she had bewailed "What is to come of me?" adding, "The answer came yesterday, two weeks after the appeal from the decision of the lower courts in her suit had been dismissed."  The New York Press reported "Ruth L. Trufant, known on the stage as Maida Athens, died yesterday in the Red Cross Hospital of mercury poisoning."  The Tribune said "Her death ends with tragedy a vivid romance."

By 1918 the ground floor was once again a restaurant.  Matera's Garden of Venice offered a "Table d'Hote Dinner De Luxe" with lobster and ravioli for $1.00.   The apartments upstairs continued to house musicians.  Vocal teacher, accompanist and coach Maestro Enrico Barraja was in Apartment C by 1919, and in 1920 Mme. Elna Colard, "The Danish Soprano," and Mme. Hall had studios here.

To keep rodents at bay Matera's restaurant filled the basement with cats.  When the business closed in 1920, the proprietor asked Mme. Hall if she would feed the cats to keep them from starving.  The Daily Record said that she "not only did this, but thereafter continued to supply the animals with food until they could be removed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."  

As groups of cats were removed by the Society, she fed those left behind.  She and the other residents agreed that "A live cat may or may not be an advantage and benefit around a building, but there is no question about a dead one."  

That summer, as Mrs. Hall continued to work with the SPCA in removing the animals, the building owners hired a new janitor, Roscoe Staats.   Problems were almost instantaneous.  The Daily Record said his actions "show that he was an incompetent, inefficient and dangerous man."   Residents repeatedly notified the building's owners that he "would run the elevator up and down without permitting people to get out until he got ready to let them out," or that he would let them off on a floor they did not want.  He insulted visitors and tried to break into apartments.

It all came to a head at around 6:00 on the evening of September 23, 1920 when Mrs. Hall took a student along with her to the basement to feed the three remaining cats.  From a dark corner Staats emerged "reeking with drink," according to Hall.  He told her he did not want her feeding the cats.  When she explained she was merely feeding them until the Society could remove them, he pointed a pistol about a foot from her face and pulled the trigger.  It did not discharge.

Mrs. Hall pushed his arm away at which point he smashed the butt of the gun onto her hand, breaking a bone.  Unbelievably, when she pressed charges again Staats, the court dismissed the complaint "upon the theory that the plaintiff was a trespasser in the cellar."  It was not the end of the story, however.  The residents joined in a class action suit against the owners for negligence and knowingly keeping in their employ "as a janitor a drunkard who is dangerous to tenants."  This time they prevailed.

That year the ground floor was renovated once again.  The restaurant was replaced with the truck showroom of the John Simmons Co.


The Sun, March 28, 1920 (copyright expire)
Violinist and teacher I. Miserendino's studio was here in 1922.  The following summer Mrs. Doris McDonald subleased a "luxuriously furnished apartment," as described by The Globe, on the third floor while its resident was in Europe.  But the name the 23-year old used was fictitious.  She was actually the wife of traveling salesman Jack Kravitz.  The couple lived in the Bronx.

Doris apparently took the apartment because she and Jack were experiencing difficulties in their marriage.  Doris drank to the point that her husband was threatening divorce.  On the night of July 9 she invited two female friends over for cocktails.  After they left she went to the lobby to use to use the telephone to call her husband.  She was overheard by another tenant, Mrs. David Brown, around 4:00 a.m. "talking excitedly over the wire...ending her conversation with the utterance, 'You won't find me here tomorrow night," as reported in The Sun.

Doris went back upstairs and mixed herself a cocktail of liquor and Lysol.  According to The Globe, "Remorseful and frightened, she crawled to the door of the apartment and out into the hallway.  She was found lying face down when found."

The St. Helene lasted only three more years.  In 1928 the Beacon Hotel, designed by Walter Ahlschlager, was opened on the site.  


photo via beacon hotel.com

3 comments:

  1. im truly surprised you did not have the floorplan for this. ive always known this building as New York's smallest apartment house, and the floorplan i have scene in a few publications

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    1. It surprises me that this building is known almost exclusively by its later, 1914, incarnation as the St. Helene flats when its earlier history is so much more meaningful. I've seen it called New York's smallest apartment house, as well; but I've never seen any documentation to support that distinction. Have you?

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    2. just in this apartment book i have. i guess "they" called it that because it either had 1 or 2 apartment units. So maybe it meant in number

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