Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The 1915 Knickerbocker Club Building -- 5th Avenue and 62nd Street

photo by Americasroof
In the middle of the 19th Century the Union Club was indisputedly the most exclusive of New York City gentlemen’s clubs. The club’s rules of acceptance were the most stringent and its members ranked among the wealthiest men in the country.

With the development of new industries and technologies following the Civil War, however, new-found fortunes were being made by men born on farms and in tenements. Under pressure, the Union Club lessened its rigid entrance rules and expanded the size of its membership. With the influx of the new group of nouveau riche members new ”vulgarities” seeped into the decorous clubrooms like pipe smoking and gambling.

Offended by the diluted character of their club, several staid members planned mutiny. On October 31, 1871 a distinguished group including Alexander Hamilton Jr., August Belmont and John Jacob Astor organized the Knickerbocker Club modeled on the staid and lofty Union Club they grieved for.

At meetings in the upper-class Delmonico’s restaurant at 5th Avenue and 14th Street they hammered out the by-laws and procedures. Before the year's end the Knickerbocker Club was established in the former mansion of William B. Duncan on 5th Avenue at 28th Street. Before long its membership included 240 of New York City’s wealthiest and renowned social leaders.

A decade later the club would move uptown to another brownstone mansion at 5th Avenue and 32nd Street where it would remain for 32 years. But as the first decade of the 20th Century came to an end, the atmosphere of the neighborhood had changed; the proud residences of the wealthy giving way to more commercial interests. Adding to this, the old structure was proving expansive to maintain and lacked modern conveniences like an elevator.

In the meantime, the widow of brewer August Schmid had erected an grand limestone chateau on 5th Avenue at 62nd Street in 1899. When she married Giovanni del Drago, the son of an Italian prince, in 1909, the couple closed up the mansion and sailed off to Europe.

The Club purchased the property in 1914, along with the mansion of W. Lanman Bull to the south, as the site of a new clubhouse “despite the feeling on the part of many members against the uptown movement scheme,” as reported in The New York Times.

Only fifteen years after being completed, the magnificent French chateau of Josephine Schmidt, which The Times called “one of the finest houses in the upper Fifth Avenue residential section,” was demolished in a process that took nearly a month.

photo by Alice Lum

The club commissioned Delano & Aldrich to design their new clubhouse. The architects had gained prominence by designing homes for socially prominent families; however they would be most remembered for their dignified, neo-Federal or Georgian structures like the 1917 Greenwich House. It was this style to which the pair turned for the Knickerbocker Club.

The architects drew substantially on American Federal design with touches of English influence of the same period such as the iron balconies and French touches such as the reined-in baroque entrance. They produced a beautifully-proportioned red brick edifice with limestone trim that slipped quietly into the high-class residential neighborhood.
photo by Alice Lum
Completed in 1915 at a cost of around $250,000, The New York Times complimented the clubhouse. “There is a simplicity combined with rich dignity about the building which strikes the observer more forcibly than the more ornate exteriors of many Fifth Avenue homes. It is expressive of the conservatism, if not the traditional exclusiveness of the club.”

photo by Alice Lum
Nearly a century later the Knickerbocker Club remains one of the most exclusive and traditional of the city’s many social clubs. The building, which in 1979 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission deemed “one of the city’s finest examples of the neo-Federal style,” is also one of the city’s most beautiful.


  1. Which Alexander Hamilton is mentioned here. The 'original' Alexander Hamilton died in 1804.

  2. Good question -- Alexander Hamilton, Jr. was the first president of the club. He was not the dead Alexander Hamilton. The club to this day insists only live members.

  3. Is it still an exclusive all men's club?