|photo by Alice Lum
While the banking, insurance and mercantile buildings were generally crowded into the lower Manhattan district, the luxurious homes of the moguls were uptown in fashionable residential areas. Some businessmen traveled back uptown to lunch in their own dining rooms while others vied for tables in the few acceptable restaurants in the area, like Delmonico’s.
Then a handful of wealthy and hungry entrepreneurs came up with an idea. Meeting in Room 41 at the high-end Astor House hotel on Broadway across from St. Paul’s Chapel two days before Christmas in 1859, the 27 men loosely organized a luncheon club – The Down Town Association.
Elite, private men’s clubs had begun making a foothold in New York with seven others including the New York Yacht Club and the Union Club already having been established. This one would be different, however.
Because Lower Manhattan was virtually abandoned after business hours, there would be no need for extensive social facilities such as sleeping rooms. The club had its first general meeting on February 4, 1860 and the membership was increased to 42. A charter was granted by the State of New York on April 17.
The group moved quickly and by September 10 of that year it had purchased No. 22 Exchange Place for $30,000 and opened its doors to members. While the purpose of the club was officially “To furnish to persons engaged in commercial and professional pursuits in the City of New York facilities for social intercourse and such accommodations as are required during intervals of business while at a distance from their residences; also the advancement of literature and art by establishing and maintaining a library, reading room, and gallery of art,” it was essentially intended as a luncheon club.
The members were highly successful professionals – bankers, brokers and lawyers, for instance. Not long after its opening, Robert Maitland donated an engraving and an oil portrait of Prince John. The gifts would be the start of the club’s considerable art collection.
The association had its clubhouse and its members were being fed. But there were problems. In order to survive financially, the struggling club of 150 members needed 100 more. Additionally, the growing differences between the Southern and Northern states would erupt in the Civil War within only a few months. The conflict would result in even greater financial uncertainty for the club.
Faced with the unhappy reality, the club sold 22 Exchange Place in 1862 and the charter sat inactive for fifteen years.
In May 1877 several of the original 27 members met with others in Delmonico’s Restaurant to breathe life back into the club. Within a year membership had grown to 354 and rooms were being rented at 50-52 Pine Street for $3,500 per year. In 1884, the plot at 60-62 Pine Street was purchased from James D. Fish for $98,000. Two years later on April, 26, 1886, architect Charles C. Haight, a club member, was commissioned to design the new clubhouse.
Romanesque Revival architecture had achieved a toehold in America in the 1830s when the Rundgogenstil style was imported from Germany. By now, prompted by the popularity of influential architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the medieval-looking style was sweeping the country. Haight used it masterfully to convey a sense of dignity and solidity for the association.
|Haight's variegated stone lower floors gave a sense of strength and permanence -- photo by Alice Lum
The clubhouse opened on May 23, 1887 at a total cost of $306,669.25 including the furnishings, building and land. Membership had grown to 500 by now.
The financial problems the club suffered in 1860 were long forgotten as the association grew and prospered. On January 1, 1901 membership had doubled to 1,000 with an additional 89 non-resident members and 348 candidates awaiting election.
In the meantime other men’s luncheon clubs had swept into the downtown neighborhood; but by now they were moving up--literally. On January 3, 1903 The New York Times noted “Mid-air dining clubs have become a unique feature of New York club life. In all there are perhaps two dozen occupying the upper or top stories of the ‘skyscraper’ buildings and with the exception of the Business Women’s Club all are for men.”
The article continued, “The advantages of these clubs are the freedom, the quiet and attractive surroundings, and the general air of sociability.”
The Down Town Association, from which, the Times noted, “has sprung the other dining clubs,” had no intention of moving from its venerable home.
On February 17, 1910 the trustees authorized the appointment of a building committee empowered to erect an annex. Land was purchased next door and the respected architectural team of Warren & Wetmore were hired to enlarge the clubhouse. Despite over two decades separating the designs of the two buildings, the architects sympathetically blended them, continuing Haight’s Romanesque Revival plan. While not intended to be a seamless imitation, the addition is a beautifully homogenous continuation.
|Sympathetic modernization and renovation did not spoil the 19th century interiors -- bizbash.com
|Warren & Wetmore's annex (right) flows smoothly into Haight's original clubhouse -- photo by Alice Lum
Valentine’s described the Down Town Association as “Standing first among clubs organized in the city of New York to provide relaxation during business hours and a place where luncheon can be served in comfort to busy men.”
|The entry lobby -- photo bizbash.com
The handsome and restrained Romanesque Revival Down Town Association building was designated a New York City landmark on February 11, 1997.