Saturday, April 28, 2012

The 1901 Yale Club (now Penn Club) -- No. 30 West 44th Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1900 the 44th Street block between 5th and 6th Avenues had become the epicenter of the exclusive men’s club district.  The New York Yacht Club, the St. Nicholas Club and the Harvard Club were here, along with the Royalton Hotel, a residence hotel for unmarried men of means.

That year, at Nos. 30 and 32, the burgeoning Yale Club of New York City chose to add its new clubhouse to the mix.  The membership of the club had doubled from 500 to 1,100 within the past three years and a new space was direly needed.  On March 31 the final contracts on the land were signed; The New York Times reporting the price being between $100,000 and $110,000.

The choice of architects, Tracy & Swartwout, was simple.  Egerton Swartwout and Evarts Tracy had both been employees of the esteemed firm of McKim, Mead & White; and both were graduates of Yale University and members of the Club.

A month before the purchase of the site was even completed, the architects had begun plans.   On February 17 The New York Times outlined the tentative designs, predicting “a fine towerlike structure for their new club home.”

“Towerlike” was an apt description because, unlike other clubhouses which were relatively low structures, this one would rise eleven stories.  The concept of a high-rise club provided for several floors of “sleeping apartments for members only,” with ten bedrooms per floor.

An entire floor was devoted to the main dining room, designed so it could be also used as a general meeting room.  On another floor were smaller “class dining rooms” and rooms for private parties.

Construction on the nearly $200,000 structure began in October 1900 and just over six months later, on May 1, the club celebrated its formal opening.   Above the door which was situated slightly above sidewalk level was a carved Yale University shield.  Two floors of rusticated limestone formed the base of the red brick building.  Restrained Beaux Arts terra cotta ornamentation and three balconies provided the only decoration of the main shaft of the structure.  But above the eighth floor, things changed.

In March 1901 Brickbuilder published a sketch of the structure, rising high above its neighbors (copyright expired)
Here a deeply-overhanging copper cornice was supported by long, paired foliate brackets.   Above, a stone-balustered balcony set the stage for a dramatic, oversized arched window, the frame of which nearly obscured the shallow mansard roof behind it.

The New York Times praised the building on its opening saying “Not a convenience is lacking.”  The main floor housed the grill room, billiard room, a café, a  bar, office and “strangers’ rooms.”  Lounging rooms and the library took up the second floor.   The entire ninth floor was the main dining room.  The newspaper called it “handsomely furnished, and among the more attractive fittings are pictures of the university athletes.”

The Grill Room, while rustic, still required proper attire.
On the roof was a garden which The Times felt would be a “most pleasing rendezvous in hot weather” for the Yale graduates.

Most unusual, however, were the six floors of bedrooms.  Originally conceived as sleeping rooms for members, they were now being marketed as bachelor accommodations rented by the week.  “There are accommodations for 85 tenants,” reported The Times, “and the rental of the rooms, with service, ranges from $6 to $15 per week.”  Patrons who wished to be fed as well could expect to “be boarded and lodged at from $12 to $15 per week.”

Hart Schaffner & Marx used the posh Yale Club Grill Room as the backdrop to advertise evening wear in 1911.
Many of the residents, however, made the building their permanent home.  In 1905 Albert Lee listed 30 West 44th Street as his address.  A Yale graduate, Lee was a successful author and editor, having already been on the editorial staff of the New York Sun, Harper’s Round Table, McClure’s Magazine and Harper’s Weekly.  By now he was the associate editor of Collier’s Weekly and had written five books.

Lounging rooms and the Library were located on the second floor.
Actor (John) Grant Mitchell lived here in 1914.  After practicing law in Ohio for three years he turned his attention to the stage, making his first professional appearance as Cicero in Julius Caesar, sharing the limelight with the famous actor Richard Mansfield.  His successful theatrical career, to date, included co-starting with Lillian Russell in The Butterfly in 1906 through 1907.

Originally the Yale University shield sat above the doorway -- Architecture July 15 1901 (copyright expired)
Bachelor attorney Edward John Redington lived here at the same time.  A man of wide interests, he had served in the Government Forest Service in 1906, had written illustrated articles for the New York Herald Magazine Section on “The Forest Ranger,” and traveled the fiords of Norway.

The Club continued to grow and, despite nay-sayers who fifteen years before had predicted the ambitious clubhouse project would fail, by 1915 the clubhouse was no longer large enough for its membership.  The Times remarked that constructing the towering building on 44th Street “was a move of no little importance and involved [a financial] extension which not a few predicted was doomed to failure.  However, results quickly confounded the prophets of evil, and it was not long before the club found its new house becoming entirely inadequate.”

In April 1916 the building was purchased by the newly-organized Delta Kappa Epsilon Club. A Yale University fraternity founded in 1844, Delta Kappa Epsilon had over 43 chapters and 13,000 members but, until now, no central headquarters.   The Times reported that the group intended to spend “about $100,000…in alterations and new equipment, bringing the total investment up to about $500,000.”

The club announced it would add a story and install squash courts and a swimming pool.

Oscald C. Hering and Douglas Fitch were commissioned to design the alternations.  Nine months later in January 1917 the club opened, with construction costs coming in under budget at $75,000.

Just four months later the United States entered World War I; a move many Americans had not foreseen.  Many of the young men of Delta Kappa Epsilon were among those most deeply affected by the war.  By December 26 fraternity members had been killed in combat and another 26 had received decorations for heroism presented by foreign governments.  That month club member Adjutant General Charles H. Sherrill addressed the group at a dinner in the clubhouse.

Predicting that the war would go on for another five or six years, the General remarked “many Americans who may not have thought up to the present they would be called upon to fight abroad might find themselves in France before the war is won.”

The fraternity continued to rent out the 70 bedrooms as bachelor quarters.  In 1922 Rutgers alumnus E. E. Van Cleef, a construction engineer with I. K. Comstock & Co., was living here.   

But nine years after taking over the old Yale Club, Delta Kappa Epsilon purchased a building at No. 5 East 51st Street in August 1925 and moved out. No. 30 West 44th Street was purchased by The Army & Navy Club of America in October; but it would not be a happy move.   Like other men’s clubs, its income was heavily affected by Prohibition.   The cash flow that came from groups of men discussing politics and business over cocktails abruptly dried up.  To worsen matters, the Stock Market crash in 1929 left many members with greatly reduced incomes.

By June 1933 membership in The Army & Navy Club had dwindled to 500 and it was unable to make its mortgage payments.   The United States Trust Company foreclosed and the club was closed.

The building sat empty while owners considered ways to utilize the once-chic clubhouse that had become a white elephant.  In 1935 an announcement was made that the building would be renovated to a mens’ and women’s club.   Nothing happened.  Then, on August 15, 1939, The New York Times reported that it would be converted to apartments.  The newspaper said architects Charles and Selig Whinston would remodel the former clubhouse “into a thirteen-story structure containing two stores and a restaurant on the street floor and nine suites of one room, bath and kitchenette on each of the twelve upper floors.”  That did not happen either.

Instead brothers Harry S. and Morris Ginsberg purchased the vacant building in November 1942.  Once again the United States was embroiled in a world war and the U.S. Government bought the building from the Ginsbergs a year later in December 1943.  After renovations, Rear Admiral Albert B. Randall, USNR, officially opened the headquarters of the U.S. Maritime Service Center Headquarters on June 25, 1944.

Up to 200 seamen awaiting deployment were housed here, and from here the graduates of the Sheepshead Bay and Hoffman Island training centers were assigned to ships.

Then, with the war over, in 1947 Colonel S. L. Kiser of the New York-New Jersey-Delaware Military District of the First Army announced on that the building would become the headquarters for Manhattan units of the Organized Reserve Corps of the Army.   The military would install the Army Reserve School here, as well, by 1949; and in the mid-1960s John Lindsay’s congressional office was here.

In 1970, as the new Touro College was chartered by New York State, the government had no more need for No. 30 West 44th Street and the property was listed as “surplus property.”  The school, which was established by Dr. Bernard Lander to enrich Jewish heritage, humanities and the sciences, now needed a campus.  It was a convenient situation for both.

The Government donated the former clubhouse to the college in January 1971.  Considering the history of the building, it was perhaps appropriate that the college was originally for male students only. 

But problems for the institution came swiftly.  Investigation by state and federal agencies regarding fraudulent obtaining of tuition grants resulted ultimately in the school being forced to return $822,000 in aid.  In 1980 a former bursar was indicted for embezzlement.

The beleaguered school sold the building in 1988 to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania for $15 million.   Three years later, after a $25 million fund raising campaign, renovations were started that would convert the structure to the Penn Club of New York.

Included in the modernization, Helpern Architects were given the commission to add a three story addition.  Completed in 1994 it earned the firm a Preservation Award from the Municipal Art Society.

photo by Alice Lum
Today the building at No. 30 West 44th Street has come full-circle; once again the home to a university club.  It is not only a venerable piece of Manhattan architecture; it is as Gary Hack, professor in the Penn School of Design, said “an exquisite piece of history.”


  1. Tom -
    I was in this club a few years ago and I thought there were some wonderful rooms but couldn't find out much about its history. Thanks!

  2. "The beleaguered school sold the building in 1898 to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania for $15 million. Three years later, after a $25 million fund raising campaign, renovations were started that would convert the structure to the Penn Club of New York."

    I think it's 1988 that the building was sold.