Monday, July 23, 2012

The Lost 1903 Union Club -- 5th Avenue at 51st Street

A 1905 postcard pictured the newly-completed club.
Stretching from 51st Street to 52nd Street on the east side of Fifth Avenue in 1899 was the Roman Catholic OrphanAsylum.  Surrounded by a lush lawn and cast iron fence it faced Vanderbilt Row—the mansions of the Vanderbilt family that lined the west side of the avenue.

Further down the avenue a troublesome trend had caught the attention of the millionaire family: the invasion of commerce.   Six years earlier William Waldorf Astor had demolished his father’s mansion at the corner of 33rd Street to erect the hulking Waldorf Hotel.   Already, in the blocks just below, grand residences were either being razed or converted to commercial structures.

When the Orphan Asylum decided to relocate and the full block of valuable real estate was put on the market, George W. Vanderbilt went into motion, snatching up lots to prevent businesses from intruding on the exclusive residential neighborhood.    Vanderbilt did not need to worry about five of the lots, however.  On December 21, 1899 the exclusive Union Club announced its intentions to purchase the three lots facing 5th Avenue at the corner of 51st Street, and the two adjoining lots behind. 

After nearly half a century in a grand mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and 21st Street, club members had become dissatisfied with the changes in the once-exclusively residential neighborhood.   In announcing the contemplated purchase a New York Times headline read, “Union Club Goes Up Town.”

Steeped in tradition, the Union Club was not only the oldest but the most exclusive men’s social club in New York.  Founded in 1836 at No. 343 Broadway, it moved northward rather quickly—to No. 376 Broadway in 1842 and to No. 691 Broadway in 1850.   When the club moved into its quarters at the northwest corner of 5th Avenue and 21st Street in April, 1855, members felt they had a permanent home.

The Union Club's home at 5th Avenue and 21st Street was a large, impressive mansion. -- NYPL Collection
A month after announcing interest in relocating, the contracts were signed.  On January 18, 1900 the club agreed to the $700,000 price of the land—about $16 million by today’s standards.     A competition among the architect members of the Union Club was initiated for the design of the new clubhouse.  Crusty older members, rooted in tradition and uncomfortable with change, insisted that the old mansion at 21st Street be replicated.   

“It was generally known that the older members strongly favored a duplication of the Twenty-first Street house,” reported The Times, “where they had felt at home for years, and that any marked departure from the general plan of the old structure would meet with their opposition.”

But even these powerful and wealthy men would not get their way.  “The environment of the new site, however,” said the article “was not considered suitable for a new clubhouse similar to the old one.”

Nevertheless, the plans fell into two categories:  a variation of the old clubhouse with changes made to the proportions to fit the new lot; and new, up-to-date designs with no nod at all to the old structure.  In the end the Building Committee was deadlocked on its decision between two plans.  One was a near-match of the old house, the other an Italian Renaissance palazzo.

To break the tie, a disinterested party was called in.  Charles F. McKim, of the esteemed architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, was not a member of the Union Club.  He was shown the two plans and asked to make a judgment.  He was clear in his preference.  He chose the duplication of the old house.

“Mr. McKim stated that there were faults of the plan which must be amended to make the structure suitable for its intended uses; but that its exterior was faultless,” reported The Times.

Astoundingly, however, the Building Committee discarded his report and chose the palazzo design.   McKim told reporters later “But my recommendations were not followed.”   On March 23, 1901 The Engineering Record noted “Plans have been filed by Cass Gilbert and John Du Fais, architects, for the Union Club’s new building to be erected on 5th Avenue and 51st Street to cost about $450,000.”

Who, exactly, was responsible for the design is unclear.  Cass Gilbert is widely given credit; however upon the death of Du Fais in 1935 The Times gave him full credit for the structure.   Whichever architect was responsible—or perhaps it was a joint effort—the result was a dignified brick and limestone clubhouse that reflected the wealth and propriety of its members.

At the far end of the block stands the Morton Plant mansion (later Cartier jewelers) and in between sit the twin marble mansions built by George Vanderbilt -- photo NYPL Collectio
In the meantime, the block filled with mansions.  In 1901 John T. Farley began building a house “of the highest class” abutting the Union Club on 51st Street.  A year later the magnificent home of Morton F. Plant would rise at the opposite corner, at 52nd Street.  And in between George Vanderbilt erected two matching white marble housesThe New York Times remarked that the new homes were “built by the family in an effort to keep business away from their front doors.”

From the moment the millionaire members walked through the front door of the new clubhouse, however, they were dissatisfied.  The lots had been chosen primarily for the location across from the Cathedral.  The committee had envisioned grand vistas down 5th Avenue from the windows of the lounges or club rooms for the members.     Instead, the gentlemen had a view of the alley.

Charles McKim, no doubt feeling a bit of retribution, chimed in.  “No one denies that the Union Club is a monumental structure of symmetrical dignity.  But equally no one who knows attempts to deny that the interior is decidedly faulty.”

The first floor facing the Cathedral was devoted to “the entrance, a strangers’ room, coatrooms, a cab stand, and the office,” he noted.  The window of the lounging room where the members sat in leather chairs, smoked cigars and discussed business faced a ten-foot alley.

“So far as they will commit themselves,” reported The Times, “the members seem to agree generally that the most important feature of the building, its potential view down Fifth Avenue, has been spoiled by the existing arrangement.”   Some members fought for an additional appropriation of funds to completely reconfigure the interiors.

Eventually the members became used to the new clubhouse and talks of remodeling died off.  

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Union Club prided itself on its exclusivity.   The Evening World reported that the club “is the most exclusive in the city.  It is the club in which proud and happy fathers of the aristocracy enter their sons for prospective membership when the sons are but a few hours—or, in some instances, it is said—a few minutes old.  The large membership is made up of the males of the most exclusive of the wealthy families of New York controlling the social run of affairs.”

Names of potential new members were presented by existing members.   Stringent investigation was conducted and voting was held.   Membership was limited to no more than 1,500.   Upon acceptance a membership fee of $300 was paid and annual dues of $75 were due every May 1st.

The male-only stronghold hired only men to work in positions visible to the members—doormen, coat check attendants, waiters and butlers, for instance.  The few women who were employed at the clubhouse worked in the kitchens or cleaned the rooms when members were not around.

One of these was Annie O’Connell.  On the night of February 19, 1905 the 45-year old woman approached the clubhouse around midnight to report to work.   Lurking in the shadows was 21-year old Paul Heil who was quite drunk and mistook the Union Club for one of the great mansions of the neighborhood.  When Annie O’Connell stepped towards the entrance, he grabbed her around the throat and attempted to throw her to the ground.  He had chosen the wrong victim, however.

The New York Times reported “She is strong and plucky.”  After struggling for a few minutes, the Irishwoman was able to force his hands from her throat and screamed.

Fifth Avenue was lined with coachmen sitting in the carriages of club members awaiting their owners.  The drivers rushed to the sound of the screams and, although Heil pretended to have a gun and threatened to shoot, they overpowered the intended thief.   Millionaires in evening clothes rushed out into the cold February air to assist the woman.

Heil was arrested and Annie O’Connell, bearing the marks of her attacker’s fingers on her throat, promised to appear in the Yorkville Court in the morning to press charges.  The Times noted that “In dress and appearance the man seemed to be the laborer he said he was.”

Wealth and pedigree were not enough to guarantee a candidate’s acceptance into the Union Club.  Hint of scandal or a stain on one’s reputation would result in rejection.  To avoid the embarrassment of rebuff, a hint of the potential rejection would be leaked to the man to give him the opportunity of recalling his nomination.

Such was the case with H. H. Rogers in 1912.  The only son and chief heir of Henry Huttleston Rogers, the Standard Oil financier, he had an impressive family lineage.  The Evening World reported on April 27 that “there are many members who cannot boast of the family descent of Mr. Rogers, which goes away back into the Puritan days in New England.”

The socially-popular young millionaire was also a captain in the New York National Guard.  His name was presented for membership by several other members.  “His friends in the Union Club could not imagine any reason why he should not be an acceptable member and had no hesitation in setting the machinery in motion looking to his election,” reported The Evening World.

But then, the article continued, “Soon the machinery began to creak.  Then it came to a dead stop.”

Club etiquette demanded that no questions were asked regarding why a candidate should be refused.  However Rogers had been involved in an ugly scandal in the Guard.  When he and several other officers preferred charges again Colonel George R. Dyer a Court of Inquiry investigated.  Dyer was exonerated and the accusing officers all transferred to different regiments; each one offering his apology to the Colonel.

All except Captain Rogers.

The breach in military and social etiquette was too much for the proper Union Club members and the socially eminent young man would not be admitted. 

A breach of etiquette would prevent the handsome millionaire Captain H. H. Rogers from being accepted as a member -- photo The Evening World April 27, 1912 (copyright expired)
To the socialists and communists of the early 20th century, the Union Club represented wealth and capitalism.  On June 23, 1916 a mob of thousands marched up 5th Avenue to protest outside the clubhouse.   The angry crowd “among whom were many anarchists,” said The World, filled the street outside.

One unsympathetic club member stuck his head out of an open window and shouted “Go back to work!” and commanded the mob to disperse.  He quickly ducked back inside as a derby hat flew past his head.

The inflamed crowd shouted back “Go back to work yourself!”

A patrolman called in a riot call to the precinct.  The World reported that “while the club members were peeping out the sides of their windows, expecting an attack in force, the police reserves dashed into sight from the East 51st Street station.”

In 1918 the club contributed to the war effort by making a startling change.  It hired women as waitresses for the dining room.   The male waiters were now eligible for “war work.”

The New York Times reported that “The employment of women has released from twelve to fifteen men for war work…As far as is known the Union Club is the first uptown club to use waitresses in the dining room.” The article admitted that “It was said that the women are proving satisfactory, and it is expected that other clubs will follow the example of the Union Club.”

For members of the Union Club, wealth and social position were essential.   The threat of losing one’s fortune and esteem were often too much to bear. 

Member Otto Zurcher lived just down the block at No. 33 West 51st Street in January 1919.  Born in Switzerland, he had made his fortune in African and South American sugar plantations.  With the war, however, he sustained heavy losses.

On the morning of January 14 he entered the library of the Union Club and stabbed himself five times in the neck and twice below the heart with a kitchen knife.   A waiter discovered the bleeding man on the floor.  Zurcher made motions asking for a pad and pencil.  He wrote “Let them give me morphine.  Let me die.  I want to die.”

Before the ambulance arrived, the former millionaire was dead.

Throughout the war the Union Club flew the flags of the country’s allies, France and England, alongside the American flag.   A year after the end of the conflict, the flags were still displayed.  This caused a problem in November 1920.

A mass was celebrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the deceased Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney.  Hundreds of members of Sinn Fein filled the cathedral and the British flag caught their attention.  Before long 5th Avenue was filled with angry Irishmen who pelted the building with stones and bricks, shattering windows.

The flag was taken down and police dispersed the mob, arresting several of the vandals.  But later Arthur W. Weeks, Chairman of the House Committee, arrived and ordered the flags put back “as a matter of principle.”

Sinn Fein’s violent protest was balanced by another, more peaceful one, soon thereafter.   Shortly after traffic resumed on 5th Avenue an automobile pulled up to the curb by the clubhouse.  General George Robert Nivelle, at one time the Commander of the Legions of France, stepped out.   The soldier stood at attention and saluted the flags of the United States, France and Britain.

“Whatever recollections the evidences of destruction at the club aroused in the breast of the General were kept to himself, as he made no comment, and, after one brief survey, the automobile sped on,” said The New York Tribune.

By now the Vanderbilt family’s valiant attempts to keep business out of the neighborhood had proved fruitless.  The Times would later note “They finally abandoned their efforts in 1910 when they came to the conclusion that their stand was hopeless.”

George Vanderbilt’s twin marble mansions had been converted to an art gallery and Morton Plant’s grand mansion was now the home of Cartier jewelers.   As it had done on 21st Street, the Union Club decided to remove itself from the now-commercial district.

On June 20, 1927 The New York Times reported that “the northward course of trade along midtown Fifth Avenue is driving another landmark off the famous thoroughfare.  The Union Club is to move from its present quarters at Fifty-first Street, deserting the avenue already forsaken by the homes of many of the socially noteworthy.”

The club in 1930.  photographer unknown from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Club had purchased land on Park Avenue at 69th Street “which is in a strictly residential district” said the article.     In 1933 the Union Club prepared to move into its new headquarters.  On May 29 a farewell dinner was held, attended by 400 members.  As the men sang “Auld Lang Syne” on the third floor and the 22nd Regiment Band played, “the rooms and halls on the ground floor were being stripped of some of the rugs and furnishings.”

Members pasted bids on the huge leather chairs and other upholstered pieces they hoped to purchase as mementoes.   One member placed a $300 bid on the marble fountain at the foot of the staircase in the entrance hall.  Other historic pieces—portraits of club presidents dating back to 1836, silver desk sets, candlesticks and a seal—that had come from the 21st Street clubhouse were to be transferred to the new building.

New Yorkers held their breath as the vacant Union Club was threatened with demolition to save taxes.  Then in June it was announced that the Grand Central Art Galleries would take over the building as its new home.   The gallery stayed on in the building for many years; but by 1944 it sat empty.

Also vacant were the abutting marble mansion erected by George Vanderbilt and John Farley’s residence on 51st Street .   On May 4, 1944 The Times reported “The imposing old Union Club building and the adjoining Vanderbilt mansion—landmarks at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral—will come down along with the house at 3 East Fifth-first Street to make way for ‘an imposing edifice’ of undisclosed type which is expected to be one of the major post-war projects of private enterprise in that district.”

That “imposing edifice” lasted until 1944 when it was demolished for the the 12-story Best Department Store.  And that structure survived until 1971 when construction began on the 51-story glass-and-steel Olympic Tower.  The soaring building makes it difficult to imagine a time when millionaires alighted from carriages to enter an Italian palazzo surrounded by the mansions of New York’s wealthiest citizens.

photo via

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