Monday, May 26, 2014

The Lost Progress Club -- 5th Avenue and 63rd Street

The over-the-top clubhouse sat among the mansions of Manhattan's wealthiest citizens -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As the sons of Manhattan millionaires grew to manhood, membership in at least one—but preferably several—of the exclusive men’s clubs was expected.  Passing the rigid selection process proved one's good breeding and social status; but most of all money.  None of those qualifications mattered much, however, if the man were Jewish.

Manhattan society was, for the most part, made up of Episcopalians with some ultra-wealthy Roman Catholics tolerated (although not in the ballroom of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor).  Despite the staggering wealth of some Jewish families, only a handful of Jews would manage to wrest memberships in the highly-exclusive Union or Metropolitan Club, for instance.  And so they established their own private club.

The Progress Club was founded in 1864 and quickly developed a high-class standing.  The New York Times later said, “In Hebrew society the Progress Club has the same standing as the Metropolitan in other circles.”  By the 1880s it had established itself in a clubhouse at No. 110-112 East 59th Street at the corner of Park Avenue.  But that would quickly change. On July 28, 1887 the members sold its building for $105,000 and spent double that amount--$235,000 to be exact—on the 100-square foot corner lot on Fifth Avenue at 63rd Street.  Newspapers reported that plans were being prepared for “a $250,000 clubhouse” directly in the center of the developing mansion district.  The total proposed outlay of $485,000 would amount to a jaw-dropping $11.5 million today.

Alfred Zucker was born in Freiburg, Silesia in 1852 and had settled in New York in 1883.  He busied himself designing cast iron loft buildings in the area now known as Soho.  Now the Progress Club chose the Jewish architect to design their new home. 

By the time the cornerstone was laid on November 28, 1888 work was well underway.  The New York Times promised that, when completed, it would be “one of the handsomest and most convenient clubhouses in the country.”

“The architecture of the exterior will be pure Italian Renaissance as adopted in Rome and Florence in the fifteenth century,” said the newspaper.  “The material used in the facades will be fawn-colored brick, terra cotta of a deeper shade, and Bellville gray rock..  For the balcony railings, basement window-guards, &c., ornamental wrought-iron will be used.”

By now the cost of the structure, excluding the plot, had doubled to $500,000.  The members of what newspapers routinely called the “Hebrew club” seemed determined to match or outdo the most lavish of Manhattan’s clubhouses.

Five months later the Progress Club hosted its last function in the old clubhouse.  Among the entertainments were a children’s production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and “as an interlude Miss Nellie Williams sang ‘Dere ain’t no Flies on Me,’ for which she was rewarded with loud applause,” reported The Times the following day.  It was announced that the club would be in its new Fifth Avenue clubhouse by the opening of the social season. 

Terra cotta drapes like a garland along the parapet -- photo King's Views of New York 1903 (copyright expired)
By the time the building opened on March 7, 1890 the cost had risen to a staggering $600,000.  Combined with the cost of the land, the clubhouse cost $21 million in today’s dollars.  The price was understandable once guests and reporters were shown inside.  The New York Times called the clubhouse “palatial.”

Well-heeled members in evening clothes ascend the grand staircase before the enormous stained glass window on opening night -- Harper's Weekly 1891 (copyright expired)

The following day the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide called it “regal” and “without doubt the most ambitious addition that has been made to the club-houses of this city since the Union League was opened.”   The periodical said “The design of the exterior is scholarly, straightforward and expressive, and with the accentuation given by the beautiful carving and terra cotta work the building is architecturally one of the most successful and interesting that has been completed in recent years.”

It pointed out the costly finishes: “the wealth of highly carved wood; wrought iron and brass; the great stained glass windows, one of which is 22x30 feet; the lavish use of onyx, serpentine and other semi-precious stones, the large picture ceilings, the ivory enameled walls, the superb hangings in coral plush and Etruscan gold.”  Everything—without exception—in the new building was custom built to the designs of Zucker.  The furniture, the draperies, carpets, chandeliers, even the candelabra, were manufactured according to the architect's drawings.

Silver chandeliers hung from the elaborate ceiling of the Banqueting Hall -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) 

Members entered through a great arch on 63rd Street into a marble-walled vestibule.  At the end of the vestibule was the grand staircase, dominated by a 22-foot high stained glass window at the landing.  Downstairs were the oak-furnished reading room with leather-covered walls and wrought iron chandeliers;  and two drawing rooms.  One of these was “First Empire” in style.  It dazzled with onyx columns with gold capitals.  On this floor, too, were the reception room, steward’s office and coat room, and an oaken dining room.
The First Empire Room was decorated in gold and white -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) 
At the second landing was an even larger stained glass window—30 feet high by 22 feet wide—depicting Progress ascending amid clouds. The magnificent banqueting hall fully engulfed half of the second floor.  At 90 feet long, 55 feet wide and 25 feet high, the Record deemed it “one of the noblest apartments in the city.”  The onyx columns with gold capitals upholding the ceiling sat on pedestals of malachite.  The ceiling was divided into nine large panels, from each of which were suspended silver chandeliers.  They were matched by silver sconces on the walls.  In this room was a musicians’ gallery of ormolu gilt.

The ballroom was one floor above and The Record & Builders’ Guide called its proportions “imperial.”  Here Zucker used the new electric light to full advantage.  “The ceiling, which is supported by the walls only, so that the area of the room is unbroken and the full effect of its size obtained, is coved several feet in depth and divided by means of heavy ornamental groins into six recessed panels, the centre of each panel being formed into a dome, in each of which is a cluster of electric lamps representing the descending stars of a rocket.  This idea is ingenious and the result excellent—with electric light, illumination is at last becoming a part of decorations.”

Zucker pulled out all the stops for the dazzling Ballroom -- Real Estate Record & Builder's News, March 8, 1890 (copyright expired) 

Zucker’s over-the-top décor in the ballroom included female figures crafted of onyx and ormolu holding the golden candelabra, and nymphs supporting chains that held back the draperies.  In the cove of the ceiling huge winged female figures wore tiaras of electric lights.  More than 1,000 persons could comfortably fit into the ballroom.

Also on this floor were the “dainty ladies’ drawing-room” in white and gold Rococo.  The ceiling was painted with a reproduction of Thuman’s “Amor and Psyche.”  On the opposite side of a foyer was the gentleman’s room.  These spaces were designed so that on grand occasions the entire floor could be opened into one large entertainment area.

Below ground were six bowling alleys, wine cellars, billiard room and café; as well as the expected kitchens, larders and mechanical rooms.

The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide summed it all up saying, “In conclusion, it may be said that from top to bottom the building is most carefully and artistically planned, the construction is everywhere of the most substantial and excellent kind, and reflects great credit upon the members of the club and the architect.”

The critics from The Times and the Record & Builders’ Guide were just two of 1,500 persons at the housewarming.  Among the guests who mingled among the potted ferns and palms that night were names like Rothschild, Bloomingdale, Blumenthal, and Stein; some of the wealthiest merchants and bankers of the city.  Mayor Hugh J. Grant, Governor David B. Hill and Board of Alderman President Arnold were all invited; but their names did not show up on the list of attendees. 

In his address after receiving the solid gold key to the building, club President Simon Goldenberg deemed the new building “the finest club quarters in America.”  The following day The Evening World called the architecture “perfection” and noted “The decorations are elegant, costly and in the best possible taste.”

Like every other high-end men’s club in the city, the Progress Club was not without its internal politics and dissension.  During the last week of January 1894 the club staged “a vaudeville entertainment which was being given by the club to its feminine guests,” as reported in The New York Times a week later.  There was a long-standing rule that whenever women were invited into the clubhouse, smoking in certain rooms was prohibited. 

That evening when J. Murray Danenbaum entered a supper room as the entertainment was going on, he noticed a member “enjoying a prohibited cigar.”  Indignant on the part of the women in the room, Danenbaum approached the member and rather sternly reminded him of the rule.  The New York Times said “The offending member, unmindful of the soft answer that turneth away wrath, answered in kind and smoked on.”  It was the beginning of a problem far worse than the offending cigar.

Danenbaum plucked the cigar from the man’s mouth and flung it to the floor.  If female guests were put off by the stench of cigar smoke in the supper room; they were no doubt terrorized by the pugilistic threats that were now exchanged by the two men.  Only the intervention of cooler minds prevented a full-out fist fight, according to reports.

Exactly ten years after the housewarming celebration the Progress Club announced it had “decided to dispose of its present house at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixty-third Street, and will erect a new home on a site yet to be selected.”  A club member told reporters on January 8, 1900 that “the reason for the club moving was simply that its present house is regarded by a majority of the members as inadequate.”

It took the club over a year to find a suitable property; but on November 3, 1901 it announced the purchase of three lots at the northwest corner of Central Park West and 88th Street.  Simultaneously it was revealed that millionaire James B. Haggin had signed a contract for the purchase of the 63rd Street building.  “The reported price in the sale to Mr. Haggin was $735,000, and he will put up a mansion on the site costing about $1,000,000,” reported The New York Times.

The Progress Club moved to the West Side and, oddly enough, James B. Haggin did not build his new mansion; but let the hulking clubhouse sit empty and dark.  Instead, he moved into the lavish Crocker mansion one block north at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 64th Street in 1912. 

When James Haggin died in Newport on August 16, 1914, the Progress Club still sat eerily quiet and unused.  The following year, on December 11, 1915, the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that his estate had sold the property “to a syndicate formed for the purpose of erecting an apartment house suitable in every way to the location where it is to be constructed.”

The firm of Starrett & Van Vleck was commissioned to design the 12-story Renaissance-inspired building.  With one apartment per floor, the new building was marketing what could be termed horizontal mansions.  The rents were expected to be about $18,000 to $25,000 per year—about $47,000 a month in today’s dollars for the more expensive apartments.

Starrett & Van Vleck released this sketch of the coming building in December 1915.  It survives today. Real Estate Record & Builder's News, December 11, 1915 (copyright expired)  

Before the massive apartment building could rise, the Progress Club had to come down.  The lavish interiors of onyx columns and ormolu galleries were gone within weeks.  That it ever stood is largely forgotten.


  1. Hi! Thanks for posting. I really enjoy your blog. Also me and my GF have the same one about Moscow

  2. What a stunning building this was, inside and out!


  3. You have uncharacteristically left out one important detail... What ever happened to the Progress Club ??

    1. The club seems to have survived into the 1970s; then became defunct.

  4. Just came across this, as a transplanted New Yorker I found it fascinating. I had never heard of the Progress Club. Wonderful post!