Monday, December 14, 2020

The Lost Knickerbocker Clubhouse - 319 Fifth Avenue

In 1882 the Peter Moller mansion was renovated for the Knickerbocker Club--including removing the stoop and moving the entrance to the side street.  from the collection of the Mechanical Curator

Born into a poor farm family in the Kingdom of Hanover (now part of Germany) in 1809, Peter Moller left home at the age of 16 to find work in London.  He landed a job as a sugar boiler in the refinery of Woolsey & Co.  His employer recognized his aptitude, made him a clerk, and when Woolsey abandoned his business in 1837 to emigrate to America, he brought Moller with him.

The enterprising young man did not make the voyage alone.  He had just married a young woman named Sarah.   The couple would have seven children--six sons and a daughter.  Moller briefly left Woolsey to go into partnership with the Havemeyer family, the most well-known of New York sugar refiners, as Havemeyers & Moller.  But when Woolsey & Woolsey burned to the ground just before Christmas in 1849, Moller and two partners, the Howland brothers, rebuilt the old firm as Howlands & Moller.

Remarkably, both of Moller's partners were dead before 1851, the brothers dying within a year of one another.  The firm was reorganized as the New York Steam Sugar Refining Company with Moller as its president.  Peter Moller, who had left home as a penniless teen, had amassed a substantial personal fortune.

Around 1865 the family moved into the new brownstone house at the northeast corner of 32nd Street.  Four bays wide the substantial Italianate style residence was similar to many of the high-end homes along Fifth Avenue, including the William Backhouse Astor mansion, built several years earlier, two blocks to the north. 

Prior to the renovations, the Moller mansion would have been similar to that of William and Caroline Astor at the southwest corner of 34th Street (above)  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The New York Herald described Moller as "of medium build, with a florid and genial expression of face" and called him "earnest and indefatigable."  The New York Times later noted that his off time was his own.  "During business hours Mr. Moller's attention was entirely engrossed with the details of his occupation, and at the close he threw off care, and gave himself up to the hearty enjoyment of the pleasures which his ample means placed within his reach."

For Moller those pleasures centered around trotting horses.  The family spent summers in resorts like Long Branch and Saratoga where his thoroughbreds were a familiar sight.  During the winter months the Moller sleigh was routinely seen among those of other moneyed families in the upper regions of Manhattan. 

On December 12, 1869 The New York Herald reported "The sleighing has been excellent all the week, and on Friday afternoon the road men with their pets were out in full force.  The McComb's Dam road and Harlem lane were alive with the jingling of the merry bells and that peculiarly American institution, the trotting carnival, was in full force."  In listing the many costly vehicles and steeds seen that day, it added "Mr. Peter Moller drove a speedy white horse."

In 1877 Moller retired, after having suffered three strokes.  He continued to focus on religious and charitable causes.  He had founded the Lutheran Orphan Asylum at Mount Vernon, New York in memory of William, described by The New York Herald as "a favorite son."  He was also a founder of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity on West 21st Street.  The New York Herald said of him, "It is said his hand was ever open to the appear of charity and distress."

Moller was dealt a serious blow when Sarah died in their Fifth Avenue house on September 16, 1878.  It may have been his deep grief that resulted in her funeral being held not in the mansion, but at the Evangelical Lutheran Church on 21st Street.  Peter Moller received a second shock that year when his brother, Christian, died in Hoboken.

On February 19, 1879 The New York Herald reported that "Friday night [Moller] was out driving and was in his wonted health and spirits.  Sunday morning, at five o'clock, he was taken ill, and died the following evening, in the seventieth year of his age."  The New York Times reported that he left an estate of about $2 million--more in the neighborhood of $53 million today.

Moller's heirs leased the mansion to Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife, the former Alice Gwynne, whose massive mansion at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue was under construction.  The lavish entertainments were typified by an elaborate breakfast and reception on January 2, 1882.  The New York Times noted "The assemblage was composed of the immediate friends of Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt, and numbered about 100," and detailed:

The house was darkened and the gas gave an evening effect.  Not the least interesting feature was the floral display, which was extensive and beautiful.  The reception hall was converted into a conservatory for the occasion.  The balustrade of the main stairway was hidden in smilax, with camelias, heliotropes, and hollies interwoven...From the walls was suspended a unique piece of tapestry representing a Venetian scene, and before this was Stationed Lander's orchestra, which discoursed music from 1 to 3.

At the time of Moller's death, the Knickerbocker Club was located in the former William B. Duncan mansion at Fifth Avenue and 28th Street.  It was formed on October 31, 1871 by millionaires like Alexander Hamilton Jr., August Belmont and John Jacob Astor, members of the Union Club, once the most exclusive social club in the city.

But with the development of new industries and technologies following the Civil War, new-found fortunes were being made by men born on farms and in tenements.  (And in the railroads, like the Vanderbilt family.)  
With the influx of the new group of nouveau riche members new ”vulgarities” like pipe smoking and gambling  seeped into the decorous clubrooms.  

Under pressure, the Union Club lessened its rigid entrance rules and expanded the size of its membership.  Offended by the diluted character of their club, several staid members had plotted mutiny and formed their own club with the uncompromising deportment and rules of the old Union Club.   
At the time of Alice Vanderbilt's January 1882 breakfast and reception, the former Moller house had already been sold to the Knickerbocker Club, which paid $200,000 for the property, or about $5.2 million in today's money.  Architect Robert H. Robertson was at work on renovation plans which, according to the Record & Guide on December 8, 1881, would include an extension to the rear which "will be of brick with brown stone trimmings, in conformity with the main building."  

The $50,000 remodeling (nearly $1.3 million in today's dollars) resulted in the removal of the stoop, which was replaced by a projecting one-story bay.  The entrance was moved to the new two-story extension.  It consisted of a deep porch to protect members from the elements while awaiting their carriages.  Stone walls served as the base for a glass-roofed cast iron enclosure.

A liveried doorman strikes an unexpectedly casual post outside Robertson's handsome entrance.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The first floor, now located at street level, included the billiard room, smoking rooms, and a cafĂ©.  The second floor was composed of various-sized dining rooms; while the third floor held the kitchen and servants' dining room.

King's Handbook of New York City noted "The entrance-fee is $300; the yearly dues are $100."  It was a substantial outlay, the entrance fee equaling more than $7,700 today. 

The eligible unmarried members were expected to organize a yearly "bachelors' ball" in the days after Lent.  The event in 1884 had been held in the ballroom of the Metropolitan Opera House and was considered by The New York Times to be "handsome."  The young men had relied on the services of Arthur Leary to handle all the details; apparently with a disproportionately small compensation or gratitude, given the immense task.

A social columnist of The New York Times anticipated the 1885 event, saying "a ball like the one they gave last year would enliven people up considerably."  But, the writer lamented, "I believe Mr. Leary does not take kindly to superintending another such ball as he did last year."   With surprising frankness, the journalist added "The chances are now that the young men would endeavor to put upon the shoulders of others the work they should do themselves."

While the other social clubs continued to attract the young and newly-rich; the Knickerbocker resiliently held on to its old ways.  Its priggish members sat within the elegant rooms on leather chairs, visible to passersby.  Rarely moving, they prompted a bizarre rumor among neighborhood children.

The New York Times wrote on January 23, 1887:

The children of the neighborhood, who play on the sidewalks believe a story that has been told them by some jocular servant to the effect that there are 'stuffed dudes' displayed in the windows of the Knickerbocker Club, from the fact that the members of the club who sit in the windows and gaze on the passing pageant of youth and beauty appear to be inanimate.  No reasoning can dissuade the children from this idea, and one member has promised to take his little girl into the club some morning so that she can see for herself that there is no truth in the story.

Apparently not wishing to offend any of the moneyed members, the article concluded "It may be added that the dude abounds in the Knickerbocker, which is notwithstanding one of the cheeriest and pleasantest clubs in the city, with an excellent cuisine.  Inside as well as outside the club house is one of the handsomest in the city."

Interestingly, it seems that the article did not go unnoticed by the very proper Knickerbocker members.  Only a few weeks later, on March 6, the newspaper reported "Since the 'stuffed dudes' vacated the windows there is no visible signs of occupancy about the Knickerbocker Club."

The celebrated correctness of members' deportment prompted one of them to anonymously write a manual of club dress and etiquette under the title Gentlemen in 1891.   The critique that appeared in The New York Times on March 22 admitted "Presumably, anybody who has gained access to that citadel of clubdom, the Knickerbocker Club, and has energy enough to write a book, is competent to handle the subject."  Nevertheless, it felt "the clubman in question might have employed his literary zeal in another direction to better advantage."

And, added the critic, the writer fell short.  A more detailed treatise on manners "would have done much to divert attention from his grammatical eccentricities, and he might have been spared the pain of reading dozens of columns of satirical comment on himself and his literary child."

Every year while Manhattan's millionaires spent the summer months away from the city, repairs were made on its clubhouses.  In August 1891 the Knickerbocker Club went a bit further and hired McKim, Mead & White to do $5,000 in interior renovations, including new doors and windows.  The following month a newspaper noted "A small army of workmen has taken possession of the Knickerbocker Club house preliminary to making the annual Fall repairs and renovations.  The club will not begin to liven up for a month or so, and the workmen will practically have the clubhouse all to themselves."

photo from Collins Both Sides of Fifth Avenue, 1910 (copyright expired)

The 1892 The Sun's Guide to New York described the Knickerbocker as "The most exclusive social club in New York City...Almost every member is well-known socially, and dozens of Knickerbocker men are famed as millionaires."

The Knickerbocker members were not entirely stodgy and without humor.  On January 23, 1895 The Evening World wrote "The Club is conservative to the last degree.  Nevertheless, it has furnished one instance of record breaking and making.  In an exciting competition a few years ago, one of its members succeeded in going from the club-house to his residence, six blocks away, changing from his ordinary club wear to full evening dress (socks and all) and getting back to the Club, all in the space of twelve minutes.  It is believed this record stands unchallenged."

In 1907 commerce was closing in around the Knickerbocker Club; it remained nevertheless for several more years.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Fifth Avenue neighborhood around the Knickerbocker Club became increasingly more commercial following the turn of the century.  On February 10, 1912 The Record & Guide reported on a rumor among real estate men.  "The Knickerbocker Club, which has remained tenaciously in the old location on lower 5th avenue, has decided to move, and is now seeking a location, so it is said, on the upper part of the same avenue."

The members had already found that new location.  Two days earlier The New York Times had reported that they had purchased No. 807 Fifth Avenue, the mansion of the Princess Del Drago--formerly the wife of brewer August Schmid."  The "artistic structure" had sat empty for two years.

In place of the old mansion the Knickerbocker Club erected its neo-Federal style clubhouse designed by Delano & Aldrich, completed in 1915.  No. 319 Fifth Avenue was razed by the club, which commissioned Trowbridge & Livingston to design a commercial replacement.  Completed in 1917, it originally housed the Sherman National Bank.

Where stuffed dudes once stared out on the "pageant of youth," workers from nearby offices now nosh on Korean-style barbeque.

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