Monday, December 11, 2017

The Lost New York Club - 20 West 40th Street

The newly-completed clubhouse sat among brownstone residences of a generation earlier.  photograph by Wurts Bros from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Organized in 1845, the New York Club was the oldest men's social club in Manhattan.  After having already relocated several times, it moved into the renovated the former Philip Caswell mansion at No. 370 Fifth Avenue in 1888 after a fire destroyed its clubhouse in 1888.

The New York Club occupied the former Caswell mansion for nearly two decades.  -- photographer unknown; from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --

But the exclusive residential neighborhood around the clubhouse quickly changed.  Just two years later William Astor demolished his childhood home a block to the south and replaced it with his Waldorf Hotel.   And in 1894 his aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, followed suit, razing her brownstone mansion next door and erecting her own hotel, the Astor, joined with the Waldorf by both an apostrophe and the famous Peacock Alley.

Perhaps the last straw for the club's dignified members was the demolition in 1901 of its only neighbor on the block, the white marble palace of Alexander T. Stewart.  Commerce was overtaking the neighborhood.  After lengthy (and heated) discussions, members decided on a new site overlooking the rising New York Public Library and Bryant Park behind.  The block was transforming into a "club block," with the new Engineers' Club and  Republican Club buildings recently constructed.

On April 11, 1905 The New York Times quietly mentioned that "W. Clarence Martin has sold to E. Clifford Potter 18 and 20 West Fortieth Street, two four-story brownstone dwellings."  The site would soon be added to with the purchase of No. 22 as well.   Later that year, in December, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide revealed that the New York Club had commissioned Henry J. Hardenbergh to design a nine-story clubhouse.

Describing the proposed structure as being clad in brick and trimmed in terra cotta, the journal placed the cost of construction at $300,000--nearly $8.5 million today. "The first story will contain the club offices and cafe, and the second and third stories the library and card, billiard and committee rooms."  The entire eighth floor was consumed by the "dining hall," and the seventh held private dining rooms.  The fourth, fifth and ninth floors were filled with "sleeping rooms," necessary for wealthy club members whose mansions were shuttered during the summer months yet who needed to return to the city for business.

Hardenbergh's rendering was published in the Architectural Record on June 8. 1906 (copyright expired)

When the New York Club moved into its completed home in March 1907 The New York Times called it "a bachelor's heaven."   Hardenbergh had created a confection of deep red brick, white limestone, and terra cotta.  The first three floors were highly influenced by the Beaux Arts movement.  The centered entrance at sidewalk level was overshadowed by the three two-story arches, fronted by bowed and balustraded balconies directly above.  French gave way to Dutch on the upper floors, where Flemish Renaissance Revival referenced the city's early history.  It all culminated in a two-story, tile covered mansard with stepped gables, a prominent pediment, spiky finials and a massive terra cotta roundel.

The sleeping apartments were also used by "non-resident" members--the small group of wealthy out-of-towners who visited Manhattan regularly.  Among these was the former mayor of Toledo, Ohio, Guy G. Major.  He arrived in New York on January 6, 1912, expecting to spend a few days in the city.  His stay was prolonged when he soon developed pneumonia.  Three weeks later, on January 30, Major died in his room in the Club.

The New York Club was still one of the most prestigious of men's social clubs in 1914.  The high social standings of its 675 members high were rarely soiled by scandal.   That was sometimes simply because nearly unlimited wealth could buy one's way out of public ignominy.  Such was the case with one member that spring.

Benjamin Odio was 71 years old; a respected, retired merchant and a member of the New York Produce Exchange.  He was startled by detectives who broke into a West 47th Street apartment house in the early morning hours of May 9.  Four women were arrested, one charged with keeping and maintaining a disorderly house, or brothel, and the others for "being inmates."   Odio was taken in as well for soliciting the services of the women.

But when he was brought before the judge, it was not the wealthy clubman who was in trouble, it was Detective Lydig of the Central Office Squad who had arrested him.  Magistrate Corrigan found the officer's testimony "was insufficient to support the charge," according to The New York Times the following day.  The newspaper added "The Magistrate became indignant, and calling Lydig to the bar, censured him.  He then discharged the prisoner.  The women were held for trial."

By the time of the Great Depression the New York Club was seeing its neighborhood, once again, succumbing to commerce.  On January 25, 1931 The New York Times commented on the migration of social clubs from the area.  "In years gone by, when Fifth Avenue below Fifty-ninth Street was the fashionable residential thoroughfare of the city, it was perfectly natural that many of the best known clubs should make their headquarters there."

But now, noted the article, of the more than 20 clubs that had been located on the avenue only three remained.  And the New York Club was one of the few to hang on along the blocks just off the avenue.  But that was about to change, as well.

Once one of the most financially stable clubs in the city, in 1933 its members had to decide whether to completely disband, or to sell its clubhouse and share the Lotos Club's clubhouse at No. 110 West 57th Street.  In February the board of directors made the choice to sell.   President Clarence G. Meeks put the best possible spin on the announcement.  "In taking this step, it is to be understood that the New York Club will not be disbanded, but will really be a 'club within a club.'"

With the repeal of Prohibition in sight, the building was purchased by Schenley Distributors.  On the night of December 5, 1933, the official end of Prohibition, the New York Club's members were spending their last few days in the clubhouse.  Despite the repeal, The Times noted that the club "did not serve last night."

With alcohol once again flowing freely, Schenley soon became Schenley Affiliated Corporations, described by The Times as "formed largely of wine and liquor companies."  The various distilleries and plants were situated in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. 

The general offices filled the entire building.  In January 1934, the same month the firm moved in, it announced further expansion.  The Times reported "It was learned that in addition to manufacturing and marketing the present Schenley products, the company contemplates manufacturing certain food products as a by-product of its present industry."

The rapid and massive growth required more office space and in 1937 Schenley took more than four full floors in the Empire State Building.  By September that year the firm had leased No. 20 as the headquarters of the American Legion.  The Boy Scouts of America also maintained a first aid station in the building.  It was a coexistence that caused hearsay and uproar.

On September 23 B. B. Galasi, District Scout Commissioner of Manhattan Council squelched unsavory rumors.  He admitted the Scouts "have given aid to the Legion officials in many ways" and said "A few of their tasks consisted of escorting visitors around the city, bearing colors for State delegations [and] acting as messengers."

But, according to The New York Times, he "denied reports that the youngsters had been detailed to attend intoxicated Legionnaires."  He was backed up by Major F. J. Swentzel of the American Legion.  "We don't allow those boys to go anywhere where there are liable to be drunks...That detail is taken care of by our service committee composed of Legionnaires."

In 1945 Schenley Affiliated Corporations sold No. 20 to supporters of Freedom House, a not-for-profit group "devoted to strengthening free societies."  NAACP members and supporters had contributed towards the $150,000 purchase price.  The renovations cost another $65,000.

Now called the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building, it was dedicated on October 8, the first anniversary of Willkie's death.  Among the speakers were actress Helen Hayes, former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, president of Brooklyn College Dr. Harry D. Gideonse, and NAACP secretary Walter White.

Approximately 2,000 persons filled West 40th Street for the ceremony as the building was promised to be a "living center" for agencies which supported his ideals.

The headquarters of the NAACP originally took two full floors.  Here the association's official journal, The Crisis, was published.  The publication continues to cover issues of civil rights, history, and politics.   The NAACP was one of seven agencies in the building, the others being the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the Citizens Housing Council of New York, the Common Council for American Unity, the Public Education Association, the World Student Service Fund, and Freedom House, itself.

Crowds gather before the flag-draped building during the dedication.  photo New York Times October 9, 1945

The Freedom House was founded in October 1941 and its charter described it as "a symbol and center" for the fight for freedom.  It was a time of international tension and threats to religious and political liberties.  According to historian David P. Forsythe in his 2008 Encyclopedia of Human Rights, "Its Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was the reply to Adolf Hitler's Braunhaus in Munich, Germany, the center for Nazi propaganda."

Beginning in 1943 the Freedom House Award was presented to an individual for "outstanding contribution to freedom" the previous year.  That year it was awarded to Walter Lippmann, and in 1944 to Sumner Welles.  The first awardee in the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally received the award here on April 2, 1946.   A comment in his acceptance speech noted "It is my conviction that the United States entered the war in the belief that it represented the forces of good against evil"

In 1967 the limited space in No. 20 forced the National Office of the NAACP to move uptown to No. 1790 Broadway.  It opened its new space on October 16.

photograph by Edmund Vincent Gillon from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

By 1983 another agency had moved into the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building.  The American Movement for World Government, Inc. was incorporated in 1954 "to promote he establishment of federal world government as a necessary condition for world peace and security."  Its founder, former commercial airline pilot William H. D. Cox, was influenced by Albert Einstein's believe that "mankind's desire for peace can be realized only by the creation of a world government."

Among the focuses of the Movement in the 1980s was nuclear disarmament.  It published a pamphlet in 1983 entitled "How to Achieve a Nuclear Freeze and Disarmament," free with a $20 membership.  An advertisement in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in December that year began "If extinction is to be avoided as the fate of the earth and all of us who inhabit it, a multilateral nuclear freeze will be an excellent beginning."

Two years later the Willkie Memorial Building was sold to the Republic National Bank.  The structure had been "mentioned as a prime candidate for landmark status," according to Joseph Berger in The New York Times on February 16, 1985.  It had been identified as early as 1979 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission "as having architectural significance."

Republic National Bank set a demolition team to work under cover of night.  Berger reported "A crew this week began ripping the carved stone and other ornaments from the Willkie Memorial Building on West 40th Street."  Buildings Commissioner Charles M. Smith, Jr. ordered the work suspended and asked the police to monitor it.  But significant damage had already been done.  The stone balustrades and carved stonework had been jack-hammered off and the chances of landmark designation were now successfully aborted.

Before long an empty lot occupied the site of Henry J. Hardenberg's fanciful New York Club.  In January 2014 plans were filed for the 33-story mixed used building designed by David Chipperfield, known as The Bryant.

The Bryant is the light-colored structure just to the left of the Empire State Building in this rendering.  via the Bryant website


  1. In the early 1960s I worked on a high floor at 10 East 40th Street, and remember this building, and the others along 40th Street. Now I believe almost all the distinctive buildings there are gone or repurposed.

    When the Republic Bank was built, it wrapped around the Knox Hats building at the corner of 40th and Fifth Avenue.

  2. It is unfortunate the city has no recourse when developers or in this case the Bank purposely and secretly begins illegal demolition steps under the cover of darkness to scar and damage a landmark worthy building. It happens too often and goes unchecked in this city even when Landmarks has buildings under consideration. An unfortunate loss.