Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Lost Union Club - Fifth Avenue and 21st Street

The architecture exuded an air of exclusivity and refinement.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

On April 27, 1855 The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer reported "The dwellers in the Fifth Avenue, and in the neighboring localities of fashion and wealth, were in extraordinary motion yesterday, and all in the same direction.  The point of attraction was the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, where stands one of the handsomest buildings in this City.  This building has just been finished and furnished; was erected by, and belongs to the Union Club."

The club was founded in 1836 to "promote social intercourse among its members, and afford them the convenience and advantages of a well kept hotel."  The first exclusive men's social club in New York, it gained the reputation as its stodgiest.  Membership was limited to "not less than two nor more than six hundred members."  Only citizens of the United States could become members immediately, foreigners had to live in the States seven years before becoming eligible.

The stately brownstone building would be its fourth home, its first being at No. 343 Broadway.  It moved in 1842 nearby to No. 376 Broadway, then to No. 691 Broadway in 1850.  The members felt, now, that they had a permanent home.

The Morning Courier placed the cost of the new club house at $217,000--more than $6.3 million today.  Faced in brownstone, the Italianate-style structure took the form of a super-sized mansion with a rusticated base ornamented with Corinthian pilasters and columns and a broad portico facing 21st Street.  The openings of the upper floors were capped with Renaissance-inspired pediments.

The article insisted there was no need to describe the interiors, saying, "It is sufficient to say that it is complete in every part."  Nevertheless it continued to do so.  "In the dining room with its carved black walnut panelling, and its beautiful paintings of game over the chimney pieces, an anchorite would be transformed into an epicure--the very light and air of that dining room seems to speak of good living.

"The parlor, the library, the reception room, the billiard room, are all in the highest style of luxurious comfort, and, having said this, we have nothing further to add in the way of description."

The Smoking Room -- . New York Herald, July 1, 1900 (copyright expired)
The new clubhouse was 63 feet wide on the Avenue and 120 feet wide on 21st Street.  Its opening gave James Gordon Bennett an opportunity to take a swipe at the club's male-only status.  Unlike some other clubs, which invited wives and daughters on certain nights or to particular entertainments, no feminine foot ever crossed the threshold of the Union Club.

On April 29, 1855 he declared in the New York Herald, "Their exclusive institution, so glaringly and brazenly hostile to woman's rights, will go the way of the Crystal palace.  This nursery for old bachelors, and their conspiracies, cannot resist the opposing forces of the ladies, with their genial re-unions of the young and the old of both sexes mingling together in the polka, at whist, at billiards, and over their oysters and champagne for 'medicinal purposes.'"

At the time of the opening, the club had 500 members.  The initiation fee was $100 (nearly $3,000 today) and the annual dues $50.  Prospective members were sponsored by active members and acceptance depended on anonymous voting by "black-balling."  A single black ball dropped into the election box barred membership with no explanation.

One out-of-towner who surprisingly passed muster was the Jewish Senator from Louisiana, Judah P. Benjamin.  Social clubs were unapologetically anti-Semitic; yet it was not Benjamin's religion, but his politics that would tear the Union Club apart.

In 1861 Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him Attorney General.    When he failed to send his dues three members, Augustus Schell, Samuel Barlow and William Travers, paid it in order to keep him on the rolls.  The New-York Tribune later explained "This act of friendship for a rebel in arms produced great indignation, and the contributors to the Benjamin dues fund were severely and unsparingly criticised."

The differences became so heated that repeated threats of duels arose, although none came to pass.  The great irony that the turmoil was taking place in a club named the Union was not lost on the press.   It resulted in the resignation of 70 members who formed a new club, The Union League Club, on February 1863.

The Union Club underscored its stance when, on June 4, 1865, it hosted General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The New York Times reported "a sumptuous banquet was ready in the dining hall...The dinner was strictly private, and scarcely any one was admitted to the club-house."

In 1874 extensive renovations took place that included the installation of an elevator, and moving the dining room and kitchens to the top floor.  William Conant Church, writing in The Galaxy, described the changes saying in part, "The present dining rooms contrast favorably with any in the city; they are light, well aired apartments, entirely free from the odors of cooking."

The Dining Room was relocated to the third floor in 1874 so that odors of food would not "invade the meeting areas.". New York Herald, July 1, 1900 (copyright expired)
Church described the impenetrability of the house.  "A servant is at all times stationed at the door.  He occupies a comfortable fauteuil just inside the entrance.  It is his province to see that none but those who are entitled to admission penetrate within the walls of the sacred edifice."

Church noted that in the evening "almost every other man you meet after dinner is in full dress."  He made note of the obvious difference between the staid veteran members and the younger ones.  "In one corner may be seen the solid men, who have passed the age of frivolities, calmly discussing stocks, bonds, railroads, real estate, and business, failures, and defalcations...Another group again are deep in horse racing, yacht racing, pigeon shooting, mail stage coaching, and of late fox hunting.  These younger gentlemen, who have done so much to wake up, shake up, and enliven the Club, are many of them men of large fortunes, cosmopolitan in tastes and habits.  They pass a great part of their time abroad, and are as much at home on the asphalts of the Boulevard or Pall Mall as here in New York."

Ballou's Pictorian, published this engraving on September 8, 1855, saying "The facade is one of the greatest architectural attempts in this country." (copyright expired)

The rift between senior and junior members was perhaps most obvious in the card room.  Church explained that the "older members still cling to whist" but now only two or three tables were reserved for that game.  "The balance are given over to the invaders, who look upon whist as too slow a game in this age of steam, electricity, Atlantic cables, and Keeley motors.  Perhaps they are right."  (The fast new game they preferred was bridge.)

At the time of Church's article, there were 70 employees, "including servants," in the Club, representing an annual payroll of about $1.2 million in today's dollars.

A year after the renovations were completed the building was almost lost.  At around 10:00 on Christmas morning 1875 Engineer O'Meara, the building's superintendent, was attracted to the kitchen by the smell of roasting turkey.  He noticed a ribbon of smoke wafting from the floor next to a wall.  A quick investigation revealed that the floor was on fire.  As he began pulling up the planking, he sent another employee to the nearest fire box.

That smoldering fire was quickly extinguished and things appeared to be fine.  At 1:30 members filled the dining room when a kitchen worker discovered smoke in the same place.  Fire fighters disrupted Christmas dinner with hoses and axes.  At 4:00 the fire was declared extinguished, but not before the kitchen was thoroughly gutted and the dining room ceiling, which a year earlier had cost $3,000, was ruined.  The damages were eventually placed at $10,267.

Gentlemanly Victorian deportment decried the insulting of a lady and required that her honor be defended.  So in November 1881 when millionaire Joseph F. Loubat made disparaging remarks in the Club's parlor concerning "a lady well known in society," according to The Sun, Henry Turnbull reacted.

Turnbull made his case clear to newspapers. "Mr. Loubat made use of shockingly low and vulgar language so revolting as to be unfit to be repeated here.  I told him then that any man that would make use of such a remark about a lady was a dirty, low blackguard, and that he was not fit to be a member of any club, and certainly should never be admitted to any gentlemen's house."

The Sun reported "Whatever was said, Mr. Loubat, according to report[s], shrugged his shoulders and walked away, and a day or two later was gone on a trip to California that he had been contemplating."

If Loubat thought that the matter would be forgotten during his six-month absence, he was mistaken.  He returned to discover that the gossip about his comments was still fresh.   He wrote to Turnbull on May 7, saying in part "I now write to you to tell you that you lied when you made the above statement, and that you lied knowingly and maliciously."  He demanded an apology and retraction.

Of course, Turnbull neither retracted his accusations nor apologized.  Back and forth communications resulted in threats of a duel.  On May 16, 1882 The Sun reported "The opinion of the club is that there is no other way out of it."

Indeed, the day previous a Wilmington, Delaware newspaper wrote "It is reported here that Loubat and Turnbull are about to fight a duel somewhere near Newark in the morning.  A party of five, supposed to be the principals and their assistants arrived here on an afternoon train, purchased tickets for Newark, and are believe to have left on the evening train for that place."

Although both parties survived, the issue would not be settled.  The Union Club attempted to drop Loubat from its rolls, but he sued.  On June 1, 1886 the courts demanded that he be restored as an active member until he was given the opportunity to defend himself in a club hearing.  Of course, Loubat had no intentions of returning to the club, but his victory allowed him to resign rather than suffer the humiliation of being ousted.

The scale of the clubhouse is evidenced by the brownstone mansions on either side.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In the meantime, the clubhouse continued to be a fortress against invaders.  On March 15, 1886 The New York Times said "There is less known about the interior of the Union Club than any other in the city."  A non-member "can get no further than the little reception room beside the door unless invited to a dinner in a private room up stairs, to which he is taken immediately on entering.  The club has never indulged and never will indulge in a reception or ladies' day or any demonstration that would disturb its domestic routine."

By now the younger set William Conant Church had spoken about had made noticeable changes in the club's personality.  The Times article noted "The members affect to believe that there is no higher certificate of social prestige than election to the club.  Though aristocratic and snobbish, it caters to the money-making element rather than the blue blood sought by the St. Nicholas, and while many of the old families, and an eminently respectable class are represented in the membership, the characterizing element is the fast, rich sporting set, though the originating idea was a select social resort."

In 1888 the neighborhood was seeing the invasion of commerce, forcing its mansion owners (including Union Club members) to move further uptown.  The club toyed with the idea of buying the white marble Alexander Stewart residence on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, opposite the William B. Astor mansion.   They considerately stepped out of negotiations when the Manhattan Club also wanted the house.

Instead, the former Dix mansion next door on 21st Street to the clubhouse was purchased for $45,000.  It was demolished and architect Bruce price designed an annex.  Many members were still dissatisfied with the location, however. and a move seemed sure following a meeting on May 27, 1891.  The New-York Daily Tribune reported "The Union Club decided by a vote of four to one last night to move further up town."

But those plans stalled and on May 24, 1895 The Sun accused members of being cheap.  "It is somewhat remarkable that...the Union Club, a worldly association, refused to take the risk of incurring a debt for one million dollars to put up a new building."

The club proved the newspaper wrong when it spent $700,000 for three plots on the site of the old Catholic Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street in December 1899.   Architects Cass Gilbert and John Du Fais were commissioned to design the new clubhouse at a cost of about $450,000.

The move was not only prompted by location.  Three decades later the Union Club, in its centennial publication Mother of Clubs, explained "The plumbing was antiquated and falling to pieces, the ventilation poor and the lighting equally so."

On January 12, 1902 the Central Realty Bond and Trust Company announced it had purchased the venerable Union Club building for $615,000.  On the site rose the 11-story Beaux Arts store and loft building designed by Buchman & Fox which survives.

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