Monday, May 6, 2019

The Lost American Jockey Club - Madison Avenue and 27th Street

In the foreground is a portion of a Madison Square Garden porch. photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
The Civil War was barely over before wealthy New Yorkers turned their attention--and their money--to the sport of kings: horse racing.  Taking the reins, so to speak, was Leonard Jerome who, with other millionaires like August Belmont, founded the American Jockey Club in 1866 and then set out to erect for it a substantial clubhouse and a fashionable racecourse, Jerome Park.

On October 10, 1867 the New-York Daily Tribune wrote "The 'Jerome Day' has become with us almost as familiar as the 'Derby' in England, and though on its annual recurrence 200,000 people do not blacken the highways leading to the Course, still it summons forth a number sufficient to elevate it into the dignity of at last a New-York holiday."

The article waxed poetic.  "In those early October days, with the purple and gold of Autumn on mead and wood, and the glories of the Indian Summer enveloping the earth in their short-lived brilliancy, Mr. Leonard W. Jerome and the American Jockey Club summon us forth to witness the exhibition of all that is admirable in the American race-horse--strength and speed, and beauty and blood." 

Club members had given the 230-acre park priority over their city accommodations.  The course had opened on September 25, 1866 with Ulysses S. Grant as guest of honor.  The crowd was diverse--from millionaires and their wives to the middle class.  Harper's Weekly said "ladies of fashion, ladies domestic, ladies professionally literary, ladies of birth and culture" were there.   The members' wives were buffered within the elegant clubhouse from the less financially fortunate in the stands and infield.

Attendance at Jerome Park, at least from a feminine point of view, was more a social than sporting event.  The following year The New York Times pointed out that one-third of the 10,000 people at a race were women, "far less intent on the races than on meeting friends and having a free and easy social chat.  Not one in ten probably knew or cared a straw about the horses, and their running was merely a pleasant incident in the day's enjoyment."

Non-members in the infield at Jerome Park participate in the 1886 version of tailgating.  Even these spectators were decked out in silk top hats and other finery.  Harper's Weekly, June 19, 1886 (copyright expired)
On July 13, 1867 The New York Times mentioned "We understand that Mr. Jerome intends also to place the superb building, which he is now completing on Madison-avenue, at the command of members of the Jockey Club.  For the purposes of a first-class Club-house there is no building in the country that an compare with it; nor has there ever been an American club organized which offered so many attractions and privileges as this Jockey Club, which, although it has been organized less than a year, already numbers about a thousand members."

Jerome's choice of the clubhouse site, on the southwest corner of Madison Avenue and 27th Street, may have been a bit self-serving.  In his 1872 book Lights and Shadows of New York Life, James Dabney McCabe said of men's clubs in general, "The location of these clubs is very desirable.  They are all in the most fashionable quarter of the city, and their houses are in keeping with their surroundings.  They are elegantly furnished, and often contain valuable and beautiful works of art."

And while the American Jockey Club would, indeed, be filled with costly furniture and artworks, it was removed from the "club district" and sat among the high-class stables and carriage houses of the Madison Square mansion owners.  Among them was Leonard Jerome, whose magnificent residence was just a block away, at Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

The Italianate style, four-story clubhouse sat above a rusticated English basement.  The first floor, accessed by two sideways stoops on 27th Street, was faced in Novia Scotia stone--a light colored sandstone.  Two sturdy stone balconies clung to the Madison Avenue windows, and another appeared on the side street.  The upper floors were clad in brick and trimmed in stone.  The chamfered corner admitted more light and ventilation, and accommodated two more balconies.  

Because much of the club's business was handled in the Jerome Park clubhouse, members did not seem at all perturbed when the New York Yacht Club took most of the second floor in November 1872.  But then again, many of its members--James Gordon Bennett, August Belmont, the Schuylers and the Vanderbilts among them--were also members of the American Jockey Club.  The consolidation of clubhouses was, in fact, a convenience.

In 1873 Wood's Illustrated Hand-Book to New York advised "The New York Yacht Club is situated over the Jockey Club Rooms, on the corner of Twenty-seventh Street and Madison Avenue.  These rooms are beautifully fitted up, and contain a perfect museum of nautical curiosities, comprising some handsome pictures, and a complete set of models of all the yachts that have belonged to the club."

The Yacht Club's three rooms were, according to club historian Joseph Florimond Loubat in 1887, "comfortably and luxuriously furnished."  The reading, or "front room," overlooking Madison Avenue held magazines, newspapers and other light reading.  Here were the more than 120 yacht models.  The room behind that was furnished with sofas and writing tables, and the third room was the bar.  

In the meantime, the American Jockey Club offered what today might be called off-site betting in the Madison Avenue clubhouse.  On January 10, 1874 the New York Herald reported that "A betting book on the Belmont Stakes, to be run for at the spring meeting at Jerome Park, will be opened in a few days at the room of the American Jockey Club...Persons desirous of betting on any of the horses in the stakes will be accommodated in wagers ranging from $10 to $10,000."  That cap was a staggering amount--more than a quarter of a million dollars today.

A rush of bettors besieged the clubhouse as the running of the Belmont Stakes neared.  On June 13 The New York Herald announced "The attendance was very large at the rooms of the American Jockey Club in Madison avenue last evening, and the bidding was very spirited and excited.  The Belmont Stakes was the most important event of the evening, and it is said that $20,000 was put on this race last evening."

The club leased space to two other racing organizations as their city space by 1881.  The Coney Island Jockey Club's offices were in the basement and the Monmouth Park Association had its offices here.  By now August Belmont had taken over as the American Jockey Club's president.

The New York Yacht Club moved into its own quarters at No. 67 Madison Avenue in 1884.  Along with the yacht paintings and models, the members took along the black cat Sam, the club's de facto mascot.

Sam had wandered into the second floor rooms several years earlier while still a kitten.  The New York Times explained "In accordance with a popular superstition his advent under the circumstances was considered 'good luck,' and he was consequently made quite at home, and he remained there.  Sam soon became a general pet of the habitues, and never sought fresh pastures excepting, indeed, for a nocturnal gambol on the roof once in a while."

Sam earned his room and board.  "It is also to be said of him that, though well fed, he was an industrious ratter, and kept the building free from the ravages of the destructive rodent," said the article.

The cat was familiar with each member, welcoming them by "gracefully passing around their legs or sitting under their chairs."  He refused to sleep until the last of the member had left, no matter how late.

Relocating Sam was no easy task and it required trapping him in a bag.  Sam, like all cats, was a creature of habit and when he did not recognize his new surroundings, made a quick escape back to the old clubhouse.  But, "not finding his household gods there, [he] meekly returned to the place, and soon made himself at home."  Members were heart sick when he was found dead in his little bed two years later.

Newspapers took sides in the early 1890's when a bitter battle ensued between the New-York Jockey Club and the American Jockey Club.  One publication wrote that "the New-York Jockey Club was endeavoring to drive the American Jockey Club off the face of the earth" by holding its races on the same days as the Jerome Park events.

As Leonard Jerome had done, the New-York Jockey Club's president, John A. Morris, had constructed a magnificent track, Morris Park, in Westchester County.  The New-York Tribune said "He spent money there on the most lavish scale on the buildings and on the grounds."  

The newspaper reported in August 1893, "Mr. Morris brought about the destruction and dissolution of the American Jockey Club."  By scheduling the conflicting races, said the article, "he dealt the American Jockey club a death-blow."  The writer lamented "No other racing association ever formed in America has approached the American Jockey Club in the dignity, the substantial merit and the excellence of its membership."

The club hung on under the name of The Jockey Club and August Belmont continued as its president.  But New York State's outlawing of track betting in 1908 was a major blow.  That year the club moved into the Windsor Arcade on Fifth Avenue and the clubhouse was sold.  

On December 5 the Record & Guide reported that the Neptune Realty Co. paid $115,000 for the property; a significant $3.25 million today.  Within the year abutting properties were added to the site and in August 1909 plans for the Neptune Realty Building, designed by Maynicke & Franke, were announced.  The building survives.

Real Estate Record & Guide, August 21, 1909 (copyright expired)

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