On August 16, 1929 The New York Times reported on the "development of a new club for men interested in aviation." On the previous day the architectural firm of Cross & Cross had filed plans for a five-story clubhouse at Nos. 34 and 36 East 63rd Street to replace two upscale dwellings--one of them designed in 1901 by the mansion architect C. P. H. Gilbert. The article noted "John W. Cutler of the banking firm of Edward B. Smith & Co...was named as the owner, but it is understood that Mr. Cutler has associated with him several men prominent in aviation."
Indeed, the Hangar Club would be initially composed of "aviation executives, bankers and others interested in the financing and development of aviation," according to the newspaper a month later. Among them were some of the wealthiest men in the city, including stockbroker Hugh Baker; James G. Blaine, president of Fidelity Trust Company; W. A. Harriman; banker John Hay Whitney; and aviation heads like C. V. Whitney of the Aviation Corporation of America; F. B. Rentschler, president of United Aircraft & Transport Corporation; and G. B. Grosvenor, president of Aviation Corporation.
The choice of architects was not surprising. Eliot Cross was a member and governor of the new club. He and his brother, John Walter Cross, produced a dignified neo-Georgian style clubhouse that slipped quietly into the exclusive residential block. Centered in the rusticated limestone base, its arched doorway was sheltered by a columned portico. A three-story rounded bay terminated in exquisite iron railings.
The upper stories were clad in Flemish-bond brick and trimmed in stone. The keystone of the tall, central window of the second floor was carved with the face of Mercury, the wing-footed Roman god and emblem of the club. That window was crowned by a triangular pediment. The fifth floor took the form of a slate-shingled mansard.
When construction was completed in 1930 its cost was $200,000--over $3 million today. Despite the stock market crash on October 24, 1929, just after ground had been broken, the millionaire members forged on with the expensive furnishings in keeping with the 18th century architecture.
|photo by Wurts Bros, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The original 200 members enjoyed what The Times called "all the comforts of a well-appointed home." The first floor contained cloak, shower and lounge rooms. On the second floor were a large lounge at the front of the building and a game room and bar at the rear. Prohibition would not end for another three years so the paneling of the bar room cleverly hid lockable cubicles "in which members could keep their individual liquor supply," said The Times years later.
A large dining room and two private dining rooms took up the third floor. Four "attractively appointed bedrooms" for out-of-town members were on the fourth, and servants' quarters filled the top floor.
The club was furnished with 18th century English furniture and modern reproductions. Two antique Hepplewhite mahogany wheel-back armchairs owned by the club were copied for the 72 dining rooms chairs. There were several antique Sheraton pieces, including a sideboard. The silver-plated flatware and serving pieces were inscribed with the head of Mercury. The candelabra were not plated, but were sterling silver.
The Hangar Club quickly became a favorite of publishers and writers, as well. On October 19, 1931 syndicated columnist Charles Hanson Towne reported on a luncheon given by Nelson Doubleday for H. G. Wells to which he had been invited. "It was at the Hanger Club, of which I had never even heard of, so rapidly do new organizations spring up in New York," he said. At the event Doubleday told Towne "that Maugham's Of Human Bondage goes right on selling." William Somerset Maugham was also a Hangar Club member.
Soon men of politics and civic positions joined the initial group. During his run for governor of New York in October 1934 reporters caught Robert Moses on the sidewalk after his breakfast in the club. Although he lost the election, he is forever remembered for his massive public works.
The dining room was often the scene of political and business luncheons. A somewhat surprising event was the luncheon for the film trade press hosted by Earle G. Hines, president of General Theaters Equipment Corp. on April 15, 1938. The Film Daily reported that he used the event to announce the release of the new "Four Star Simplex Sound System."
It was emblematic of the changes within the Hangar Club. By now the fervor over airplanes had calmed and social clubs based on aviation were losing momentum. Within a year of that luncheon the club had disbanded.
A two-day auction on October 22 and 23, 1941 liquidated the furnishings. Along with the leather club furniture, according to The Sun, were "the club's complete Reed & Barton silver-plated table service, aeronautical prints, books, table linens, Oriental rugs and lamps, mantel clocks, small bronze and marble busts, paintings and hearth fittings."
Along with the 18th century antiques, the 72 dining rooms chairs were sold in lots of six and twelve. Included in the silverware were six tea services. The New York Times mentioned "Some of this silverware has not been removed from its original packages."
In reporting on the upcoming sale of the "luxurious furnishings," The Times explained "Within a short time this five-story brick and stone structure, which formerly housed a club of wealthy New Yorkers, will take on the austere simplicity of a religious institution devoted to teaching girls and will be known as The Assisium."
The clubhouse had been purchased by the Missionary Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis as a business school for girls. Renovations completed in 1941 resulted in offices, a lounge and one classroom on the first floor. The second floor barroom ironically made way for a chapel and two classrooms. There were now classrooms and the dining room on the third, and bedrooms on the top two floors for the nuns.
The Assisium Secretarial School remained in the building into the 1980's when it was closed by the Archdiocese. It became home to a variety of offices before being sold in 2003 for just under $20 million and converted to a private residence.
photographs by the author