Monday, November 18, 2019

The Lost Harmonie Club - 43-45 West 42nd Street

The garden to the right would be filled with an extension of the club, for its members' wives.  King's Handbook of New York City 1893 (copyright expired)

Wealth could not buy Jewish New Yorkers membership into the exclusive social clubs in the mid-19th century.  And so they formed their own.  The Harmonie Club was established on Grand Street on the Lower East Side in 1852.  A few years later it moved to No. 141 8th Street; and then in 1865 began construction of its lavish clubhouse on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  The site looked upon the large park behind the Croton Reservoir where the Crystal Palace had stood only a few years earlier.

The 104-foot wide plot was leased for 21-years from Robert J. Livingston with the option for two renewals of the same length.  Henry Fernbach was commissioned to design the clubhouse.  A Prussian Jew, he had trained at the Bauakademie in Berlin and was best known for his synagogue designs.

His massive stone structure took inspiration from the French Second Empire style sweeping Paris.  A high, wide stone staircase flanked by cast iron lamp posts rose to the porticoed entrance.   Italian Renaissance pediments capped the openings of the second floor and the fourth floor took the form of a tall mansard roof.  The New-York Tribune said "It is entered by a broad staircase, and is of solid construction, as well as offering a general appearance of comfort and repose."

Fernbach did not use the entire plot, leaving 2o feet to the side for a garden.  "A high stone wall, with gate in the centre, guards this space.  Looking from the street over the wall one may see the top of a tent.  This is the roof of the summer-garden which the club has established here, and where the members, their families and friends may find recreation on warm summer nights," explained the Tribune.

The membership of the club (described by the New-York Tribune as "one of the most select Hebrew clubs here") was capped at 400.  The initiation fee was $100 (a little more than $1,500 today) and the annual dues the same amount.

As with other men's clubs, the Harmonie Club was a male-only domain.  But women got a glimpse inside the lavish interiors four times a year.  

On November 25, 1886 The New York Times reported "The Harmonie Club threw open the doors of its capacious and handsome clubhouse, Nos. 43 and 45 West Forty-second-street, last evening to the wives, sisters, cousins, aunts, and other feminine relatives of its members, for the first of the customary four entertainments which are annually given to them."

This one took the form of an art exhibition followed by a supper and dance.  "The Harmonie Club possesses a remarkably roomy house, one of its apartments being a spacious ballroom.  It is in this that the unusually interesting loan collection is exhibited," said the article.

A potential member's acceptance into the best clubs required voting on the part of the members.  In some clubs it was done semi-anonymously but dropping either a white or a black ball into a ballot box.  The Harmonie Club's procedure was much more public.

On October 7, 1888 the members discussed the possible membership of Otto J. Lang.  Henry Newman made his opposition clear, calling Lang "a thief and a scoundrel."  Lang was not made a member and three days later his lawyers slapped Newman with a civil suit for $25,000 damages for slander--nearly three quarters of a million dollars today.

Newman's defense was interesting.  The New York Times on January 25, 1889 reported "He admits that he used the words alleged in the complaint, but denies that they were spoken maliciously."  He explained "it is the duty of members to express opinions to fellow-members of the character of candidates, so as to exclude such persons as they think ought not to be admitted."  He said he used the words "thief" and "scoundrel" without malice; but because he knew them to be true and important information for the other members.  The court now had to weight freedom of speech against slander.

In 1892 King's Handbook of New York City described the Harmonie Club as "the most homelike in jealous regard for privacy of clubs.  An ancient and honored institution of the German colony of New York, an aristocratic club, with the characteristic that the members attend it with their wives, if they please, reputed to be very wealthy, and one of the most delightful of social circles, it seldom permits itself to appear in the printed newspapers."

The description overstated women's access to the club.  And there was a growing problem with space.  Since the opening of the new clubhouse there had been three increases of membership--each of 50--so that now there were 550 members.  The situation seemed to have reached the breaking point when in 1896 The Menorah: A Monthly Magazine for the Jewish Home reported "The Harmonie Club, which for thirty years and more has had its home at 45 West Forty-second Street, new York City, is getting ready to remove to a site further uptown."

The New-York Tribune, on May 4, explained "the leading members say that it is not so much the inroads of business interests into the street that has influenced them in their determination to go elsewhere as it is the need of more commodious quarters.  Where these are to be chosen is not yet known."

But then a less costly solution was hit upon: extending the structure into the garden plot.  It was a plan that would cause much less upheaval and could now include women as well.  On July 8, 1897 Engineering News reported that "The Harmonie Club, 45 West 42d St., expects to erect a woman's club-house as an addition to its present building, on an adjoining lot."  Extension renovations of the main clubhouse were planned as well.

The following month the New-York Tribune reported that plans had been filed by Herts, Tallant & Newton.  "A three-story stone to be built on the side of the house," it said, costing $1.25 million in today's dollars.

The addition and the renovations to the original building were completed in June 1898.  By then the construction costs had risen to $85,000, more than twice the original estimate.  The newspaper described the improvements in an article that engulfed nearly a full page.  

Where the garden had been was now "an annex for the use of women and a conservatory of unique design."  On the first floor were a reception room, coat and reading rooms.  The women had their own dining room, of course.  It was one-and-a-half stories tall and included a music gallery.  A staircase led to the conservatory above.

The remodeled main building now contained a German-style grillroom with heavy wooden tables and antique chairs.  The Tribune said "on the same floor are a bicycle-room and dressing-rooms."   At the head of the staircase on the second floor was a "lofty room" that stretched the width of the building.  It contained six billiard tables.  That floor also housed the dining room and a lounging room.  They were configured so they could be opened into one large space.

A beamed ceiling, green leather upholstery and antique furniture gave the Grillroom an air of an old German space. New-York Tribune, June 19, 1898 (copyright expired) 

"The most pretentious part of the club is the third floor with its large ballroom and music-room, forty feet high, sixty feet wide and eighty feet long."  The stage was outfitted with the latest in "mechanical contrivances."  The musician's gallery in the Renaissance-style ballroom was supported by four caryatids representing characters from Wagnerian operas.  The wall frescoes represented the arts:  Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Harmony, Counterpoint, Comedy, Drama, Farce, and others.  The two expansive ceiling paintings depicted Morning and Evening and the central dome painting was the "Genius of Harmony."

The chair on the floor gives perspective to the size of the musicians gallery and a supporting caryatid in the ballroom.  New-York Tribune, June 19, 1898 (copyright expired)
The conservatory could be accessed from the ballroom, as well.  It was designed so it could be joined with the ballroom when occasions demanded.  A fascinating aspect of the conservatory, with its vast expanses of glass, was the cooling system.

The glass ceiling of the conservatory was water-cooled.   The doorway to the left opened onto the ballroom.  The stairway at right leads down to the ladies' dining room.  Munsey's Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired)
Large tanks held water which was forced over the glass roof.  "The water from the sprays runs over the roof and down into the tanks at the sides, then the water is forced up from the cellar to the roof;  the same water, after being cooled, is used over and over again, thus cooling the atmosphere of the conservatory," explained the Tribune.

A postcard depicted the renovations including the addition with its striking rooftop conservatory.  Note that the entrance staircase has been removed.  
But now with a membership of 600 the expanded clubhouse would not suffice for long.  In its October 1902 issue the Building Trades Association Bulletin announced "The Building Committee of the Harmonie Club, of No. 45 West Forty-second street, will meet soon to consider the matter of getting a new home."  Three months later, on January 31, 1903, the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide announced "The Harmonie Club...will erect a 7-sty clubhouse to cost about $400,000...on the south side of 60th st." just east of Fifth Avenue.

In the summer of 1899 canvas awnings shielded the interiors from the heat of the sun, including a massive awning over the conservatory. Munsey's Magazine, October 1899 (copyright expired) 
McKim, Mead & White designed the new building, construction of which was well under way in the fall of 1904.  The Harmonie Club abandoned its home of four decades in December the following year.

The venerable 42nd Street clubhouse was converted for business purposes.  For several years James Fay ran his upscale antique furniture shop here, selling early American pieces and artworks.

New-York Tribune, January 10, 1909 (copyright expired)

Then in March 1912 Stern Bros. department store announced plans to erect its massive new $1.5 million store engulfing Nos. 29 through 45 West 42nd Street, through the block to 43rd Street.   Today the site of the Harmonie Club is occupied by the 1974 W. R. Grace Building, designed principally by Gordon Bunshaft.

  photo by WestportWiki


  1. Don't keep us in suspense! What happened to the club after they moved to 60th Street?

    1. It still operates within the McKim, Mead & White building. See here: