Monday, January 4, 2021

The Lost Criterion Club - 683 Fifth Avenue


On either side of the club are the Charles H. Harkness house, on the corner of 54th St., and the home of Levi P. Morton to the right.  image via  Collins' 'Both Sides of Fifth Avenue'  1910 (copyright expired)

In January 1903 The Criterion Club purchased the former home of H. Victor Newcomb at No. 683 Fifth Avenue, just south of 54th Street.  It paid $250,000 for the property, or just under $7.5 million in today's money.  Despite the staggering price, the club had succeeded in major downward negotiations.  The New York Times reported "It is said to be valued at about $350,000."

At the time the Criterion Club was renting the mansion at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street.  It demolished the Newcomb house and in May the architectural firm of Lowinson & Eisendrath filed plans for a five-story "American basement building" on the 30-foot wide plot.  The Real Estate Record & Guide reported on the lavish plans.  "It is in the style of the French Renaissance.  The entrance is marked by a marble portico extending through two stories, each of the four supporting columns being of one solid piece of marble."

By the time construction was completed the structure had grown from five to six stories.  Its façade of red Roman brick was trimmed in marble and limestone.  There were two limestone balconies, one at the third and the other at the fifth floor.  The top floor took the form of a mansard faced in Spanish tiles.  Construction had cost the equivalent of just under $2.4 million today.

The Record & Guide called the interiors "elaborate."  Marble columns and wainscoting decorated the ground floor and the basement level.  There were reception rooms in the basement while the first floor held the "parlor, staircase foyer, café, and dining room."  On the second floor were the library and "various amusement rooms."  Those would include a card room, smoking room, and such.  The billiard rooms were located on the third floor and on the fourth were the gymnasium, Turkish bath and members' rooms.

Beautifully veined marble columns and wainscoting set the exclusive tone of the entrance hall.  The Architectural Record, February 1905 (copyright expired)

The Criterion Club was a prestigious Jewish men's club, lesser known than the Harmonie and the Progress Clubs.  As the sons of Manhattan millionaires grew to manhood, membership in at least one—but preferably several—of the exclusive men’s clubs was expected.  Passing the rigid selection process proved one's good breeding and social status, but most of all money.  None of those qualifications mattered much, however, if the candidate were Jewish.

Manhattan society was, for the most part, made up of Episcopalians with some ultra-wealthy Roman Catholics tolerated.  Despite the staggering wealth of some Jewish families, only a handful of Jews would manage to obtain memberships in the highly-exclusive Union or Metropolitan Club, for instance.  And so they established their own private club.

Members may have hoped that their lavish new home might deflect attention from the scandal the club had recently suffered.  On September 1, 1903 The Standard Union reported that the club had paid $1,880.17 in a case filed by the State Excise Commission.  It claimed that the Criterion Club had conducted a "'fake club,' permitting the premises to become the resort of disorderly persons, and selling liquors during the hours in which their sale is prohibited."

The Criterion Club was, by no means, a "fake club" nor were its members disorderly--especially in the sense that the word was used in 1903.  Nevertheless, the club was guilty of selling liquor on Sunday.

The bad press was unusual for the club, whose members came and went without drawing any attention.  While other upscale social clubs announced receptions, testimonial dinners and other events in the newspapers, the Criterion Club kept its activities private.  It rarely appeared in newspapers, most of which regularly ran a "club" column.

The Architectural Record, February 1905 (copyright expired)

An exception was Louis J. Weil, president of the Union Exchange National Bank of New York.  A bachelor, he lived in one of the upper floor "members' rooms."  Weil died on August 31, 1919.  When his will was read three months later, eyebrows were raised--especially those of his close family members.  He had left expected benefactions to charities--$5,000 to Mt. Sinai Hospital "to found a bed in memory of his father;" $1,000 each to the Children's Aid Society and the Hebrew Benevolent Society; and $500 each to the Montefiore Home for Chronic Invalids and the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews.  But one bequest caught the attention of The Sun, which reported, "Nellie J. Sexton...received $50,000, to be paid to her three months after the decedent's death."  The gift would be worth more than three-quarters of a million in today's dollars.  Nellie Sexton had to fight for her inheritance.  The family went to court in 1920, eventually overturning the terms of the will.

With the Fifth Avenue district becoming increasingly commercial, the Criterion Club left its handsome home in 1925.  On January 22, 1926 the New York Evening Post reported, "The Fifth Avenue Club, replacing the Criterion Club, opens its doors tomorrow night with 'The Fifth Avenue Follies," with Cecil Cunningham and her entertainers."

Impresario and showman Billy Rose had hired the architectural firm of Cohen & Siegel to transform the second floor to an upscale theater-restaurant.  The renovations cost him $50,000.  Rose had obtained major financial backing from Jewish millionaires--possibly Criterion Club members--including banker Maurice Wertheim and Samuel Untermyer.  

Patrons, dressed in evening wear, were charged $5 at the door (nearly $75 today) for an evening of Broadway-type entertainment.  In his 2018 book Not Bad for Delancey Street, The Rise of Bill Rose, Mark Cohen mentions, "An important introduction was to the jazz saxophonist Roger Wolfe Kahn, son of the millionaire banker Otto Kahn."

The venture was short-lived.  On November 26, 1926 The Yonkers Statesman announced, "Jane Gray's 'Club Caravan' that was such a success last year in the 'Village' has moved uptown to 683 Fifth Avenue on the site of the old Fifth Avenue Club."  The article said, "This rendezvous, probably one of the most attractive in Manhattan, boasts of two rooms rather than the conventional one.  In the smaller are a few tables and chairs and loads and loads of cushions.  It is here that couples stray after the show, and chat between cigarettes."

New York Evening Post, December 30, 1926.

The larger venue, said the article, included a dance floor.  It added, "another reason why this club is fast becoming the Mecca for night club habitués is is because of proximity to the theatre district.  There is a distinct air of refinement about the 'Club Caravan' that is sure of charm and Jerry's Caravan Orchestra renders music so contagious it is an inspiration even to the poorest dancer."

The club's popularity was not enough to outweigh the value of the property it sat on.  In 1927 the building was demolished, replaced by a 13-story office building designed by Frank E. Vitolo.  It was later joined internally with No. 683 Fifth Avenue and Vitolo's handsome façade remodeled to match its next-door-neighbor.

Erased today, the façade of the replacement building survived about 20 years.  photo by Arthur Vitols, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York


  1. How interesting that the design of the top floor of the replacement building clearly referenced the design of the top floor of the club house. Marvelous post. I remain in awe that you turn these out daily.

    1. Thanks. When I started out I thought I would run out of material in about a year. Boy, was I wrong!

    2. "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."