Friday, December 23, 2022

The Overwhelmingly Remodeled Lotos Club - 110 West 57th Street


The newly-built Lotos Club was a marvel of the brick workers' craft.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the The Brick Builder, 1909 (copyright expired)

The 19th century saw a variety of men's social clubs that reflected the interests of their well-to-do members.  Some were politically based, like the Union Club; others athletic, like the New York Yacht Club; and some scholarly, like The Century Association.  What they had in common was exclusivity, luxurious surroundings, and comfortable sleeping rooms.  The latter were used by out-of-town members or by local members whose townhomes were closed during the summer season.

On March 15, 1870 another club was formed--the Lotos Club.  Organized by a group of writers, critics and journalists, it was among the first literary clubs in the nation.  The men took its name from Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lotos Eaters," hoping to convey a sense of "rest and harmony" within the club.

In 1893 the club moved into a 50-foot-wide mansion at 556-558 Fifth Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets.  It sat within a neighborhood that saw drastic change at the turn of the century.  On November 17, 1906 the Record & Guide reported that the club had sold the property to Jacob Neadle as the site of a 16-story store and office building.  Four months later the journal reported that the club had purchased the Castleton apartment house at 110-114 West 57th Street.  "The club plans to renovate the entire building inside and out with all modern and up-to-date club conveniences," said the article.

It appears, however, that the club changed its mind, demolished the Castleton, and started from scratch.  Architect Donn Barber was commissioned to design the structure, which would turn heads.  While architectural critics described the style as Italian Renaissance, Barber was less quick to pigeon-hole it.  As he finished his plans in 1907, he told The New York Herald:

A hundred persons have asked me what the style of the architecture is and I cannot tell them.  It suggests the Florentine a little at the first story, but all the same the design is unlike anything else, for it grew from the special wants and the tastes of those for whom it is being built.

Completed in 1909, the tripartite design drew praise.  A bronze temple-like entrance sat within one of a series of arches of the rusticated stone base.  A full-width balcony introduced the mid-section, and another ran below the top level.  Barber's mention of Florentine influence could be seen in the several arcades, the noble cartouche above the second floor, and the ornate, double-height arches of the seventh and eighth floors.  The intricate, deeply overhanging cornice was polychromed with navy blue and deep orange.  But it was the exquisite "face brickwork" that caught the attention of critics.

The February 1909 issue of The Brickbuilder provided close-up views of the brickwork.  (copyright expired)

By using 16 different types and colors of brick, Barber created a tapestry effect.  Standing at a short distance, the brick formed Greek crosses, striped effects, and diamond patterns.  The Record & Guide, on October 2, 1909, wrote, "The brick pattern-work panels forming a frieze underneath the sixth floor balcony have a color combination of brownish gray, straw colored cream and white brick.  The spandrels of the arched panels are enriched with colored terra cotta and gray and white brick mosaics."  In its March 1909 issue, New York Architect said the brickwork had "the effect of an old timeworn ivory."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Members enjoyed the sumptuous amenities found within all high-end gentlemen's clubs.  There were several dining room aside from the main banquet hall, lounges, and sleeping rooms.

Passing through the marble vestibule (top), members entered the commodious foyer.  (Note the intricate leaded panels of the archway to the right.)  photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Because of the artistic bent of its members, there was a large picture gallery on the top floor, 30 by 70 feet with 22-foot high ceilings.  It would be the scene of frequent art exhibitions and an annual showing of members' art.  

The club's president, New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid, who was elected in 1872, initiated a tradition of hosting elaborate dinners in honor of a variety of distinguished persons.  On November 13, 1912, for instance, The New York Press reported, "Plans for President Taft's visit to New York Saturday and Sunday were announced to-night in the White House...On Saturday night he will attend the banquet of the Lotus Club in No. 110 West Fifty-seventh street."

The Front Parlor (top) and Middle Parlor.  photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Among the guests of honor the following year was Thomas Nelson Page, introduced as the "Bard of the South."  Page's name had been bandied about for the appointment as Ambassador of England or France.  In his remarks, he noted that being a man of letters had become acceptable within political circles.  "Literature is all right now.  It is all right when a man of letters is elected President of the United States," he said.

There was little--or no--scandal associated with the Lotos Club itself, however an incident in 1914 was decidedly awkward.  
Staying here that fall was William Angus Drogo Mantagu, the Duke of Manchester.  On September 7 he hired "private Pullman car accommodations" for himself and his entourage from the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad to take him from New York to Montreal and back.  The total accumulated costs were $1,341.49--about $37,500 in 2022.  The Duke went about his business, ignoring the bill for a month until he was served with papers within the Lotos Club on October 13.

The main dining room (top), and the "downstairs cafe." photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

An interesting banquet took place on December 1, 1915.  The New-York Tribune reported, "Baron Ei-ichi Shibusawa must have felt at home as the guest of honor at a dinner given by Dr. J. Takamine, the chemist, at the Lotos Club, 110 West Fifty-seventh Street, last night.  There were as many Japanese as American flags around the walls of the banquet hall, and right before the baron's eyes on the huge square table there arose a replica of scenery in the Island Kingdom."  The article noted that John D. Rockefeller, Jr. sat on the baron's left and "around the table was a group of financiers who are always mentioned when one attempts to estimate the wealth of the honored guest."

Member and former senator William A. Clark was chairman of the Lotos Club art committee in 1923, and as such superintended the arrangement of the paintings for the annual members' exhibition that February.  The Morning Telegraph mentioned that "nearly all of them [are] members of the National Academy."

Another interesting dinner was held on November 27, 1934 in honor of Jacob Doletzky, managing director of the Telegraph Agency of the U.S.S.R., known as the Tass Agency.  Among the other guest were Alexi Neymann, the Charge d'Affaires of the Soviet Embassy in Washington; Leonid M. Tolokonski, the New York Soviet Consul General; and numerous Soviet and American newspaper figures.

The doorman and coat room attendant await arriving members in the foyer hall.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Dinner topics sometimes turned to politics, as was the case on November 14, 1935.  That night former Director of the Budget, Lewis W. Douglas, slammed President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, calling it a "pattern of collectivism" and saying it "had repudiated everything for which American has always stood."  The New York Sun reported, "He declared that the result of the New Deal philosophy was the rewarding of the incompetent at the expense of the competent."

Over the years speakers at the dinners included former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, President Woodrow Wilson, writer and humorist Samuel Clemens; while honorees included W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, former President Ulysses S. Grant, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and opera star Enrico Caruso.

In 1945 the club purchased the former William Jay Schieffelin mansion at 5 East 66th Street.  Following renovations, the club moved into its new home on June 13, 1947.

The end of the line for Don Barber's striking Florentine-inspired design was on the horizon.  On April 16, 1950 The New York Times reported, "After having stood empty for several years awaiting a suitable tenant, the old home of the Lotos Club at 110 West fifty-seventh Street has been taken under a long lease for renovation as an office building and motion-picture theatre."  The article included a rendering by architect William I. Hohauser depicting the sweeping redesign.

The New York Times, April 16, 1950

The article noted, "Contracts have been made for the immediate rebuilding of the structure into six-story offices as well as a home for the Normandie Theatre."  Barber's magnificent, intricate brickwork front was stripped off, replaced by a sleek mid-century facade.

image via Google Maps

In 1966 the Directors Guild of America bought the building for its New York headquarters.  The group, a bargaining agent for television and film directors, still operates from the remodeled structure.

many thanks to reader Doug Wheeler for prompting this post
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  1. "Over the years speakers at the dinners included former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, President Woodrow Wilson, writer and humorist Samuel Clemens."

    Mark Twain spoke there? Aren't you burying one of the leads? When was this? What did he talk about?

    1. Interesting that you gave Twain prominence over David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson. Samuel Clemens joined the club in 1873, so he most likely spoke several times.

  2. OMG! From gorgeous to blandly banal!

  3. My grandfather was elected to the Lotos Club in 1930. I am glad finally to see photos of the clubhouse he knew - by the time the club moved to its present address in 1945 he had moved to Los Angeles and resigned from a club he did not expect to use in the future.
    It is of course superfluous to remark upon the ugliness of the original clubhouse's replacement, an example of the architectural tackiness which is now ubiquitous throughout our no longer civilised world.