Monday, July 3, 2023

The Lost Rehearsal Club -- 45-47 West 53rd Street


Aspiring actresses, dancers and singers pose on the stoop of the Rehearsal Club.  image via The Daily Mail.

In 1878 real estate developer Jacob B. Tallman completed a row of high-end homes on the north side of 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Their neo-Grec design was on the cutting edge of domestic architectural taste.  Four stories tall and 21-feet-wide, the high-stooped residences were intended for well-heeled families.

In April, Tallman sold 45 West 53rd Street to Jessie Baldwin, and No. 47 to Charles H. Lowerre.  The families paid $22,500 for the homes, or about $630,000 in 2023.  Before long both homes were resold--45 West 53rd Street to Jeannettie Anderson Giles and 47 to Robert Carter.

Jeannettie A. Giles was the wealthy widow of John S. Giles.  Living with her were her three daughters, Jessie Louise, Florence and Margaret.  Her next door neighbor, Robert Carter, was the head of the publishing firm Carter & Brothers.  He and his wife Jane had four adult children, Robert, Peter, Rev. Thomas Carter, and Anne, who had married Rev. Israel Williams Cochran in 1868.

The first of the Giles daughters to marry was Jessie Louise.  Her wedding to Cuyler Van Vechten was held in St. Bartholomew's Church on November 19, 1884.  Guests came to the 45 West 53rd Street afterward, the New-York Tribune  mentioning, "The parlors were profusely decorated with palms and flowering plants."

Anne and Israel Cochran were living in Mendhan, New Jersey at the time.  Rev. Cochran was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church there.  In 1885 the family (the Cochrans had 11 children) went "to Minnesota for the benefit of his health," according to the New-York Tribune.  But the 44-year-old pastor was seriously ill.  The newspaper said, "it was not until they found he was beyond recovery that his congregation agreed to accept his resignation."

Rev. I. Williams Cochran and Anna Carter Cochran.  (original source unknown)

No. 47 West 53rd Street suddenly became more crowded.  The Cochran family moved in with Anna's parents.  Rev. Cochran died there on February 15, 1887, and his funeral was held in the drawing room two days later.

The would soon be another funeral in the house.  Jane Carter died at the family's summer home in Centerport, Long Island on July 19.  Her funeral was held here on July 21.

Robert Carter died at the age of 82 on December 27, 1889.  His estate sold 47 West 53rd Street to Dr. William Warner Hoppin, Jr. the following May for the equivalent of $1.3 million in 2023.  The well-educated Hoppin had graduated from Brown University in 1861, from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1864, and from Columbia Law School in 1869.  He was one of the Secretaries of the 1861 Peace Conference in Washington, and during the Civil War he served as an Assistant Surgeon.

He and his wife, the former Katharine Beekman, had five children.  The family would remain in the house for decades, and it would be the venue of social events like debutante entertainments and wedding receptions.  The Hoppins were still here in 1922 when son Beekman Hoppin gave a lavish dinner at Pierre's for Mrs. Willard D. Straight on May 5.

In the meantime, following Jeannettie Giles's death, 45 West 53rd Street was sold at auction on April 14, 1909.  It was purchased by Dr. Pearce Bailey, a well-known alienist (or what today is known as a psychiatrist).  He initially leased it to Frederick Kingsbury Bull, a broker who had graduated from Yale University three years earlier.

Bull brought unwanted publicity to the block in March 1911 after neighbors complained to police that he was appearing nude in a rear window and making "Adamlike poses."  Police watched the house from a rear window on 54th Street "for half an hour and what they saw induced them to get the warrant," reported The Sun.  Despite the scandal, Bailey renewed Bull's lease in 1916.

Pearce Bailey served in World War I with the rank of colonel with the Army Medical Corps.  He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work.  After the war, he moved into 45 West 53rd Street.  He died of pneumonia in the house on February 11, 1922 at the age of 57.  In reporting his death, The New York Times called him, "one of the best known neurologists in America" and recalled that he "arranged the psychiatric tests used in the draft armies during the war to weed out the unfit."

Nine years earlier, Mary Harriss Hall, an Episcopalian deaconess, had founded the Rehearsal Club.  It provided affordable and safe housing to aspiring actresses, dancers and singers who hoped for success in the theater.  In 1926, the club acquired 45 and 47 West 53rd Street with significant help from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  The houses were modernized and remodeled to accommodate its new purpose.  The stoop of 45 West 53rd Street was removed and the neo-Grec lintels of both shaved off. 

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The Broadway community helped the club get on its feet in its new home.  On November 8, 1926, The New York Times reported, "Proceeds from the performance of 'Oh, Kay' at the Imperial Theatre on Dec. 1 will be devoted to the work of the Rehearsal Club, 47 West Fifty-third Street.  Miss Gertrude Lawrence appears in the play, which opens tonight."  The article explained, "the Rehearsal Club is a home for young women of the theatrical profession.  It has been necessary to enlarge the quarters."

The fame of the Rehearsal Club was such that it inspired the 1936 play Stage Door by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman.  Interestingly, Margaret Sullavan, who starred in it, was living in the Rehearsal Club when the play opened.

Among the residents during the war years was actress and singer Phyllis Jeanne Creore.  Decades later, on April 7, 2013, Corey Kilgannon of The New York Times recalled, "Every Friday evening over NBC radio airwaves--or short-wave overseas--homesick troops during World War II were told to 'drop in at the canteen' for comforting chat and songs by a pretty, young actress named Phyllis Jeanne Creore."  She opened every program saying, "Here is your Canteen girl, Phyllis Jeanne," and then sang the self-written song "This is My Wish."  Jeanne told Kilgannon that among the other actresses living in the Rehearsal Club at the time were Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, and Ginger Rogers.

A depiction of the club in the Saturday Evening Post on September 20, 1947 noted "Waiting list: endless."  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1954 Carol Burnett moved into the club.  In his 1988 biography of Burnett, Laughing Till It Hurts, J. Randy Tarborrelli noted, "Former residents included Jo Van Fleet, Martha Scott, Shirley Booth, and Jayne and Audrey Meadows."  He wrote:

The fifty or so girls living there when Carol moved in were a lively bunch; all seemed to be in a perpetual state of frenzy, preparing for "the big audition" and poring over trade publications daily in search of "the big break."  Carol was totally and happily absorbed in this new environment in no time; these people had dreams, they had goals.  Now, if they only had jobs...

In 1978, Evan Robertson of The New York Times described the Rehearsal Club as a "safe, friendly place where everybody has the same ambitions you do.  They show you the ropes, for $55 a week you've got room and two good meals a day and you're within walking distance of every casting director and agent in town."  At the time of the article, however, the club was seriously threatened.

A court ruling in December revoked the club's tax-exempt status, resulting in an annual real estate tax of about $30,000 per year.  The club's attorney, Isaac Sherman, called it a "financial disaster."  In reporting on the situation on December 14, 1978, The New York Times added to the long list of former celebrity residents with names including Martha Scott, Phyllis Thaxter, Sandy Duncan, and Ruth Hussey.

A few weeks later, on January 25, 1979, The New York Times announced the the Rehearsal Club's board "will close the club in June rather than fight the city over the loss of its property-tax exemption."  Ironically, a revival of Stage Door--the play based on the club--was in rehearsals at the time.

The two venerable rowhouses-turned-residential club were purchased by the American Folk Art Museum, which had operated from rented space next door.  The buildings were eventually demolished for the new museum building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which opened in 2001.

As a footnote, the Rehearsal Club was reincarnated in 2003 within the former Webster Apartments on West 34th Street. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. I don't know whether Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball or Ginger Rogers were ever residents of the Rehearsal Club, but all were memorable denizens of its cinematic counterpart, the Footlights Club, in the film version of Stage Door.

    1. You'd have to take that up with Phyllis Jeanne Creore. It was she who remembered living here with them.