Friday, August 11, 2023

The 1906 Engineers' Club Building - 32-34 West 40th Street


photograph by Epicgenius

Exclusive men's social clubs like the Union Club were formed in the first decades of the 19th century.  By the third quarter of the century, social clubs restricted to professions and interests were established--like The Players, for actors; and the Salmagundi Club for artists.  In 1888 The Engineers' Club was founded, the first purely social group organized specifically for engineers.  The group initially leased a mansion at 374 Fifth Avenue in Midtown for its clubhouse.

Then, on February 14, 1903, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that William M. Martin had sold the Engineers' Club the two five-story, high-stooped houses at 32 and 34 West 40th Street.  The article explained, "a new clubhouse will be built on the site."  The club was being astonishingly proactive--their lease on the Fifth Avenue house would not expire for another four years.

As was common, the club initiated a competition for the design.  Esteemed firms like Clinton & Russell and Carrère & Hastings (whose masterful New York Public Library was under construction) were surprisingly edged out by the fledgling firm of Whitfield & King, composed of Henry D. Whitfield and Beverly S. King.  (Perhaps not coincidentally, Henry Whitfield was the brother of Andrew Carnegie's wife, Louise.  Carnegie had guaranteed half of the $900,000 construction cost.)

On September 10, 1904, the Record & Guide reported that the firm expected their plans to be completed within a month, and that the old dwellings were currently being demolished.  The article said, "The building will cover the entire space with the exception of a court on the west side.  It will be 12 stories with a basement and sub-basement."  Directly behind, on 39th Street, the United Engineering Building would go up simultaneously.  "Both structures are expected to be finished early in 1906," said the article.

The Engineers' Club would be one of three high-end clubhouses on the block, the others being the Republican Club at 54 West 40th Street, and the New York Club at 20 West 40th.  The cornerstone of the Engineers' Club building was laid on December 23, 1905 by Carnegie's wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, and the structure was completed within the year.

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

The building had gone over budget, costing $550,000 to construct.  Including furnishings, the outlay was close to $870,000--more than $29 million in 2023 terms.  

Whitfield & King's neo-Renaissance tri-partite design included a three-story marble base, with dignified double-height fluted pilasters at the second and third floors.  The seven-story mid-section was faced in red brick, its windows sitting within stone architrave frames.  The two-story top section was fronted by a balustraded stone balcony.  Engaged columns separated the arched windows of the eleventh floor, and a pierced stone parapet crowned the cornice.

The massive arched windows of the eleventh floor provided stunning views from the 300-seat dining room, which engulfed the entire floor.  The second floor held the main club room and library.  There were 66 bedrooms for members, a few of whom would live here permanently, like Robert Stafford Towne, president and director of the Mexican Northern Railway, the Alvarez Land and Timber Company, and the Bubble-Column Corporation.  The formal dedication of the clubhouse was not held until December 1907, during which  Mark Twain was the principal speaker.

Two views of the Dining Room.  photos by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The clubhouse was the scene of meetings, lectures and testimonial dinners.  On August 21, 1922, for instance, engineer Calvin W. Rice was honored with a dinner before leaving for Rio de Janeiro to represent American engineering societies at the Engineering Congress.  The New York Herald reported, "The guests included engineers, scientists and educators from all parts of the country."

Other groups, like the Mining Society and the American Institute of Steel Construction met within the building.  On June 24, 1938 the latter held a dinner to present its annual awards.  Its jury of engineers and architects awarded first prize that year to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Similarly, the Radio Club of America held its annual awards banquet in the Engineers' Club.  On November 11, 1942 the recipient of its yearly medal was Harry William Houck, recognized for his "outstanding contributions to the radio art."

In July 1971, gunned men made off with $1,000 from the club's lobby cash register.  Four months later, on November 6, another robbery occurred.  Its tragic coincidence of timing ended the life of a member.  Two policemen, Ralph Hayes and Joseph Nuovo, entered the lobby around 11:15 to use the restroom.  Fifteen minutes later, member Mario Sereni started across the lobby heading home.  Just then, two armed men entered and held the bellman at gunpoint while they rifled the cash register.  

Officers Hayes and Nuovo exited the men's room to find themselves in the middle of an armed robbery.  The New York Times reported, "A chase ensued, and the robbers ran into the street.  There were several bullet holes in the glass-paneled entrance to the club...Mr. Sereni, who was leaving the club, was shot several times in the chest."  The suspects and their get-away driver were arrested later.  Sereni died on the site.

Eight years later the Engineers' Club left its lavish clubhouse for good, selling the property to developer David Eshagin.  He hired architect Seymour Churgin to renovate the building into apartments.  Churgin managed to preserve some of Whitfield & King's sumptuous interior details, like the wide marble stair hall, some of the paneling, and at least one original mantelpiece.  Called The Columns, the building was converted to a co-operative in 1983.

The structure underwent a $350,000 restoration, completed in 1995.  Among other repairs, the architectural firm Midtown Preservation reproduced the crumbling cornice and the damaged marble with fiberglass replicas.  The reproductions are indistinguishable from the street from the original materials.

non-credited photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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