Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Rise and Fall of New York's Private Clubs

From Curbed, NY:

[The interior of the Yale Club. Photo by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy of the New York Public Library.]

In 1915, the Yale Club opened a giant, 22-story facility on Vanderbilt Avenue—making it then, as now, the largest private club in the world. Celebrated at the time as a sign of Yale's dominance (both in the club world and over Harvard), the new clubhouse was the high water mark for such clubs in New York's business and social life. The 1902 edition of Club Men of New York detailed 38,000 memberships in 157 clubs, and it reads like a Who's Who of the city's elite, from well-known names like Vanderbilt, Astor, and Morgan to then-famous families who have all but faded from view. In terms of status, no club was more powerful than the city's first, the Union Club, founded in 1836. It, like the Yale Club and many other such organizations, still has an active membership roster today. But from the moment the Yale Club opened its doors a century ago, the role of these clubs for the city's power brokers began to wane.

Modern private social clubs (which are usually seen as distinct from fraternal organizations such as the Masons or the Revolutionary War-era Society of Cincinnati) trace their origins back to the coffeehouses of 17th-century London. Coffee was introduced to London society in 1652 and took the city by storm. Coffeehouses became the place to meet and discuss current events. Soon, coffeehouses took on distinct political affiliations (and branched out to serve more than coffee); Mrs. White's Chocolate House on Chesterfield Street became both a Tory bastion and—in a move to limit who could take part in the conversation—instituted a members-only policy. While coffeehouses continued to thrive in the 18th century (and were exported to New York, where Tontine's on Wall Street was central to city life and an early home of the New York Stock Exchange), establishments such as Mrs. White's—by the early 1700s shortened just to White's—began to dominate the social scene. Club life took off in London after the Napoleonic Wars and it wasn't long until New Yorkers began to see the appeal of a private club's exclusivity.
[Tontine Coffee House by Francis Guy. Image via Wikimedia Commons.]
In the summer of 1836, a number of leading New Yorkers, including ex-mayor Philip Hone, invited two hundred and fifty "gentlemen of social distinction" to join the new Union Club. As Hone noted in his diary, the club would "be similar in its plan and regulations to the great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society of the London metropolis." After offering admission to the initial cohort of 250, the club's membership would then be expanded to 400—large enough to accommodate enough socially distinct gentlemen while still remaining exclusive. It's intriguing (and, perhaps, not a coincidence) that 400 members not only became the standard for other city clubs, but also was the capacity of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor's ballroom in her Fifth Avenue mansion. Evidently, throughout the nineteenth century, the number of people in New York City worth knowing was capped at 400—the hard part was figuring out which ones....MUCH MORE