On The Avenue

The Metropolitan Club in 1977

Thursday, September 14, 2017

This article was originally published in the November 1977 issue of AVENUE. 

The idea of a city club, as almost everyone knows, is English by invention. New York clubs such as Union, Lotos, Cosmopolitan, Colony, Knickerbocker, Harmonie, Brook, River and Metropolitan would never have seen the light of day if Francisco Bianco had not started White’s in London and two Coldstream Guard officers had not invented the first “member club” in St. James’s.

The Metropolitan Club, housed behind decades-old wrought iron portals, is a classic club – very private and very confident. In the main dining room, plush with thick carpets and heavy brocaded curtains, the service is deliberate, and the diners – mostly men – seem relaxed and at home.

Downstairs in the West Lounge, with its muted tones of crimson, the old crystal chandeliers and hand-painted angels on the ceiling appear to imperiously ignore the cigar smoke wafting up from half-awake members staring absently, at passersby along Fifth Avenue.

Belying this luxurious tranquility, however, is a conspiracy of changing social values, financial pressures, perennial modernization, demanding labor unions and a transient membership, that threatens to end a graceful era – “The Club” as a way of life. As one worried club member puts it, “After going to the Metropolitan Club every day for nearly seventy years, I am becoming an endangered species.”

Indeed, the Metropolitan Club has been a haven and ritual for many since it was started by J. P. Morgan back in ’91 when, in a fit of rage because a candidate whom he had proposed for membership in the Union Club was black-balled, he summoned the famous architect Stanford White and reputedly said, “Build me a club fit for gentleman and damn the expense.”

According to Harold B. Hamilton, the club’s current president, “The Morgan anecdote is apocryphal, but it so befits his gigantic image that one overhears this fable being retold in the clubhouse constantly, with new details and flourishes added.”

Actually, the club’s founding was more prosaic. In February, 1891, William Watts Sherman invited the twenty-five gentleman, all well-known figures in the social and financial circles in the city, to dinner at the old Knickerbocker Club, then situated at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-first Street. After dinner, there was general agreement on the need for a new club and rules and by-laws were promptly drawn up. It was said that each guest immediately wrote out a check for twenty-five-thousand dollars, a substantial sum which was then turned into the treasury of the newly-conceived Metropolitan Club.

As a site for the clubhouse, the present lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixtieth Street was considered and found suitable. The property was part of the Hammersley Estate, owned by Lily, Duchess of Marlborough and widow of Louis Hammersley. She was married to the eighth Duke, who was Winston Churchill’s uncle.

Within the week, J. P. Morgan was invited to be the first president of the club. Cornelius Vanderbilt was dispatched to London, where he met the Duchess at the American Consulate and speedily arranged the property transfer. Stanford White designed the clubhouse and by February, 1894, the building was finished and completely furnished. The cost was one-million seven-hundred seventy dollars. So carefully had the money been spent that the young club was able to bank one-hundred seventy-thousand dollars and eight cents from the building fund.

When the clubhouse was opened for inspection by the press, everyone was amazed at the beauty and magnificence of this Italian-style palazzo. Harper’s magazine dubbed it the “Millionaire’s Club” and by many a wag it was called the “Common Wealth Club.”

The clubhouse was about the only building on the block, and perhaps the finest in the area, notwithstanding the original Plaza Hotel. However, its example of fine architecture was catching on in the neighborhood, and very soon the land facing Central Park above Sixtieth Street was becoming adorned by a number of magnificent palaces that looked as if they were built to last forever.

Next door to the club, where the Hotel Pierre now stands, a French castle was built by Eldridge Gerry. A well-known figure in New York society. “Commodore Gerry” was said to have his peculiarities” – one of which was wearing a sealskin cap at all times.

On the next block to the north was the red brick house of Mrs. Marcellius Hartley Dodge. In later days, its garden was maintained in perfect order although the owner had not lived there for forty years. The top floor of the house contained an air-conditioned dog kennel where Mrs. Dodge’s prize-winning dogs were kept during the dog show at Madison Square Garden. AT the end of the same block now stands the red brick Knickerbocker Club, formerly located on Thirty-first Street. At Sixty-fourth Street was the massive palace of E.J. Berwind, which is still standing.

Amid all the changes, the Metropolitan Club remains much as it was when it was completed in 1894. The rage for “palaces” may have long since passed away, but the clubhouse still stands in solitary grandeur, like a proud dowager, unchanged.

Noting with some sadness that times are indeed changing, Harold Hamilton, pausing to sip his vintage Pinot Noir in the Great Hall, recalls with some pride that the U.S. Steel Corporation was conceived “on our premises. The idea to merge thirty-night plants throughout the country into the greatest group ever created until that time was developed in the club library.

“Also,” Hamilton continues, “the negotiations which resulted in the creation of the great Northern Railroad by James Hill and E. H. Harriman were carried on in the West Lounge. So, the presence of many famous men – Phipps, Carnegie, Frick, Bessemer – was a very familiar sight around the clubhouse in those days. I remember an old member telling me that many years ago he actually saw the beetle-browed visage of John L. Lewis in the Main Bar as a guest, but he quickly added that this was after the death of Mr. Berwind, the coal baron, who would have died of apoplexy had he been alive to see Lewis here.

Charles Schwab was also a collaborator with Morgan, and was a familiar sight around the club in those days. Morgan himself used the club frequently, although irregularly. Sometimes he dined with a few intimates in the common restaurant, or, in the late afternoon, sat for a while at the ‘banker’s table.’ Almost as often, perhaps, he was host at a small affair in one of the private dining rooms.”

Hamilton notes that it was a tradition of the club at one time for all of the senior members to have their own chair. “It was something akin to squatter’s rights,” he explains. “If a new member occupied that wing chair for even an instant. A servant would rebuke the sunned occupant with, “Do you mind, sir, you are sitting in Mr. Morgan’s place!”

Maintaining this style of life can be difficult,” says one club spokesman. “It all comes down to competing for the member’s dollar. We have to attract him away from the St. Regis and the Biltmore. We have given the ladies virtually the run of the club, except the main bar, car and billiard rooms.” That, he emphasizes, “is still off-limits.”

To give the club greater flexibility, and to offset the gradual loss of members, the Metropolitan Club has a reciprocal arrangement with the Canadian and Union League Clubs of New York, and indirectly, with the Traveler’s Club in London.

Annual membership dues are eight-hundred dollars (five-hundred for women and two-hundred and forty for juniors), in addition to the initiation fee of five-hundred dollars. Thereafter, the costs are a little less than those at a good hotel, and a variety of gentlemanly services are available. There are six dining rooms, forty-nine well-appointed bedrooms, a health department, barber shop, valet services, limousines, guest privileges and various special events, not the least of which is the club’s very popular Sunday brunch which has a gourmet reputation, insists one club member, “that would bring tears to the eyes of many a neighborhood restaurant.”

And there is also the opportunity to rub shoulders with one’s fellow members, who include a number of diplomats, socialites and assorted magnates.

It has been said that the age of millionaires, as such, is over. The idea today is to stay afloat financially. In order to do this, the Metropolitan Club has taken a more liberal view of its perspective membership.

Still, it is not uncommon to see Mrs. Douglas MacArthur entertaining friends at her favorite corner table in the evenings. “Only last week,” Hamilton says, “one member held a cocktail party for about five-hundred people in our West Lounge and then transported them all in limousines to a concert at Carnegie Hall.

“It used to be,” according to an old clubhouse quip, “when a new member arrived to the club entrance and asked the doorman if it was alright to bring in his mistress.”

“Yes sir,” the doorman is supposed to have said, “But only if she’s the wife of a member.”


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