Heritage

New York at the Time of The River Club's Foundation

The beginning of the 1930’s, when the River Club was germinating in its founders' minds, was a delicate moment in the history of New York and the nation. The president was Herbert Hoover, who started brilliantly but later lost his way, polio-crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the governor of New York and soon to go on to greater things, and the City’s mayor was the charismatic but flawed James "Jimmy" Walker. With no elections or wars imminent, New York had a settled feel. The decade known as the "Roaring Twenties" was coming to an end, and with its demise much would change. Although no one knew it at the time, the country was roughly mid-way between two world wars. It had also recently suffered a catastrophe. On "Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929, the stock market spectacularly crashed and thereafter-shocks began to ripple through the economy and society, Depression, as a personal affliction, was well known.  Soon it was a word on everyone's lips, depicting a persistent and debilitating national malaise never experienced before and, as the country sagged beneath its weight, it became the Great Depression.
 
Yet, as the new decade opened, New York was bursting with energy. Factories were working at full capacity, the port was teeming with ocean liners, oil tankers and freighters, and the streets were choked with automobiles and exhaust smoke, New buildings were reaching for the heavens. Work had begun on the Rockefeller Center; the lovely Chrysler skyscraper, the City’s architectural standard-bearer of the Art Deco movement, was ready in 1930; and the Empire State Building, the world’s tallest building at the time, was finished in 1931. The George Washington bridge, boasting the longest suspended span in the world (3,500 feet), opened for business in the same year.

Prohibition was still in force, though mightily breached, having failed to dampen the human spirit of Scott Fitzgerald’s "Jazz Age." Great practitioners of that music (Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, and many others) had settled in Harlem at wildly popular places like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, where the Lindy Hop was all the rage, while the Charleston and its flapper practitioners reigned further downtown. It was the golden age of American illustration with J. C. Leyendecker’s svelte and polished images on the Arrow shirt advertisements and Norman Rockwell’s folksy, exquisitely wrought pictures on the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. Women's skirts were virtually waist-less and short, their chests flat, and their hats cloche-like; the men favored pencil-thin mustaches, slicked back hair, and paid much attention to their grooming and to their wardrobes. Both sexes wore hats and smoked heavily, publicly, and elegantly, with long, slender cigarette-holders being the favored accessory. With summer approaching, the City had three baseball teams the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Giants hitting their stride with great sluggers like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig flexing their batting muscles to the delight of the fans.
 
  

 

History of The River Club

The River Club and River House were much in the news during the spring of 1930. On April 30, the New York Times ran a story headlined "Noted New Yorkers Organize River Club," announcing that the new club had obtained its charter in Albany the day before. "Many prominent men and women of New York City are members," the article stated. The club would be occupying "quarters" in a new cooperative apartment that was to be built on the East River. The club’s investment in its future premises was reported to be "about a million dollars."

Four days later, on May 4, another, much longer story appeared on the newspapers "Social News" page, entitled: "River Club Interests Society." "Members of society [presumably they knew who they were] will be much interested in plans now being made for the River Club, a new organization for both men and women, which will be another feature of the rapid development of the East River block front between 52nd and 53rd Streets."
 
The club, which would "embrace features of certain well-known London clubs," was lo occupy the first four floors of the new building and include "complete exercising facilities, two full-size indoor tennis courts, three squash racquets courts, a large completely appointed gymnasium and a swimming pool." Under the presidency of Kermit Roosevelt, the son of Theodore Roosevelt, membership would be limited to four hundred men and women from New York City and two hundred from other cities. Among the members of the organizing committee were Mrs. Vincent Astor, Marshall Field, Mrs. Kermit Roosevelt, and Harold S. Vanderbilt. "Mrs. George Draper," the article continued, "is acting as consultant on plans and decoration for the structure and will endeavor to incorporate the atmosphere of a private home."
 
The River Club, however, had an important extra not usually found in even the grandest of homes. "For the convenience of members addicted to their yachts and motor boats," the article continued, "a private boat landing will be maintained and it is expected that a mooring pier also will be constructed." A fine, if unusual, way to come to any club, not to mention one in the heart of New York City.
 
On May, 18, the New York Times real estate section carried its first major story about River House itself, accompanied by an architect’s drawing of the new building. River House would occupy the entire block directly on the river between 52nd and 53rd Streets, a new neighbor to the luxurious One Beekman Place apartment house to the south. The building would have fifteen stories around three sides of a square with a large garden in the center open to the river. It would be surmounted by a tower that would soar from the sixteenth to the twenty-sixth floor. The tower would house duplex apartments consisting of seventeen rooms with seven bathrooms. The top three floors (24th, 25th and 26th) would be set aside for a triplex apartment with seventeen rooms and nine bathrooms, the jewel in River House’s crown with a price tag of just over a quarter of a million dollars. "The entire building is assured of unusual light in every direction," the article concluded, noting that there would also be "' a yacht landing, for the use of apartment owners.”
 
River House 's promoters put out a prospectus with a fine water color painting of the facade showing the riverside terrace with trees, tables, chaises lounges, umbrellas, a fountain, and broad steps down to the dock where motor boats and sail yachts were moored. (The picture and prospectus, attractively framed, hang on a wall in the Bar in the clubhouse.) "River House is the most distinguished modern residence in New York," the prospectus reads. "The East River from the windows of River House is not a remote waterway but an intimate, constantly changing picture... the dock extends the full width of the building between 52nd and 53rd Streets, and the landing stage is the largest in New York harbor…there are mooring facilities for every type of pleasure craft... The garden alone, wider than a city street and a block long, takes up an entire third of the entire plot as both 52nd and 53rd Streets are dead end at the river, there can be no through traffic and no traffic noises. River House is entirely cooperative. Prices range from $35,000 for six rooms to $275,000 for a unique triplex apartment on the top of the lower." The prospectus ended with a flourish, real estate hype, 1930’s-vintage. "River House has charming surroundings, guaranteed protection of light and air, sound planning, superlative construction, rigid standards of admission rigidly enforced, strong financial sponsorship, and purchase prices and maintenance charges, which demonstrate that luxurious living need not imply extravagance."
 

 
Construction would begin in early summer and the building ready for occupancy on October 1, 1931. The architects were Bottomley, Wagner & White; James Stewart & Company was the builder; and Douglas Elliman & Company, the selling and managing agents. Showing faith in his new project, as well as the cash to back his taste and his convictions, architect William L. Bottomley bought the triplex.

It was hard to believe that only six months earlier Wall Street had crashed and thousands of people had been ruined, but perhaps the tsunami from that event, which was to plunge the country into a devastating and sustained depression, was still over the horizon. Also, most of the ambitious plans to develop the East River properties had presumably been in the works well before the 1929 Crash. Intimations of what lay ahead, however, were not long in coming. On September 6, 1930, the New York Times reporting that a $4.2 million mortgage had been successfully raised to build the River House also ran a story on the same page, headlined "Construction Drops Again." It recorded that construction, east of the Rockies, had declined by 5% in July, and plummeted in August with an unprecedented decline of 29%.  

When River House was first planned, the river frontage north of 51st Street was a sprawling industrial district that included a brewery, an ice company, cigar factories and lumberyards. To the south, where the United Nations stands today, were cattle yards, slaughter houses, and meal-packing factories, an area known as "Blood Alley." Raw sewage went straight into the East River. People lived there, too, in crowded tenements.  The whole riverfront resembled the engine room of a great ocean liner: noisy, pungent, and dirty. The neighborhood began to change when One Beekman Place (the Campanile) on East 51st Street overlooking the river opened its doors in 1930, A magnificent apartment house, complete with tennis, handball, basketball, and squash courts, and a swimming pool, it set an example that River House was soon to follow. The ocean liner with its churning, clanking engines was still there. But now New Yorkers, at least the more privileged among them, could enjoy the view of their city from the tranquility of the ships bridge.
 
The previous occupants of the River House site were the Cremo "Cream of the Islands" Cigar Company and its neighbor, the Consumers Brewing Company of New York, two factories catering to the recreational appetites of New Yorkers and propelling a powerful aroma of tobacco leaf, roasted hops, and yeast into the city's atmosphere. They disappeared as work began on River House but, just opposite, on the corner of East 53rd Street and the river, were a collection of run-down tenement houses where young neighborhood children and teenagers hung out and swam in the river during the summer. They presented a strange contrast to the well-heeled denizens of River House, especially in the midst of the Depression. But they became famous as the "Dead End Kids" after the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Sidney Kingsley, wrote a play about them and their neighborhood called Dead End, which is exactly what it was in both the physical and metaphorical meanings of the term. The play was later turned into a popular movie, directed by William Wyler and starring Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, and Joel McCrea. It was so successful that another six movies about the adventures of the "Kids" followed.

          
 
The original Dead Enders were still around in 1945. The clubs minutes for March 26 of that year noted: "The hurricane last fall blew down part of the south wall of the garden," and "urchins of the vicinity" took "the opportunity of invading not only the garden, but also Club premises themselves through the downstairs doorway."
 
At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac where East 5znd Street meets the East River, River House is famously elegant and famously discreet, attributes symbolized by its unusual entrance. Steven Gaines describes it well in his engaging book, The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan. "Beyond tall wrought-iron gates and twin concrete sentry boxes topped with brass art deco eagles, there is a landscaped cobblestoned courtyard with fountains and statuary used as a turnaround for limousines and taxis dropping off and picking up passengers. Every time a car enters this courtyard, a chime rings inside the lobby to warn one of the three uniformed lobby men that a visitor is approaching, and he steps outside to open the car door." 
 
River House was completed in 1931 and the River Club settled into its quarters where it has remained for the last seventy-five years, For those interested in the club's early appearance, it is fortunate that its interior was meticulously, if somewhat floridly, chronicled in the February 1, 1931, edition of Town & Country, by Augusta Owen Patterson. The article, entitled "An Exercise Club in a Romantic Setting," opened with a paean to the beauty of the location. "At night, from its windows and its terraces, the Queensboro Bridge, an almost infallible subject for rhapsody at any time, takes on a massive majesty, becomes a noble abstraction, through which little jewels move back and forth," she wrote. "Below is the counter movement of tiny white and red and green lights of the river boats. On occasion the proud eliminating gesture of the moon, scornful of competing attraction, reduces all this to the status of a muted chorus to her solo of cool loveliness, flooding in through the windows. Nature puts on poetic drama in a big way for members of the new club on East 52nd Street." There was no highway; yachts could and did glide in and tie up alongside the building; and New Yorkers were discovering the East River as if they had never seen it before. Contemporary members, gazing across the river to the bustling Queensboro Bridge, are still mesmerized by the romantic setting.

Stepping inside the club, Town & Country's scribe finds more wonders to invigorate her prose. She rhapsodizes about the swimming pool with good cause for its setting is as lovely as it ever was. "The pool is not only big and practical," she wrote, "but it furnishes illusions. The sun streams over it, you swim under the rubber trees. The connotations are tropical. It is framed in angular arches, good, hard shapes which seem to have been carved out of solid stone."

When she reaches the ballroom, she is back in overdrive. "The ballroom... is a sparkling sapphire set in platinum." But then she goes on to explain: "The platinum effect is gained through the walls, which are silver leaf, on paper, over wooden screens, in the regular Chinese way. The pilasters and the oval of the ceiling build up radiance through three shades of blue glass, the pilasters starting with the dark color at the bottom." A photograph of the ballroom shows this effect, as well as the "fountain-spray crystal chandeliers" designed for the room and made in Venice. The result, the writer comments, was "a room of interesting and difficult brilliancies controlled sufficiently to retain both vitality and distinction."
 
The clubs configuration was somewhat different from what it eventually became. "Above the swimming pool and lounge are the grille, the oyster bar and the dining room," the article continues. "The grille has one of the large leaded bay windows; the dining room has two. Opening from the dining room is the loggia with its casement windows, a very popular place with the members. Above the dining room is the living room; and above the grille is the card room." The living room, it was noted, had the "quality of a drawing room in a large country house."  The bedrooms-there were then twenty-six of them, "in suites with baths" got shorter shrift. "Somewhere there are bedrooms," the writer said, "from which the members have a view over the rippling, busy, water, which, when the morning sun is right, throws reflections up on the ceilings."
 
         
 
Today, what was the oyster bar is now part of an expanded Dining Room; the loggia is gone, though the casement windows remain in all their glory. The grille is now the Bar, and the card room is part of the Library, The bedrooms are where they always were but can be more precisely located as being on the level above the Lobby. The Town & Country article goes into considerable detail on the decoration and furnishings of these rooms but it will be more interesting to consider them when discussing the modern refurbishment of the clubhouse.

The founders of the River Club were blue chip members of New York society. While that may not have been a surprise, the presence of prominent women on the clubs founding board was ground-breaking. The City’s clubland in those days kept the sexes well apart, with the women’s clubs, like the Colony, being as rigid and doctrinaire about the issue as the men's. The River Club was different. Led by Kermit Roosevelt, the founding fathers and mothers of the River Club were Mrs. Joseph (Mollie) Edward Davis, Robert Sturgis Potter, Robert Early, Strawbridge, Jr., and James Whitney Barney. The fifteen-strong board of governors had seven women on it and Mollie Davis became the first vice-president, effectively number two to Kermit Roosevelt, the clubs first president.

Duncan S. Ellsworth was the second-vice president; Harold E. Talbott, Jr. the treasurer; and James W. Barney the secretary.

While the River Club ranked at the lop of society’s pecking order, it was not designed to be simply a place for the great and the good to gather and be seen together. "It is an active club, as distinguished from a sedentary eating, talking, reading club," the Town & Country article concluded. "It is created for people who like to do things."
 
The clubs founding charter mentioned "social intercourse" among its goals but gave equal weight to "sports." The die was cast: the River Club would be a family club, with equality between men and women, and it would be a full service sporting club, all in the heart of New York City. Those two attributes made it unique at the time, and make it unique seventy-five years later.
 
The club opened on December 3, 1931, with great hopes and enthusiasm but almost immediately found itself in financial difficulties as the Depression took hold and deepened. The club had bought the premises from River House in May, 1930, for $650,000, and another $250,000 was spent on remodeling the interior, building the tennis and squash courts, and the swimming pool, and decorating and furnishing the clubhouse. Members had been levied s $1,200 each to help with the expenses. The new club’s collective life began well with tennis tournaments, bridge and backgammon evenings, and dances. But, from the moment the club opened its doors, it was financially strapped. A sign of the times was the event organized to celebrate the first New Year's Eve after opening. It was called the Dutch Treat Dance.
 
Meanwhile, the membership was growing, although not as rapidly as the founders had hoped. "From the names of the Organizing Committee, the clubs first governors, and the Persons first invited to become members of the club, it appears that the membership was largely comprised of members of society and of prominent families," noted the River Club’s 50th Anniversary history, written by Henry C. Breck and Thomas N. McCarter, III.  "It was clearly intended to be exclusively a social club, completely divorced from business."
 
The1932 membership list resonates with the names of the great American families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the Astors, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, the Pulitzers, and the Graces, among others. The club history estimates that there were "roughly 500 proprietary members, approximately sixty out-of-town members and about forty junior members, making a total of 600." Membership included the spouse who could join as an associate member, if he or she wished, and enjoy full membership rights. In the early days, the husband was usually the member and the wife the associate. But it could be the other way round and, as time went on, an increasing number of the members were women and their husbands associates.
 
The style of governance appeared to be patrician but benign. The first Board of Governors decreed that there would "no rules for the club that are not absolutely necessary." Tennis, the star attraction then and now, was the exception and there the rule stated that "no reservation for a tennis court may be made more than three days in advance."
 
Financial disaster struck barely a year after opening. In 1932, River House failed and went into receivership. Its owners were under the impression that they owned the building outright, an impression shared by the River Clubs Board about owning the clubs space. But, all along, there had been an underlying mortgage and the upshot was that both the River House co-op owners and the River Club lost control of their premises. The building changed hands several times but eventually ended up in the hands of its co-op shareholders, where it remains. The River Club became a long-term tenant, having once been an owner.
 
Nevertheless, the club continued to expand its membership, mold its persona, and fulfill its promise as a social and sporting club for families and friends. The club history records that the yacht landing also lived up to its billing. In 1932 a commuter service linking the club to Long Island by high speed motor boat, was inaugurated. Lights for night landings were installed and a dock attendant hired and paid for jointly by the club and River House. For the rest of the decade, the landing was a busy place, especially during the New York Worlds Fair, held in Flushing in 1939 and 1940. (In view of what was happening in Europe and would soon spill over to America, the Fair's promotional line, "Building the World of Tomorrow," had an ironic and sad ring to it.)
 
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 meant that members no longer had to stash their own supplies of liquor in club lockers but could saunter up to the bar and order their martinis from the barman. "Club Nights" had been introduced for the summer months in 1932 and, after noting that there was "a good deal of enthusiasm among the younger people," the Board decided to continue them in 1933. In that year, a "set" lunch cost $1.00 and dinners started at $1.75. Meanwhile, the country was sinking. Stocks were down by seventy-five percent since 1929, thousands of banks had closed, and exports had slumped to turn-of-the century levels.
 
However, life at the club seemed to move at a leisurely pace as an entry in the club’s minutes of October 31, 1933, revealed. The treasurer, Harold E. Talbott, Jr., had been engaged in a time-and-motion study. "Mr. Talbott stated that he had a check made as to the use of the little reception room [next to the entrance] by guests over a period of fifty-two days, and the average daily use of the room was ten minutes. On the strength of this information, Mr. Talbott recommended to the House Committee that the room be converted into a Secretary’s office, which, he contended, would be of more value to the Club." Mr. Talbott’s labors were rewarded. The House Committee was given the power "to act at its discretion."
 
Nevertheless, as the decade wore on and the Depression tightened its grip, life became more complicated and difficult. Resignations mounted, the goal of 600 proprietary members was never reached, employees were laid off, and services reduced in the dining room, bar, and bedrooms. The end of the 1930’s represented the nadir of the club s fortunes and contrasted sadly with the euphoria at the time of the club's founding.

 
    
 
 
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, barely cast a ripple over the River Club's polished surface; in fact, it was not mentioned in the clubs minutes until the end of the year. However, the construction of the East River Drive (later named FDR Drive) the following year caused great consternation. Negotiations with the City failed to halt the project and the River Club and River House lost not only their marquee yacht landing but also a good slice of their front gardens. Technically, the two entities are no longer on the river, although their views of it remain unimpeded, The United States' entry into the war put further strains on the clubs finances and dwindling membership roll. Summer members, who joined temporarily for the summer months and could be considered for full membership later on, helped to fill the gap, and in May 1942, invitations were sent out to members of the Links, Brook, and Knickerbocker Clubs to sign up for the summer season. Around this time a group of members from the Heights Casino Tennis Club in Brooklyn Heights were taken into the club en masse, the first and last time such a desperate measure was adopted.
 
But brighter times lay ahead. The end of the war brought prosperity, tranquility, and restored confidence, and the club's fortunes improved. While its appeal grew, it resisted proposals to admit prominent businessmen as members, adhering to its original charter of being an exclusively social club. The non-resident membership category was abolished and the ceiling for total membership raised to 1,000, where it remains. It was also decided that if the marital status of a member changed and a new spouse entered the picture, he or she would have to go through the same procedure as any other candidate for membership, a system that also remains in place.
 
Over the years, the club has had its share of celebrities. Katherine Hepburn was a member once and liked to swim there. Dina Merrill remains a member and plays tennis at the club. Cliff Robertson is also a member and often stays at the club, Spencer Tracy stayed in a suite and wrote a charming letter thanking the club for its hospitality after he left. Fred Astaire and his sister were members, while Greta Garbo and Rex Harrison both had apartments across the street.
 
         

The River Club has a tradition of long-serving presidents. Kermit Roosevelt, its first leader, stepped down after a relatively short stint of six years in 1937. But his successors were different. Over the next sixty-two years, the club only had three presidents: Duncan S. Ellsworth (1937-1953), Henry C. Breck (1953-1978), and William E. Jackson (1978-1999) who died in office. The club was effectively run for many years by a troika. In the 196o's and 1970’s it was the president, Henry Breck; William Jackson, a long-serving governor; and Tom McCarter, III, who has the distinction of being the clubs youngest governor and its longest-serving treasurer. He was also a governor for thirty-seven years, another club record. In the 1980's and 1990's, Jackson, McCarter and J. Peter Hoguet, another veteran governor, took over.

"Bill Jackson was very low key," Tom McCarter said. "But he knew where ail the bodies were buried and through osmosis, and being around for a long time, so did I."
 
Tom McCarter became president in 1999 but decided that a shorter term was more appropriate. He retired in 2003 and handed over the reins to Willard S. Boothby, III, who, during the writing of this book, chose to retire at the end of 2006. The Board, setting an historical precedent, enthusiastically elected Helen Pardoe, the first lady president of the River Club. It seems probable that the River Club, like many other New York clubs, will henceforth favor relatively short terms for its presidents, without formally establishing term-limits.
 
All clubs change as society re-shapes itself. The River Club was always a family club, with women as full members and actively playing a role in the club’s governance, so the necessity of adapting to an evolving society has been smoother than that of many clubs, which have experienced difficulties in grappling with the issue of gender equality in recent years, The changes at the River Club have been more subtle perhaps but they have occurred.
 
"From the beginning in the 1930's through the mid-1970's, there was a social cachet attached to belonging to the River Club," said John Gordon, the treasurer. "ln those decades I think that a lot of people joined to get their names on the membership list and to be able to say that they were there. That era ended around Gerald Ford's presidency in the mid-1970's for a combination of reasons. New York was on its fanny, in deep financial trouble, summed up by that famous headline in one of the popular newspapers: 'President: New York, Get Lost.' Also fixed commissions for: Stock Exchange transactions on buying and selling stock ended, causing a great trauma in the brokerage industry, and oil prices, interest rates, and inflation were going through the roof."
 
"The club used to be very elitist," commented Robin Duke. "Just look at the names. It was a very select little world."
 
"In the old days when I was a kid on the board," remembered Tom McCarter, "all the governors knew each other and came from families who knew each other, They tended to be men and women who were important in the life of the city and its environs."
 
The change in the memberships current average age at the River Club has been particularly striking in the last decade and sets it apart from most city clubs that are struggling with the problem of an aging membership and the perennial search for new blood. "The average age of the clubs membership when I first started working here in 1996 was sixty to sixty-five," said Eric Ruehlmann, the general manager. "Since then it has dropped by about ten years to around fifty-five."
 
Another major difference is the attitude towards children and young people in general. Children had always been part of the club but for many decades they were in what might be called the "never seen and rarely heard" category, that is, tolerated, perhaps a Little grudgingly, but definitely not encouraged. Andy Blum, a veteran member, a clubman and a first-class shot, lived nearby in the 1970's and used to come to the club often to play tennis. "l can't say that I was aware of children at the club in those days," he said.
 
John Gordon remembered coming as a child with his parents to go swimming. "We had to pass through this exclusively adult environment and we went as quickly as we could from the front entrance to the locker room, always taking the stairs, never the elevator," he said. "l don't recall ever having a meal at the club as a child. Kids were at best tolerated and, in the early years, almost never seen. There were no social events, no Christmas parties, no Halloween, no dances, and no tennis clinics, although we could get tennis lessons when we were older. But we had a terrific time playing in and around the pool."
 
Dorothy Parker once said of a fellow member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, who happened to live in the Campanile on Beekman Place, that his abode was "far enough east to plant tea," and should be renamed "Wit’s End." The River Club, on the same line of longitude as Beekman Place, is also arguably in "tea country."
 
"Historically, it has not been a place where you come and have a drink with a friend after work," said Alix Devine, the secretary. "It’s always been a family club where you come to play tennis and spend time with your family and friends. But, as far as small children were concerned, it was inactive for a long time. Things changed when people began to bring their young kids here to swim and have birthday parties down by the pool. It wasn't encouraged but it wasn't discouraged either."

Text copyright John de St. Jorre
Photographs copyright Anthony Edgeworth

The River Club   •   447 East 52nd Street   •   New York, NY 10022   •   p: 212-751-0100   •   contactus@riverclubnyc.com