The Union Club of the City of New York (commonly known as the Union Club) is a private social club in New York City that was founded in 1836. The clubhouse is located at 101 East 69th Street on the corner of Park Avenue, in a landmark building designed by Delano & Aldrich that opened on August 28, 1933.
The Union Club is the oldest private club in New York City and the fifth oldest in the United States, after the South River Club in Annapolis, Maryland (between 1700 and 1732), the Schuylkill Fishing Company in Andalusia, Pennsylvania (1732), the Old Colony Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1769), and the Philadelphia Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1834). The Union Club is considered one of the most prestigious clubs in New York City.
The current building is the club's sixth clubhouse and the third built specifically for the members. The prior two clubhouses were at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street, occupied from 1855 to 1903; and on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 51st Street, a limestone clubhouse occupied from 1903 to 1933.
In 1927, club members voted to move uptown, to a quieter and less crowded location. They hired architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich—who had previously designed buildings for the Knickerbocker Club, the Brook Club, and the Colony Club—to design their new clubhouse. The Union moved to its current location in 1933. The building is known for its opulence and idiosyncratic details. At one point the building featured five dining rooms and a humidor with 100,000 cigars. Notable rooms include the card room, the backgammon room, the library, and the lounge (off the squash courts).
From the beginning, the Union Club was known for its strongly conservative principles. During the Civil War, the club refused to expel its Confederate members, despite taking a strong line on suppressing anti-draft riots. This policy, and a belief that the Union's admission standards had fallen, led some members of the Union to leave and form other private clubs (including the Union League Club of New York and the Knickerbocker Club).
In 1903, The Brook was founded by some prominent members of the Union Club (as well as some members of other New York City private clubs, such as the Knickerbocker Club and Metropolitan Club).
In 1918, the Union began using women waitresses to free male employees for service related to World War I This was the first time women were officially allowed entrance to the previously male-only enclave.
In 1932, the Union Club boasted 1,300 members. By the 1950s, urban social club membership was dwindling, in large part because of the movement of wealthy families to the suburbs. In 1954, Union
Club membership had declined to 950 members. In 1959, the Union Club and the Knickerbocker Club considered merging the Union's 900 men with The Knick's 550 members, but the plan never came to fruition.
The Union Club is one of the few places where the game of bottle pool is still popular.
Inside the Union Club, Jaws Drop
By Christopher Gray
Feb. 11, 2007
THE site of the Union Club, which peers down from the crest of Lenox Hill at 69th Street and Park Avenue, is appropriate for an institution generally considered the cynosure of men’s organizations in New York.
At the moment, the building is concealed by scaffolding, but the real showstopper is its inventive interior.
Organized in 1836, the Union is considered the first men’s social club in New York, or at least the oldest.
The club was known as particularly conservative. According to the historian John Steele Gordon, a member of the club, it did not expel its Confederate members during the Civil War years.
Some members took exception to this and withdrew to found the Union League Club, now at 38th and Park. In the 1870s, other members, who thought the Union’s standards of admission had fallen, went off to form the Knickerbocker Club, now at 62nd and Fifth Avenue. The Brook and Metropolitan Clubs were also offshoots.
In 1901, the Union built an ebullient limestone clubhouse at the northeast corner of 51st and Fifth. But, according to “The Architecture of Delano & Aldrich” (W. W. Norton, 2003) by Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker, the members voted in 1927 to move uptown, to a quieter and less crowded location.
They sold the 51st Street clubhouse, with an agreement giving them five years to move, and began a leisurely hunt for property that led to 69th and Park, the center of a concentration of mansions, even though apartment houses lined the rest of the street.
The club hired William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, who had already designed the Knickerbocker, the Brook and the Colony clubhouses.
Mr. Delano’s desire for a simple design was not shared by club members, Mr. Pennoyer and Ms. Walker note, citing a quotation from his memoirs: “The Building Committee insisted on a good deal of ornament inside and out, which they were used to at the old club.”
Thus, although the Knickerbocker Club is slim and elegant, the Union clubhouse, opened in 1933, is chunky with rusticated limestone and a huge angled mansard roof so big it looks like a Fifth Avenue mansion gone wild.
Nonmembers usually get no farther than the entry hall, but even there it is possible to see past the strange elliptical columns, up into the spectacular coffered dome of the main hall, which is in the form of a Greek cross. The room to the left, originally the lounge and writing room, runs the full width of the Park Avenue facade.
To the right is the card room, which displays Mr. Delano’s witty and inventive decorative abilities at their peak, with a frieze of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs running around the ceiling, and carved reliefs of face cards across the marble mantelpiece.
“I had great fun in designing every detail — all the electric light fixtures, mantels, ventilators, etc.,” Mr. Delano wrote in his memoirs, which were published in 1950. The same spirit informs the frieze of flying fish on his Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport.
The same spirit can be seen in the backgammon room, where the wall vents are patterned like backgammon boards, and in the library, whose light fixtures are shaped like the planet Saturn. The lounge off the squash courts is one of the astounding rooms in New York — its patterned ceiling in gold, buff and green billows in like a festival tent.
The Pennoyer-Walker book has historic photographs of the building inside and out, but also sumptuous color photographs by Jonathan Wallen. (Many of them are accessible on Amazon.com, with the “search inside” function.)
In its December 1932 issue, Fortune magazine painted a picture of the club’s 1,300 members as “men who are, rather than men who do.” This meant, above all, old families who did not need to strive, either professionally or economically, with surnames like Gallatin, Iselin, Pyne, Wilmerding, Goelet and Pell.
The Union clubhouse had five dining rooms, a humidor with 100,000 cigars, and, according to The Herald-Tribune, an early television set, a radio in each room and “much modernistic decorative art.” From a 1933 photograph of the library, it is possible to make out the title of only one magazine: Esquire.
By the 1950s, membership at urban social clubs was dwindling because of the continued movement of well-to-do families to the suburbs and the quickening pace of city life. The New York Times reported in 1954 that the Union was down to 950 members. Four years later, according to The Times, the Knickerbocker Club was considering an invitation to join its 550-man membership with the Union Club’s 900 members, but the plan came to naught.
A 1969 article in The Times bore the slightly surprised headline “Union Club Still There.” The president, Edward C. Brewster, was quoted as saying, “We want no salesmen here, nobody who pushes himself and barges in,” adding, “The Yale Club can absorb that kind, I suppose.” Mr. Brewster had graduated from Yale in 1932, according to his Social Register listing.
Now the Union Club is spending nearly $1 million just on exterior repairs, rebuilding long sections of its limestone cornice. Bruce Popkin, an architectural conservator at Thornton Tomasetti, the engineering and architectural firm supervising the project, said that in the course of inspection, he noticed that a section of the stone cornice was cracked along the edge for most of its 300-plus feet.
He believes the crack was caused by an installation mistake, in which sheets of protective copper were simply nailed into the top of the cornice, a few inches in from the edge, starting a series of long horizontal fractures even before club members moved in.