Architecture as Privilege: the Rarified World of Private Clubs

Maia Dickinson
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The following research was inspired by an architectural project with which the firm of William Green Architecture is currently engaged. This project spurred research on historical private clubs in New York City, which then naturally expanded to span from their historical roots to their place in modern society.

The Origin of the Private Club


A men’s gathering, 18th century print

Private clubs have been a fixture of urban society for nearly two centuries, first in England and later in the United States. The motivation to form clubs derives from basic human desires: sociability; belonging to a larger entity; the comfortable safety net of being judged by a wider pool of friends and associations, rather than only one’s self. They are also arguably practical. Etymologically, “Club” derives from “cleave” – splitting the costs to reap the benefits of privilege [1]. The sensibility increases when clubs form around a common interest, as they are often wont to do. Members pool their resources, from financial to social, and their experiences, to create a hotbed of cultural production and consumption. xxxxxx


Squash players, England, 1902

Membership strikes a delicate balance between commonalities and differences, in order to both focus topics and widen perspectives in conversation, in the luxurious settings afforded by dues spread across a wide berth. The shared interests of the members provide for stimulating conversation and built-in-partners for favored leisurely pursuits. The communal structure provides a sphere for continued education through peer socialization. The club model allows members to seek out their club for a specific recreational desire, such as a well-matched game of squash, to all the staples of domestic life, such as overnight accommodations, the morning paper, and three square meals, which make their club a veritable home-away-from-home.


Paul Gavarni, ‘Le Flâneur,’ 1842

Clubs are unique intersections of the public and the private, bringing together ideal aspects of each. Clubs provide the ability to show-off, appealing to the flâneur [2], but are more exclusive, in that only a select crowd – those that matter – view the show. Depending on the values of the club, collections – whether they be art, rare books or exotic artifacts – are richer and more extensive than those found at home. This allows members exclusive access, and provides them with a venue in which to display their contributions to the collection for a wider, yet sophisticated audience. Members can also let loose, but in a protected environment as it is understood that everything that takes place under the roof of the club is confidential. This can provide everything from a comforting air of borrowed respectability to a more relaxed legal environment: a venue for gambling in London, or smoking in New York. The walls of the club do not talk. The edict may sound old fashioned in the age of social media and the ever public life, but it is still very much in place. A brawl that broke out at the New York Athletic Club in the spring of 2012 was formally silenced by club president S. Colin Neill, who threatened disciplinary action against members who spoke out, reminding all members that “Distribution via the various social media of photographs will not be tolerated. It is the responsibility of each and every member to protect and embellish the standing of the N.Y.A.C.” [3]

The English Gentleman and his Club

This model of the private club developed in London during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Following the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars, England experienced an economic boom which created a new, upwardly-mobile economic class, without titles or significant land holdings. With a history of aristocracy dating back nearly two millenniums, the English had an ingrained respect for the ruling class, and no shortage of examples of fine living [4]. In a period of shifting class Marshall's_flax-mill,_Holbeck,_Leeds 2 1800structure, the lower and middle classes did not look to overthrow the upper class, but instead maintained their reverence and sought to join them [5].

Right: 19th century Great Britain become the first global economic superpower, creating a wealthy merchant class, because of superior manufacturing technology and improved global communications such as steamships and railroads

The English aristocracy, in turn, begrudgingly welcomed the newly self-appointed “gentlemen” who desired to mingle in their midst; all too aware of the recent events of the French Revolution, they did not attempt to squelch these gentlemen’s social-climbing efforts [6]. For the first time, this much-desired lifestyle of a gentleman was no longer something one had to be born into; it was now attainable through wealth. Unlike aristocrats and landed-gentry, the role of a gentleman must be self-assumed: adopting the manners; purchasing the country home; affecting the habits, and practicing the traditional hobbies. Success might mean sending one’s son to Eton, or marrying-off a daughter to a more-established family, possibly eager to lend their name to one’s industrialist fortune if it would save their estate. Clamoring to approximate the lifestyles of nobility, Englishmen joined private clubs in droves for the pleasures, habits and associations found within, all key to the formation of the desirable identity of a gentleman.


Crockford Club, St James St., London

The club phenomenon flourished in the Victorian era, giving birth to an entire region known as “Clubland” – an area in the West End of London where every variety of gentlemen’s club line the streets. The gentlemen of London continually turned to their clubs to establish and then enforce this masculine, British identity in the face of other rising world super powers as well as the ground gained by the women’s suffrage movement. In far-flung colonial posts, their clubs provided solace and refuge from the exotic. Back home, those returned from a military career turned to their club for the fraternity to which they had become accustomed. Public schooling (versus home) became widespread, institutionalizing standards of decorum for boys across the country. As the old-fashioned model of English estates and households dwindled in the modernized economy, the increasing cost of establishing a household pushed back the median marriage age, and the community found in a club rose to fill this crucial gap in a young man’s social development in between school and marriage. By the turn of the century, London was home to two-hundred private gentlemen’s clubs [7].


Library of Reform Club, London

Although the physical space of the clubhouse is shaped in large part by its members, a distinct architectural and decorative type has managed to develop. At the institution’s origin, the buildings were distinctly masculine. Clubs were a space for gentlemanly pursuits: an interior created in opposition to the then-fashionable cluttered feminine home. Due to the nature of a private establishment, the façade alone is responsible for imparting the impression of the building to the public. The club model has icons: the bowed window from which prominent members are granted interplay with passing walkers, and the tufted leather chair, often known as “the club chair.” Components often did and often do include: a billiards room, smoking room (with a humidor), overnight guest rooms, a gallery, a restaurant, a bar, and a library. It may be a far more impressive space than what a single member could afford for his private residence, especially in a large city. The club lifestyle was so heavily lauded, it was even billed as “a haven of refuge” to “the man with a comparatively small income,” as it was the one space in which a club’s “co-operative benefits permit him to enjoy, in common with the millionaire, such luxuries as only great fortune can purchase” [8].

The London clubs forming “Clubland” rose up nearly indistinguishable in their facades, universally www/artesmagazine.comadopting a style that combined the styles of Italian Renaissance and Neoclassical palaces. These forms brought to the structures an inherent sense of power and grandeur, which the clubs did their part to purport. They were clean, crisp, and full of classical components (see example, Reform Club, left). They demonstrated logic and power with their spare, massive elegance. The grand form of the clubs became such a fixture of urban design that it is not wholly clear whether the declared importance of newly founded clubs determined the form, or if the form is what established the gravitas of these organizations, which had developed from previously informal coffee house societies.


Travellers Club Library

Designing a clubhouse for a fashionable set could change the course of an architect’s career. The commission not only often led to those for other clubhouses, but also provided direct exposure to an entire roster of members as a potential client base. Sir Charles Barry was the key architect of Victorian England’s Clubland, and these commissions became a mainstay of his private practice. Most notable among Barry’s London clubs include the Traveller’s Club, with its handsome Renaissance exterior, and the adjacent Reform Club, together which would inform the architecture of the surrounding clubs and those built abroad. Barry proved a wise choice by the clubs when he went on to win the competition to redesign the Houses of Parliament, which includes a royal residence; club membership allowed gentlemen to literally live like royalty.

The Clubs of New York City

Clubs infiltrated a different social scene in the United States. The young country lacked England’s cultural history. Americans had escaped the monarchy the English held as a shining examples. Allegiance was sworn to a flag, instead of a bejeweled figurehead. Social classes were less stratified, as economic opportunities abound. Exclusivity wavered, without the framework for one subset to declare themselves socially superior to another. When the United States embraced the English model of private clubs in the nineteenth century, it was a period when constructions of cultural identity and social status were frequently modeled after those in Europe as a foothold to gaining credibility and authoritThe_Union_League_Club,_staircase[1]y.

The private gentleman’s club arrived in New York City with the formation of The Union Club in 1836 (The Union Club stairway, above; exterior façade, below, right). The city’s first club created the city’s first clubmen. These men, in turn, took it upon themselves to proliferate the model. Over the next 80 years, they continually joined forces with another or several of their fellow club members to form theUnion_Club_exterior_detail[1]ir own private organizations representing various unifying ideologies or membership criteria, including political beliefs, national allegiances, the desire for more-moneyed members or less-moneyed members, or declining admission standards. The financially prosperous period in the city following the Civil War allowed many to seek membership at multiple clubs, driving the foundation of many specialized clubs in a short period of time. “Clubman” and “clubbable” both entered the vocabulary, and the standing was considered important enough to ones character to warrant mention in obituaries. Club spaces were used in a variety of ways, ranging from use as full-time residences, to merely discreet locations to receive private mail. By 1893, a handbook of “all of the first class clubs of the city” would list over 120 clubs, with a cumulative 20,000 members [9].

Although the amenities found under the roof of a club may vary little from one to the next, the founding principles underlying the formation of each club promised their members specific, practical reasons to form together. As an example, the New York Athletic Club was founded in 1868 to provide the first organized amateur sporting organization in the United States (following – of course – England’s example of organized amateur sports). The New York Athletic Club provided members with exercise facilities, hosted competitions, and kept records and statistics. Other cFullscreen capture 9182014 72101 AMommon types of club include: university clubs, which may accept a select university’s or group of universities’ alumni, faculty, and staff; artist collectives; literary clubs; fashionable or gaming clubs, and political clubs.

Left: NYAC water polo team, c. 1900.


Racquet and Tennis Club, NYC, mid-20th c.


Clubs of all types were quick to proliferate across the city, and equally quick to distinguish themselves. The Union Club was so conservative that they did not expel Confederate sympathizers during the throes of the Civil War. The Union League Club, full of social activists keen to show their support for the North, broke away from the Union as result. Members focused on civic duty and service, and even outfitted and trained an entire regiment for the war effort. From their ranks would come the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The American Red Cross. The University Club was founded by college friends. They were quick to lose their affiliation to any one school, but retained a sense of social duty and intellectualism. The Racquet and Tennis Club was founded in 1890, providing the city with some of the most obscure courts in the world. In 1891 J. Pierpont Morgan, then a member of nearly twenty clubs, joined with several of his peers to form The Metropolitan Club. The Metropolitan made a name for itself with unapologetic ostentatiousness. Instead of the simple, stately gentlemen’s décor de rigueur to the city’s clubs, the inside was designed in the style of the most expensive private homes of the day. The club was intended for millionaires, and less discerning over how the requisite fortunes were earned. In many cases, such clubs have been diluted over the years, transforming from distinct organizations into more generic fine gentlemen’s club.

The Union met in private houses until 1855, when the city gained its first purpose built-clubhouse. The club relocated in 1901, and then again in 1933, moving further and further uptown with each location until it arrived at its present location at 69th Street and Park Avenue. This trajectory was common for clubs during their first century, as they formed their identity, navigated the ever-shifting reputations of the city’s neighborhoods, and strived to out-do each other by commissioning the most sought-after architectural firm of the day.

The firm of McKim, Mead & White, the principals of which were members of numerous clubs, enjoyed this position at the turn of the century. Between 1894 and 1916, a period during www/artesmagazine.comwhich they designed a plethora of municipal and commercial buildings in Manhattan, they also designed the city’s preeminent clubhouses. Frequently in the style of Italian Renaissance Palazzos, clubhouses were designed by the firm during this period for the Harvard Club, the Century Club, the Metropolitan Club, the Harmonie Club, the University Club, and the Racquet and Tennis Club.

Left: A McKim, Mead & White project, Madison Square Garden (1890). Second of four buildings known by this name; razed in 1925.

The baton was then passed to the firm of Delano & Aldrich. The firm designed new clubhouses for the Knickerbocker, the Colony Club, The Brook, and the Union Club between 1915 and 1933. The clubhouses of Delano & Aldrich were known for being under the firm’s control from their foundation to their last interior details. Witty and whimsical friezes, or other small details often worked their way into the designs. The commissions proved lucrative, as Delano & Aldrich would go on to design over forty private residences.

The Modern Club


Century Club, West 43rd, NYC

Membership in New York City’s private clubs fell in the later-half of the twentieth century, as affluent city-dwellers moved to the rapidly expanding suburbs seeking a family-friendly environment. Exact membership numbers are rarely made public. More intimate specialized clubs, such as semi-private dinner clubs, may have as few as a couple hundred members. Some of the city’s most traditional clubs, such as the Union Club and The Century Association (William Cullen Bryant often gets credit for founding the group in 1847 “to promote the advancement of art and literature.” The name of the club reflected the founders’ intentions to limit membership to no more than 100 – a carry-over from the earlier Sketch Club also founded by Bryant). It reportedly have membership in the one to two-thousand range. Alumni clubs tend to have much higher numbers (over ten-thousand), with the majority of members living out-of-town, paying lower dues and visiting less frequently. Initiation fees may not exist, or may approach $50,000 – an effective sorting tool for potential members. Dues often scale with age (or graduation year) in an acknowledgement of the need to recruit the next generation of members, who may be less established, but show future promise.


Metropolitan Club, NYC, exterior, emulating formal English club architectural features

In a nod to the aristocratic lifestyles they vaguely aspired to, but the successful merchants they were, some clubs have traditionally recruited members who have inherited rather than earned wealth, persistently refusing to acknowledge how members bear the cost of belonging to an elite institution. Other clubs cultivate the culture surrounding the successful, hardworking professional, and provide the spaces and technology necessary to network and work efficiently. Working members relish the feeling that they have earned the luxury the club provides, and are among people who have done the same. Various issues affect both types of club differently, including legal action citing discriminatory and exclusionary membership policies to a place in which business is conducted, and economic recessions, which impact clubs with great variety according to their members’ sources of income. In economically favorable times, companies may pay their top executives’ membership fees to clubs that provide profitable networking opportunities. This practice becomes less prevalent during recessions, especially with downtown clubs that cater to volatile industries like finance. Uptown, the recession may have less of an impact. The late Louis Auchincloss, longtime clubman and chronicler of upper-crust New York was quoted in The New York Times as saying “I belong to a club or so and I do not think they have been affected in this recession at all” during the economic downturn in the early 1990s [10].


Skyline dining, Metropolitan Club, NYC

Clubs have, out of necessity, stretched, adjusted, and refocused themselves to stay relevant in the midst of a changing society and economic upheavals. Although the old clubs remain, new clubs have formed that are not afraid to break tradition and focus on providing top-of-the-line amenities and exciting programming for elite clientele, all under one roof. Courts for rare racquet sports have given way to collaborations with boutique workout studios. Screening rooms are now common. Board rooms and modern business amenities have frequently been added. Overnight accommodations, if included at all, are often open to the public. Certain dividing issues have driven clubs to heavily cater to one set of preferences. Although undoubtedly less dominant, private clubs have remained a fixture in New York City’s social milieu.

The increased flexibility born from the loosening of tradition has allowed for the formation of many successful hybrids between private clubs and traditional models of hospitality. One is the club as a hotel, marketed for its central location, reasonable and steady overnight rates, familiar atmosphere and vetted crowd for interactions with other guests. The importance of a club’s network and international reciprocity is growing quickly. Another example is the club as restaurant, specializing in exquisite meals and great company with which to savor it, and dating back to The Coffee House, which opened in New York 1914 (The name “Coffee House” was decided on in the hope that the Club might take its character from the coffee houses which first appeared in London during the reign of Charles II, and had grown to such popularity by Queen Anne’s The_Coffee_House_interior[1]time, that they were patronized by all the wits and talent of the town). The club was conceived of by then-members of the Knickerbocker who desired a more modest experience. The original name, “The Foes of Finance Dinner Club,” reveals more of the founders’ discontent. The club served communal meals at a single long table (see, The Coffee House, left). Other restaurant-clubs went even further to specialize in a particular meal: the “power lunch.”

The Cloud Club was open from the 1930s till the late 70s, providing a space in the heights of the Chrysler Building for highly successful business men (and much later, business women) to hold lunch meetings (or to stash their reserves of alcohol during prohibition). Some of the city’s restaurants today may choose to have a private back room, with members only access. An intimate membership roster fosters relationships between fellow diners, with the goal of establishing a welcoming dining room full of familiar faces.

Despite decreased numbers, membership in an elite club is still a much-coveted commodity. Older clubs may hold fast to their storied traditions, histories and reputations, while making adjustments or improvements to their policies or accommodations to stay relatively current. Newer clubs do not necessarily feel the need to replicate the grand structures, nor the policies, of the older clubs; their quarters can be elegant and modern, or a mix of new and old. Without the established membership set, they may rely on hyped-about waiting lists and steep dues to excite and vet potential members who seek their top of the line amenities. Clubs old and new still brand themselves not as a purely physical space, but a hotbed of discussion and culture, albeit over exquisite meals in elegant quarters among their cultivated members. Regardless of the details, membership in a club is still sought out for the same reasons it was centuries ago. Convenience and commodities are mere benefits of the membership itself, which is founded on conversation and camaraderie.

By Maia Dickinson, Contributing Writer © Billy Boy Enterprises

Maia Dickinson is a researcher at Billy Boy Enterprises, the division of William Green Architecture, PLLC, focusing on their own, self-generated creative projects. They frequently develop research reports that pertain to their architectural projects, but also develop research reports on unrelated topics that inspire them to want to know more.



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[1] George Augustus Sala, quoted in Barbara Black, A Room of His Own (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), 15.

[2] “Stroller” in French – literary type in nineteenth-century prone to idly walking the streets of Paris to see and be seen. See Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (1864; reprint, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), 9.

[3] Andy Newman and Christopher Reeve, “That Brawl? Elite Club Wants Nothing Said,” 24 April 2012.

[4] George Bell, The English Gentleman: His Principles, His Feelings, His Manners, His Pursuits (London, EN: Joseph Masters, 1849), 55.

[5] Christine Berberich, The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 19.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Barbara Black, A Room of His Own (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), 8.

[8] Club Men of New York (New York: Republic Press, 1893), 9.

[9] Club Men of New York (New York: Republic Press, 1893), 3.

[10] Alessandra Stanley,“No More Free Brunch,” The New York Times, January 1, 1992.

Works Cited:

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. 1864. Reprint, London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995.

Bell, George. The English Gentleman: His Principles, His Feelings, His Manners, His Pursuits. London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

Berberich, Christine. The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007.

Black, Barbara. A Room of His Own. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012.

Club Men of New York. New York, NY: Republic Press, 1893.

Newman, Andy and Christopher Reeve, “That Brawl? Elite Club Wants Nothing Said,” New York Times, 24 April 2012.

Stanley, Alessandra, “No More Free Brunch,” New York Times, 1 January 1992.




  1. Kate September 19, 2014 11:53 am

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