Before W. 44th Street earned the moniker “Club Row”, this 250 yard strip of pavement was known as “Stable Row”, because most of the north side of the block consisted of late 19th-century two- and three-story carriage houses serving the homes of the wealthy residents in the neighborhood. The noise and odors from the owners' horses stipulated that their stabling be distant from the owner's opulent residences.
As late as 1863, however, a large three-story building housing an asylum for orphaned Negro children still stood at the corner of 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which at the mid-century mark was a muddy dirt road surrounded by rocky fields (see illustration from 1847, below). The building fell victim to violent race riots as a result of the new military draft to supply men to fight in the Civil War. More affluent whites could afford the $300 fee to hire a substitute, while poor Irish immigrants could not. Many white laborers refused to work alongside blacks, and President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year instigated fears that free blacks would track up from the South to capture coveted, though low-paying, jobs. The Colored Orphan Asylum was considered a symbol of white charity to blacks and of black upward mobility, so it was burned to the ground by a large mob of protesters in July, 1863. One black man was beaten by a crowd of 400, hung from a tree and set afire. Aside from the civil war itself, those riots remain the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history. In all 120 black people died (eleven by lynching), and more than 2,000 were injured; homes and businesses owned by blacks were destroyed. As a result, thousands of blacks left Manhattan to resettle in Brooklyn, New Jersey and points more distant.
The rural nature of this watercolor (Fifth Avenue looking south) is best understood by the fact that, before the grid pattern of paved streets appeared, 42nd Street was a crosstown road used as a cattle drive to move livestock directly across Manhattan Island to slaughterhouses along the East River, where the United Nations complex stands today. There were no other prominent buildings in the immediate vicinity, except the enormous stone above-ground Croton reservoir (1843-1911, shown above), which held 20 million gallons of drinking water in a 4-acre man-made lake. This Eqyptian style enclosure had walls 50-feet high and 25-feet thick. A perimeter path atop the walls was a popular spot for romantic promenades. Trivia: The New York Public Library on 42nd Street was built on the reservoir's foundations.
Within a few short years the area's streets were paved, and by 1870 this block was home to a slaughterhouse, the Sixth Avenue railroad depot, stables for various stage coach lines and numerous private carriage houses. On the Fifth Ave. end the block the congregation of Temple Emanu-El had just built the nation's largest synagogue, which opened for services in 1868; their landmark building, distinguished by twin Moorish designed towers, sat at the corner of 43rd St. (in 1929 they moved 20 blocks north to their current address on Fifth Ave. at 65th St., on the site of the former John Jacob Astor mansion). However, a short distance east of Fifth Ave. large cattle yards still remained on 44th Street. Within the next decade "Stable Row" was completely transformed, seeing construction of apartment hotels, private clubs and various prestigious institutions. Steel girder construction and new building codes made it possible for these new buildings to reach heights of up to sixteen stories.
It is nearly inconceivable that, just fifty years after the above watercolor drawing was painted, the neighborhood looked like this:
The fabled restaurant Delmonico’s (above) stood at the NE corner of Fifth Avenue, using 44th Street as its main entrance. From 1897 until prohibition brought about its demise in 1923, the fashionable and the wealthy dined on the lower floors (a dining room for ladies, a Palm Garden, a Blue Room upholstered in satin, etc.) with ultra-elite bachelor apartments above them; a roof garden (popular in the days before air conditioning) crowned the elaborate building. Afternoon teas and post-theatre suppers were popular offerings. Among innovations introduced here were smoking in the dining rooms (to prevent gentlemen from abandoning the ladies after dinner), and a resident orchestra that played background music, instead of concerts that required the guests' full attention. At the same time, Delmonico's continued to operate another restaurant at a location farther downtown.
Arch-rival Sherry’s restaurant opened a year later in 1898, on the opposite SW corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th in a new, $2,000,000 grand12-story Stanford White building. There was a large street level restaurant fronting on Fifth Avenue, and at the back, entered from W. 44th St., was a men’s grill that became popular as a luncheon spot by day and a popular rendezvous for dinners at night. Upstairs were a splendid ballroom, private function rooms and above those, the living quarters of distinguished New Yorkers.
Many of NYC’s social elite gave opulent private dinners (photo above, circa 1901) and balls there. At one held in 1903 by C.K.G. Billings to celebrate the opening of his stables, the guests from his riding club sat on horseback while they were served by waiters dressed as jockeys. In another instance James Hazen Hyde, vice president of Equitable Life Insurance, spent $200,000 of his company's money for a party meant to recreate Versailles. Public outrage forced him to flee the country and prompted reform of the insurance industry. But in May of 1919 Louis Sherry decided to close his prized culinary venture, because the wealthy were continuing their move farther uptown. The contents of the restaurant were auctioned for $291,000 and the Waldorf-Astoria bought the four Lille tapestries for $61,000. The $250,000 stock of wine was distributed to Sherry’s best customers. The building was remodeled for Guaranty Trust Bank but fell to the wrecker's ball in the early 1950s.
The street’s very first private club was located at #23, W. 44th St., just 200 feet west of Fifth Avenue, in a building (since demolished) constructed in 1887 to house the Berkeley Athletic Club. Harvard graduate John S. White, headmaster of the Berkeley School across the street, was president when the club opened. Members enjoyed use of three bowling lanes, a 56-ft. long lap pool, showers and needle baths, dressing rooms, hundreds of lockers, a billiard room with four tables, rooms for tennis and baseball practice, an elevated running track (1/20 of a mile) and a gymnasium offering every imaginable piece of weight equipment, rings, bars, rowing machines, etc., all of it movable to allow the room's conversion to an indoor tennis court. In addition to athletic facilities, there was a 500-seat theater (with side boxes, an elaborate horseshoe-shaped balcony, proscenium stage and orchestra pit), reception rooms, a dance hall and library, making the Berkeley Athletic Club a true social club, as well. Annual dues were $30, and membership was limited to 350 men, making it quite exclusive (the rival New York Athletic Club had 2,500 members). The Berkeley eventually merged with the University Athletic Club to become one of the leading athletic, social and literary clubs in the city. So much for the Fifth Avenue end of the block.
The Hippodrome (1905-1939), the largest theater in the city at the time, opened at the SE corner of the opposite end of the block facing onto Sixth Avenue, spanning the entire block between 44th and 43rd Streets. Although the Hippodrome theater (above) replaced the Sixth Avenue railroad depot, the photo shows the elevated railway that ran the length of Sixth Avenue from the 1870s until 1939, when it was razed. It was inside this Moorish-style turreted behemoth that Houdini famously made a 5-ton elephant disappear before the eyes of 5,300 spectators in 1918. The 620,000 sq. ft., 21-story glass and block office building that stands in its place retains the name Hippodrome. However, the architectural distinction of the aforementioned structures -- the Hippodrome, Delmonico's and Sherry's -- has since been lost to the nondescript modern office buildings that replaced them.
By the early years of the twentieth century real estate values in this neighborhood had become too valuable for carriage houses, and this block of W. 44th Street saw construction of a group of apartment hotels, many still standing and serving the public as boutique hotels. Today there are more than 1,500 hotels rooms on this block.
Seymour Hotel stood at #45 from 1902 until it was demolished in1983. It has been replaced by the Sofitel, which opened in 2000 adjacent to the New York Yacht Club (at #37), a private social club founded in 1844. The Seymour was a 12-story apartment hotel designed for wealthy families. The resident hotel had entrances on both 44th and 45th Streets and offered apartments with annual leases in units from two to five rooms. Residents included a robust mix of state senators, nobility, actors, generals, socialites, entertainers and the merely well-off. One of only two remaining 19-century carriage houses on this street still stands immediately to the left of the Sofitel's entry. The adjacent Iroquois Hotel bought it in 2001, intending to develop it into auxiliary banquet and convention space. This 1906 photo (right) shows the Seymour's narrow 44th St. entrance sandwiched between the extant carriage house on the left and the New York Yacht Club to the right. In its last years, the Seymour housed mostly retired theater people in a somewhat seedy ambiance, at subsidized rates, as a single room occupancy welfare establishment.
The Seymour was demolished during the night in 1983, without a permit. The owner, who put up a multi-story parking garage, was fined $2 million. The parking garage was sold to Sofitel in the late 1990s, and the Yacht Club sold its air rights to Sofitel to allow its construction next door -- a 30-story, 396-room modern skyscraper hotel, making it three to four times the size of other hotels on this block. The Yacht Club used the proceeds to refurbish its home in time for its hundredth anniversary in 2001; a century of cigar smoke residue was scrubbed off the walls and ceilings to reveal the splendor of its original decor.
Because it stands in a block of historic buildings, the limestone and rounded glass bedroom towers of the Sofitel are set well back from the street (photo below). The W. 44th Street entry fits snugly between the Yacht Club on the right and the vacant carriage house on the left. Upon completion, the hotel won the prestigious Emporis Skyscraper Award in 2000.
The Sofitel public spaces reflect the spirit of Art Deco (see staircase and lobby below), and a similar motif continues into the Gaby Bar* and Restaurant (French cuisine, of course). The hotel, financed by the International Monetary Fund, belongs to the French luxury hotel chain Sofitel, whose 123 world-wide properties are staffed by bilingual French-English speakers.
*The Gaby Bar (below) is open from 11:30a until 1:00a daily. You do not want to pay the astronomical prices at the swank Gaby restaurant (bottom) with its signature racetrack oval banquette, so put your sugar daddy on speed dial. The image of Gabrielle "Gaby" Chanel graces the glass partition that divides the bar from the restaurant, although your blogger was unaware that the fashion icon was ever called anything other than "Coco" Chanel.
The New York Yacht Club (at #37) built its fanciful nautical-themed building in 1901 in order to relocate to the city from Hoboken NJ. The facade sports a riot of carved anchors, dolphins, seaweed and water spilling over the window sills. The bulbous windows were designed after those found in the stern of Dutch sailing ships, and the interior boasts similar over-the-top nautical motifs.
Prominent club members, who do not necessarily have to own a boat, have been Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Michael Bloomberg, William F. Buckley, Walter Cronkite, Peter Dupont, Ted Kennedy, J. P. Morgan, Ted Turner, David Rockefeller, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bernie Madoff (forced resignation). That said, one nominated couple was refused membership because they did not know the correct meanings of port and starboard. Publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. was the youngest-ever member, nominated when he was sixteen years old; as later publisher of the New York Herald, Bennett gave his club plenty of press. The popular Teheran Bar next door, once a mainstay of the neighborhood, has been replaced by the club's modern glass wing.
The Mansfield Hotel (at #12 ), constructed in 1903 as bachelor apartments at the Fifth Avenue end of the block, replaced two 19th-century carriage houses, which had been built on the site of an orphanage burned in the 1863 riots (see watercolor illustration at top of post). This 14-story apartment hotel was developed by co-owners John McCullough and Frederick Jennings, who were next door neighbors on Park Avenue. Their families retained ownership of the Mansfield until 1940. Today the hotel is home to the clubby, glass domed and wood paneled M Bar (below), which often features live jazz. It is popular with locals, as well as hotel guests, and serves as the hotel's breakfast room.
The Beaux-Arts brick and limestone structure also features the Club Room, a former lobby repurposed as a library with a working fireplace and game tables.
The original iron and marble staircases with mahogany rails were restored when a complete renovation took place in 2007. Because it was built as a bachelor hotel*, however, its 126 rooms are small, as are the bathrooms. Its architect was one of the most celebrated of the era, James Renwick, who designed Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, The New York Public Library and St. Bartholomew’s Church in NYC, as well as the Smithsonian's Castle Building and Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. The Mansfield Hotel was designated a New York City Landmark building in 2012.
*A bachelor hotel provided long-term single-occupancy apartment lodging with housekeeping services for unmarried male workers and businessmen. With no kitchens, meals were taken in the hotel dining room, and lobbies generally had a masculine, clubby feel. Nevertheless, the Mansfield began accepting single female residents in the 1920s. The Royalton, down the street, was already established as a bachelor hotel when the Mansfield was built.
The Iroquois (at #49), built as a budget apartment building in 1900, was home to actor James Dean from 1950-1952. Now a 4-star 117 room luxury hostelry, the hotel offers a James Dean lounge and a James Dean suite.
When the hotel first opened, it leased furnished and unfurnished apartments to those who worked in the city but lived elsewhere. Named after the Iroquois Indians of New York State, it is a stretch to comprehend that the presently super-posh hotel was ever home to the over-the-top tacky Wigwam Bar, which opened in 1939. Images of Pilgrims and Native American Indians adorned the walls, cheap Indian bric-a-brac was scattered throughout, and there were neon Budweiser signs in the windows. The bar was decorated to resemble the inside of a log cabin. Fake cabin windows looked out onto painted scenes of Indian warriors on horseback circling Conestoga wagons (certainly not Iroquois!). I kid you not.
Thirty years ago Jan Wallman operated a cabaret restaurant at the Iroquois, featuring such performers as Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen. Before the most recent refurbishment the hotel housed the Dumont Barber Shop and a photographer’s studio. A $13 million renovation took place in the late 1990s, and the property is now affiliated with the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World association. The hotel’s Triomphe restaurant is a mainstay of the neighborhood, and there is an intimate cocktail bar called Lantern’s Keep (below), with no resemblance to the aforementioned Wigwam.
Paul Geidel (1894-1987), a 17-year-old hotel bellboy, murdered a wealthy hotel guest at the Iroquois on July 26, 1911. Although Geidel made off with only a few dollars, he was sent to prison until 1980, making it into the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest prison sentence ever served (68 years and 245 days). After Geidel was convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison, he developed a rapport with prison officials, who took him to ball games and other outings. Finally granted parole in 1974, 80-year-old Geidel did not want to leave prison, having no family. After living his entire adult life in confinement, he chose to remain in prison for six additional years. Geidel then lived out the remainder of his days in a nursing home until his death at age 93.
The hotel later operated as a resident hotel for both men and women until 1988, when the Royalton was transformed into the first Philippe Stark designed hotel in the city, setting a new standard for hotel architecture and decor.
A see-and-be-seen clientele populated the lobby and bar, and the long walk from the front door to reception served as an elevated blue-carpeted runway of sorts for the trendy, hip and ultra chic patrons, who were observed by their peers, seated in muslin slip-covered wing chairs in the sunken lobby off to the side. It was near impossible to get a reservation at the restaurant, way to the back, where successive Vanity Fair editors Graydon Carter and Tina Brown held court.
Now a property of the Morgans Hotel Group (Ian Schrager is no longer involved), in 2007 the owners sadly decided to replace the knock-out, stylish and quirky Stark designed public space interiors (above) with a darker, brooding, more corporate design scheme by the firm of Roman and Williams (below). Not surprisingly, the caché went out with the Philippe Stark decor. A plus, however, is that they have retained the Philippe Stark guest room interiors along with the working fireplaces in the larger suites (bottom photo).
City Club (at #55) is the rare hotel without a lobby. Guests walk off the street into a small reception area and take the elevators directly to their rooms. The hotel’s real claim to fame is DB Bistro Moderne, a street level French restaurant and wine bar by celebrity chef Daniel Boulud. Since its opening it has served a famously expensive foie gras sirloin burger, currently offered at $35.
Situated between neighboring hotels Iroquois and the Algonquin, and across the street from the Royalton, the original City Club opened in 1904 as a gentlemen’s club with sleeping quarters, where members argued politics in the public spaces. They had use of function rooms, public and private reception rooms, offices and sleeping chambers, which were laid out in the same arrangement as today. The smallest bedrooms, today called “petite” rooms, were originally occupied by butlers, and the former ballroom with elaborately plastered 20-foot ceilings and double-height windows is divided into three 800 sq. ft. duplex suites (photo below), each with curved staircases leading from a living room (with separate powder room) to an upstairs bedroom with a sleek brown marble bathroom with shower (no tubs in this hotel).
The original gentlemen’s club gave way to office spaces in 1939, among them headquarters of the American Plywood Association. In 1999 Jeff Klein bought the property and reopened it as a hotel, restoring its original name. There is a distinct lack of generic hotel art on the walls, and many of the rooms feature window seats.
Just off the lobby to the left, Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne is the place to try that $35 foie gras sirloin burger.This celebrated restaurant also provides room service for the hotel.
The Algonquin (at #59) has perhaps the most storied past of any hotel on the block. The 181 room hotel opened in 1902 as a residential property with annual leases. With few takers, it was quickly converted to a traditional lodging establishment, charging $2 a night for single accommodations and $10 for a 3-bedroom unit. Business was so good that in 1904 the hotel purchased the adjacent carriage house for use as an annex (now home to the Blue Bar). The hotel takes its name from the Algonquin Native American tribe whose members once occupied the area. The Algonquin is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Manhattan.
The so-called “Algonquin Round Table” was an assemblage of writers, actors, publicists, critics and wits who met almost daily for lunch from 1919 to 1929. At these drunken luncheons the members of the “Vicious Circle,” as they called themselves, engaged in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that, through the newspaper columns of Round Table members, were disseminated across the country. The group’s reputation endured long after its dissolution. Charter members of this group included Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, the New Yorker magazine founder and editor Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woollcott and John Peter Toohey. Frequent hangers-on included Harpo Marx, Deems Taylor, Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Edna Ferber. The round table itself sat about 15 people, but the original has been lost. Nonetheless, literary distinction continued long after Parker and her gang decamped. William Faulkner, for instance, wrote his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1950 while on the property.
Trivia: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford honeymooned at the hotel. While promoting the film Robin Hood (1922), he shot arrows off the roof for the press.
“When I was growing up, I had three wishes – I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table.” – John F. Kennedy
The fussy but welcoming Edwardian ambiance of the former lobby decor (above) has given way to a darker, more somber tone (below):
The hotel attracted other print media stars, since both Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines had offices on this street. When Dorothy Parker was fired as drama critic by Vanity Fair, she began writing for the New Yorker. The dark, wood paneled Oak Room, the dining room where the Round Table once met, became an intimate cabaret supper club in 1980. Before it was shuttered in 2012, the Oak Room had hosted Steve Ross (who opened the venue), Julie Wilson, Karen Akers, Peter Cincotti, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli, Harry Connick Jr, Michael Feinstein and Andrea Marcovicci. In 2005 the hotel was sold and is now affiliated with Marriott International; sadly the old Oak Room has been divided up into space for an enlarged Blue Bar (opened the day after Prohibition was repealed) and a private breakfast room and lounge for Marriott Award Elite members. When the Oak Room’s closure was announced, over 3,000 people signed a petition demanding that it be reinstated; alas, it was not to be. Even though patrons are very protective of this storied property, cabaret clubs are not money makers.
The Algonquin Blue Bar (above) is now housed on the ground floor of the carriage house annex. This three-story building, dating from the 1860s, has only recently housed the Blue Bar (for the past twenty five years or so). The lighting is very blue, the banquettes are comfy, and framed Al Hirschfield caricatures line the wood paneled walls. Two flat-screen TVs have crept into the space, and the surface of the bar as tiny pencil eraser sized lights sprinkled across its expanse. Check it out. Prices for drinks and snacks are as astronomical as its location can justify. Directly above the Blue Bar, on the second floor, is a brand new suite named after John Barrymore. It has a seating area in front of picture windows that look out directly onto 44th Street. Most of us can't afford it.
Since 1923 the hotel has had a tradition of housing a cat that has the run of the hotel. Recent directives from the city’s Department of Health have confined the hotel cat to the non-food areas of the lobby by an electronic fence. When the cat is male, the name is Hamlet (chosen by John Barrymore); when female, its name is Matilda (above). So far there have been seven Hamlets and three Matildas. The hotel currently hosts a Matilda.
The hotel was designated a New York City Historic Landmark in 1987, not only for its architectural distinction, but also as a result of the Algonquin Round Table and number of literary and theatrical greats who lodged there. In 1996 the hotel was named a National Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries USA. During a nine month closure, a $5 million renovation took place in 2012. The closing for refurbishment was quite controversial. Many held their breaths, fearing that the redo would make their old friend unrecognizable.
But Matilda the cat is back, the century old plumbing has all been replaced, and modern creature comforts coddle its guests. Now there are plenty of plugs for chargers, sparkling glass-door showers (no more tubs), and no waiting for hot water when turning on the faucet. Above each bed is a framed backlit photograph of an historic NYC street scene (photo above), and rooms facing W. 44th St. that feature bay windows are furnished with window seats. Also retained are the claustrophobia-inducing bathrooms and crazy cramped standard queen bedrooms. If you're going to spend this kind of money, book one of the larger rooms, such as the one pictured. Oh, and each guestroom comes with a complimentary copy of the New Yorker magazine, which was founded here. Nothing wrong with that. The Round Table Room (the former Rose Room) restaurant now serves breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, with a “pre-theater menu” (the Belasco Theater is less than a block away).
P.S. Did I mention that the hotel's architects went on to design the Empire State building?
The Harvard Club of New York (at #27), founded in 1865 without a location, hired famed architects McKim, Mead & White to design its permanent social club headquarters of the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning (est. 1636). The club relocated here in 1894, moving uptown from a rented townhouse on 22nd Street. The front of the building is reminiscent of the gates at Harvard Yard, as intended.
Membership is restricted to Harvard alumni and tenured faculty. The structure was enlarged in 1905, 1915 (a 7th floor swimming pool!), 1989 and 2003 (40,000 sq. ft. limestone and glass addition on an adjacent lot to the left). The Colonial Revival Neo-Georgian building with its spectacular period interiors (below) was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The New York City Bar Association (at #42) opened its new headquarters here in 1896. “The House”, as it is known, was built in neoclassical style from Indiana limestone. The six-story building’s façade included elements of the Doric order on the bottom three floors, Ionic columns framing the fourth floor windows, and Corinthian pilasters on the fifth floor, creating a historical composite of classical architecture.
Acres of marble were used in the foyer and first floor stairways for an opulent effect (photo below). The building, situated next to the Royalton and across the street from the Sofitel, was named a New York City Landmark in 1960, and assigned to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The NYC Bar Association was founded in 1870 in response to growing public concern over corruption in the justice system in New York City. The Association has hosted both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chief Justice Earl Warren and has actively campaigned for policy initiatives.
In the Bar Association's Tweed room, named for barrister Henry Tweed, hangs a framed quotation associated with him: "I have a high opinion of lawyers. They are better to work with, or play with or fight with or drink with, than most other varieties of mankind." So there you have it.
The Bar Building (at #36, below) was constructed in 1922 from plans by Severance and Van Alen, the architects of the Chrysler Building. Adjacent to the NYC Bar Association headquarters, the stunning façade of the Bar Building is the only pure Art Deco design on this block. Note the distinctive scalloped corners.
The Bar Building has housed many legal offices, including those of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo and show business attorney Fanny Holtzmann. Rifle-makers Griffin & Howe had a showroom here until 2003; among their clientele were Ernest Hemingway, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Dwight Eisenhower.
The Penn Club (University of Pennsylvania Social Club)
The Penn Club of New York (at #30, blue awning above) is adjacent to the Bar Building. Built in 1901 as the Yale Club, it has a complicated history, perhaps best explained by the plaque that designates the building an historic landmark.
Both architects were Yale graduates, and when first built, the Yale University oval shield stood above the entry. Quickly outgrowing the space, the Yale Club moved a couple of blocks east on this street, where 44th meets Grand Central Terminal at Vanderbilt Avenue (with 11,000 members world wide and a club house of 22 stories, the Yale Club is today the largest traditional social club in the world). In 1916 the building was bought by Delta Kappa Epsilon, a Yale-founded fraternity that lacked central headquarters, and this became their base for nine years.
So it has come full circle, once more a university social club, making a congenial home with its neighbors on the block. The University of Pennsylvania owns the building and leases it to the club. The stunning period decor of one of the dining rooms is shown below:
Formerly known as the National Association Building, the Club Row Building (at #28) is a designated Literary Landmark, because from 1935 to 1991 it housed the offices of New Yorker magazine.
Adjoining the Penn Club, this 22 story building dates from 1920 and features a block-through arcade to 43rd Street that still houses a hair salon, post office, print shop, tailor, news stand and shoe repair shop.
General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen
Of the City of New York
Occupying four lots across the street from the New York Yacht Club, the Berkeley School for Boys moved into grand, newly-built quarters at #20 W. 44th Street in 1891, from plans by the firm of Lamb & Rich in Renaissance Eclectic style. Notably, the terra cotta frieze on the center section (above the blue flag in the photo below) was a copy of a portion of the frieze at the Parthenon, taken from casts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The school had been established eleven years earlier by John S. White, a Harvard classics scholar, who was also president of the Berkeley Athletic Club across the street (description at top of post). At a cost of $350 a year for day students, the school's 292 boys took classes in Greek, Latin, English, French, rhetoric, math and science, as well as military practice. Boarding students paid an annual sum of $1,000. Ninety percent of Berkeley graduates went on to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia Universities.
When White went bankrupt in 1903 from troubles with other endeavors, he sold the building to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, and the Berkeley School moved to quarters on Madison Ave. at 49th Street, eventually relocating to the Upper West Side.
Founded in 1785 to promote the welfare of the skilled tradesmen of the city, the General Society's motto is, “By hammer and hand all arts do stand.” They moved here and enlarged the building to seven stories in 1905 using funds from a large bequest from Andrew Carnegie, a Society member. When 44th Street was widened in 1917, the distinctive double grand staircase leading up to the arched entry doors had to be removed (left photo, above). Today the main entrance is at street level, and the original arched entry is home to a large stained glass window. Compare photos above. Note: the spire in the photo at left is one of a pair atop the Temple Emanu-el synagogue (1868, since demolished) on Fifth Avenue.
The building is still used by the General Society and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Society’s Mechanics Institute provides tuition-free evening instruction in trades-related education and houses the city's second oldest library. Located in the area that originally served as a drill hall for the Berkeley School's military maneuvers, the library houses the John M. Mossman Collection of Locks, including the Very Complicated Lock. Over 350 locks dating from 4000 B.C. $10 suggested donation. Open to the public on weekdays.
Since 2007 the St. Nicholas Society of the City of New York has also been headquartered in this building (suite #508), although the society was originally located in a building at #7, dating from 1898. Founded in 1835 by Washington Irving, the purpose of this club is to preserve the history of the city's Dutch ancestors of New Amsterdam. Membership is by invitation of a current member. "Any male of 18 years of age, in respectable standing in society, or good moral character, who was a native or resident of what is now the City or State of New York prior to the year 1785, or who is a descendant of any such native or resident, shall be eligible for membership." It is forbidden to discuss politics or business at club functions. Sharing space in the Saint Nicholas Society’s office are the Pilgrims of the United States, the Daughters of the Cincinnati, and the American Friends of the Georgian Group. As well, the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of New York, the Huguenot Society, the Holland Society, the Coffee House Club and the Mayflower Society all have offices in this same building. Note: The Mansfield Hotel is next door (separate entry above).
The Coffee House Club, another private social club, was founded in 1914 by the editor of Vanity Fair, and for 67 years it was located in the former Seymour Hotel, where the Sofitel now stands (at #45). When the Seymour was demolished in 1982, the Coffee House relocated to a brownstone at #70 on this same street in 1983. The club now makes its home on the sixth floor of the General Society’s building (at #20).
The Coffee House Club has an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek outlook reflected in its constitution: “No officers, no charge accounts, no liveries, no tips, no set speeches, no rules.” Its unassuming quarters consist of just two large rooms, one a reception area, the other a dining hall (above).
Not to despair if you are not a member of the Coffee House Club. Waitresses pour free refills at the glass-fronted street level Red Flame Diner (at #67), next to the Algonquin's Blue Bar.
The Red Flame, a moderately-priced Greek diner serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, has been at this location since the 1970s. Open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Coffee is still $1.95, and a slice of pie $3.95. Red Flame and Gregory's Coffee (at #58) across the street in the Hippodrome Building are perhaps the only working class venues on this fabled street.
This block of West 44th Street is but one of thousands in the city, and most pedestrians who rush to catch a show or a train whisk by with no clue as to its illustrious past. With information from this blog post, perhaps it will be possible for you to make time for a slow stroll up and down both sides of the street (FYI: odd numbers are on the north side, even on the south; traffic flows one way east from Sixth toward Fifth Ave.). As a pit stop, I highly recommend the M Bar at the Mansfield.
Much of the information in this post comes from Wikipedia, the New York Times and Tom Miller’s excellent Daytonian in Manhattan blog: