Sunday, January 10, 2010
The Colony Club
In 1903 Mrs. J. Borden Harriman (president), along with other wealthy women, including treasurer Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan, raised the astounding sum of $500,000 and commissioned Stanford White, of the leading architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, to build a home for their newly formed women’s social club, known as the Colony Club. This structure, located on the west side of Madison Avenue just north of 30th Street and built between 1904-1907, was modeled on 18th-century houses in Annapolis, Maryland. The landmarked interiors, which still exist, were created by Stanford White's long-time friend Elsie de Wolfe, a former actress who had recently opened an interior-design business; her companion, theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury, was one of the club's founders. Wolfe’s adept completion of this commission established her financially successful career as a society decorator. De Wolfe, who became known as America's first decorator, lived in the club during construction, designing interiors ranging from French reproduction to American neo-Colonial styles.
Miss de Wolfe’s later marriage to diplomat Sir Charles Mendl in 1926 (she was sixty-one and became "Lady Mendl") was front page news in the New York Times, which revealed that “the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends.” Since 1892 she had been living openly in a lesbian relationship. As the Times stated, “When in New York, she makes her home with Miss Elisabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place.”
When the Colony Club opened in 1907, the interiors established her reputation overnight. Instead of imitating the dark, heavy interiors of most men’s clubs, de Wolfe introduced a casual, feminine style making liberal use of glazed chintz (immediately making her “the Chintz Lady”), tiled floors, light draperies, pale walls, wicker chairs, clever vanity tables and the first of her many trellised rooms. Among her innovations was the installation of ceramic stoves in lieu of fireplaces. The astonished reaction of the members to her iconic indoor garden pavilion (photo below) put de Wolfe’s name on many lips and led to lucrative commissions across the country. Her contract with Henry Clay Frick, which paid commissions on every item she selected, made her a rich woman. Later clients included Cole Porter, Condé Nast and the Duchess of Windsor.
The Federal Revival style building has unusual header-bond brickwork applied in what is known as a diaper pattern (click top photo to enlarge). Sold after the club moved to larger quarters on Park Avenue, the structure serves today as the east coast headquarters of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, housed at this location since 1963. The building was awarded Landmark Status by the City of New York in 1966.
Though the original purpose of the club was to provide athletic facilities, its elite status cemented the social standing of the original 500 subscribers when it opened in 1907. The New York Times published a complete membership roster on the first anniversary of the club. Included were four Vanderbilts, four Whitneys, Mrs. John Jacob Astor and Mrs. Walter Damrosch (her father, Republican politician James Blaine, ran for president of the United States against Grover Cleveland). The ground floor had receiving rooms, and the second floor contained a double-height gymnasium with a running track on the balcony, and an elegant French-style ballroom at the front, with a musicians’ balcony above. In the basement was a swimming pool, which still exists, surrounded by white marble walls and floors, with an illuminated trellised ceiling.
However, there arose a significant problem within a month of the club’s opening. A law prohibiting liquor licenses within 200 feet of a church, without the church's consent, had not been taken into account. Across the street was Madison Avenue Baptist Church, which refused to grant such permission, reflecting its denomination’s strong stance on temperance. While club officers denied that the club even served alcohol, stating that members brought in their own, the presence of a wine room in the basement ran counter to that claim. Further, a disgruntled employee leaked receipts and other documents to the press, including a menu reading, “All wines will be charged by the bottle.” In fact, the club was not able to get a liquor license until it moved north to larger quarters on Park Avenue (photo below).
The club eventually replaced most of its women employees with men, because, as the New York Times reported, “A club officer said that the female employees put themselves on an equal plane with the members and talked too much.”
When vacated by the Colony Club, the original building soon became a WWI hospital, then a club for Catholic girls and later an arts center. When the American Academy of Dramatic Arts moved in, it converted the gym and ballroom to theaters, but made few other major changes. They have recently repaired and cleaned the exterior, and original custom lighting fixtures remain intact. Original mirrored walls also remain unaltered. Fortunately, the limited financial resources of the owners have prevented disposing of original decor and architectural elements. For instance, when the academy considered installing modern windows, its contractor priced new windows at $9,000 each, whereas repairing the original ones cost only $3,000 per window. Also, students do not live in the building, which decreases wear and tear associated with most college structures.
The Academy in New York was founded in 1884 to train actors for the stage, becoming the first school in the United States to offer a professional education in the acting field. Numerous students of the Academy have gone on to distinguished careers throughout the entertainment industry, receiving awards and nominations for Tonys, Oscars and Emmys. Graduates include Lauren Bacall, Anne Bancroft, John Cassavetes, Hume Cronyn, Cecil. B. DeMille, Brad Davis, Danny DeVito, Kirk Douglas, Christine Ebersole, Ruth Gordon, Anne Hathaway, Florence Henderson, Grace Kelly, Agnes Moorehead, William Powell, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Rosalind Russell, Gene Tierney and Spencer Tracy.