Graciously lifted from the archives of The New York Times:
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.