Why you should care
Because millennials want to feel some grandeur too.
On Halloween afternoon, as the kids canvassed the brownstones in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Larry Berson, the head chef and general manager of the Montauk Club, directed a team of white-jacketed workers slowly transforming the mahogany-paneled bastion of wealth and privilege into a convincing haunted mansion. Feeling a financial pinch from the recently completed $2 million renovation of the late 19th-century Venetian-Gothic palace, Berson was counting on about 240 “retro nouveau lovers and gentlemen ghouls” to choose the club over myriad other haunted fetes across the five boroughs.
“People aren’t necessarily looking for the big, beautiful building anymore, although we definitely have that,” Berson says, showing off the parlor room with its Tiffany stained-glass windows. “They are looking for connections and fun events. Clubs have to change with the times, and we are changing with the times.”
It’s the 19th century in here and the 21st century out there. Now the challenge is to bridge that gap.
Remi Koukou, National Arts Club
Shifting demographics, corporate downsizing, Internal Revenue Service rulings that eliminated expensing club memberships … there seem to be plenty of changes threatening these relics of the Gilded Age. And yet it’s an improbable era of reinvention for private clubs — or at least the top-drawer ones in New York. Experts believe that as Gen Xers and millennials come of age, they are beginning to seek not only the panache of exclusive domains but also a connection to others and a sense of belonging. As a result, experts say, private social clubs are positioned to survive — and even thrive — in a socially fragmented age with seemingly limitless competition for social and leisure time.
“Presently, our membership rolls are stronger than they have been in decades,” says James O’Brien, a spokesperson for the New York Athletic Club, one of the most exclusive venues in the city. “Some of that is driven by the [junior member] associate class, but other classes of membership are also strong.” O’Brien points to innovations like intraclubs, or clubs within clubs, which provide specialized events and activities, from yachting to wine tasting to basketball — all within the same organization. “Combine this with the NYAC’s history and its Olympic traditions,” O’Brien adds, “and it’s an extremely attractive organization.”
Beyond New York, it can be an uphill run for many clubs, despite relaxed dress codes, permissive use of iPhones and the addition of fitness facilities. Overall, club membership is down 20 percent from 1990, according to a 2013 study by the National Club Association, a Washington lobby group, citing overbuilding, lifestyle changes and elitist reputations as factors. However, the same report — the most recent available — found that the top 10 percent of clubs are thriving.
The National Arts Club in Manhattan’s tony Gramercy neighborhood is solidly in the 10 percent. “We have fine artists as members; we have collectors as members. One of our first members was Alfred Stieglitz. Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono used to hang out here all the time, and we’re always looking for the next generation,” says Remi Koukou, the club’s event planner. The 24-year-old art history major from Boston has enlivened the 1840s Tilden mansion with exhibits such as “The Art of the App” in a ground-floor gallery, fashion parties such as the Bonnet Bash — a mishmash of cocktail mixology and millinery that’s open to the public — and location shoots for TV shows like Broad City. “It’s the 19th century in here and the 21st century out there,” says Koukou. “Now the challenge is to bridge that gap.”
In a competitive city like New York, all this has translated into a stiffer rivalry among clubs. Without the usual perks of a suburban country club — golf course, swimming pool, tennis courts and huge clubhouse — New York’s clubs are highlighting their individual assets, such as location and grand spaces, while maximizing the things all New Yorkers crave: access, good drinks and fine dining. Many have hired well-known chefs (usually French-trained) and endeavored to create sister-club relationships with shared-use facilities around the world.
Some have also cut dues. These clubs hue closely to the term “private” and don’t reveal membership numbers or finances, but organizations like the Metropolitan, the Union and NYAC strive to keep membership between 500 to 1,000 people, with annual dues between $350 (Montauk) and $5,000 (the Union), and initiation fees of up to $9,000 (NYAC).
“Clubs will have to work hard to achieve balance and weigh the different preferences and priorities of three generations of members: millennials, Generation X and baby boomers,” says Henry Wallmeyer, the National Club Association’s Gen X president and CEO. “Diversity is another hot-button trend, [and] not only in race and gender. People want to know when they walk in the door that there are people similar to them in interests and activities and that they will have someone with whom they can interact.”
The Gilded Age social club fervor actually started in the summer of 1836, when a number of leading New Yorkers decided to compete with the “great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society,” according to the Union Club’s website. They invited 250 “gentlemen of social distinction” to join the new Union Club. (The Union and Metropolitan clubs, among others, have a general “no press” policy — and many others did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
But as New York City grew, so did the number of people worth knowing, and thus the clubs expanded, with a broad emphasis on the “promotion of Literature and Art,” or so says the University Club. Over the decades, they moved from stately buildings to grandiose uptown clubhouses designed by Stanford White and other beaux-arts architects, with touches by stained-glass artists like John La Farge and art by the Hudson River School masters.
Overall, Koukou says, that if her peers can “get over the idea that ‘I can’t get in anyway, so what’s the point of trying,’” they will be rewarded with an experience that is part of the cultural fabric on the city. “We’re in Gramercy, which is a little exclusive, and we also cannot allow things like tours or advertising, so the younger generation doesn’t exactly seek us out,” she says. “Once they’re here, though, they get it and come to believe, ‘Yeah, this place is really cool,’ and then they join.”
A Tour of the Gilded Clubs of Old New York
Union Club (1836), 69th Street and Park Avenue
Prominent Members: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, William Randolph Hearst.
Fun Facts: Oldest private club in New York City and the third oldest in the U.S., after the Old Colony Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1769), and the Philadelphia Club (1834). Setting for the wedding scene in the 1988 Mike Nichols’ film Working Girl, with Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.
New York Athletic Club (1868), 180 Central Park South
Mission: “To bring structure to the nascent world of amateur sport.”
Prominent Members: John Irving, George Soros, George Steinbrenner, marathoner Meb Keflezighi.
Fun Facts: Introduced bicycle racing and fencing to the U.S. The site of a November 2003 four-game chess match between Garry Kasparov and the computer program X3D Fritz, run by an Intel chip.
Montauk Club (1889), 25 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn
Mission: “The Club of the Unclubbable.”
Prominent Members: Robert Pinkerton of detective agency fame.
Fun Facts: Popular location for television shows, including Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife, The Knick and Gotham. In the 1990s, desperate for revenue, the club converted the top two floors into condos.
Metropolitan Club (1891), 60th Street and Fifth Avenue
Prominent Members: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdie.
Fun Facts: Founded by J.P. Morgan to protest the Knickerbocker Club, which refused a friend membership. One of the city’s most ornate buildings, it was designed by architect Stanford White, who put in variegated marble and a 45-foot-high coffered ceiling — as well as a Venetian lantern purchased from the 1893 Chicago world’s fair — in the club’s Great Hall.
National Arts Club (1898), 15 Gramercy Park South
Mission: “Stimulate, foster and promote public interest in the arts … to educate the American people in the fine arts.”
Prominent Members: Alfred Stieglitz, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Robert Redford, Ethan Hawke.
Fun Facts: Ghosts roaming the halls include the “Victorian woman” and the “laughing child.” In 2013, New York state sued the club’s president, O. Aldon James, for hoarding clothes, antiques and other valuable club artifacts in his private rooms.