The Billiard Room off The Grill, The Players, 1998 © Jim Dow
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I have always photographed architecture in an informal, vernacular sense, from neon signs to football grounds. But when the subject of the private associations, clubs and libraries of New York City was presented as an opportunity, I soon found out that they had never been documented in any consistent fashion. I took this as a challenge and, almost immediately, came to realise that these supposedly stuffy, formal places were as idiosyncratically fascinating as anything I might encounter along the side of the road. 

Some of the clubs depicted here are formed around birthright, old school ties and that enduring trinity: gender, religious affiliation and sport. Others focus on dogs, first editions of books and stamps or derring-do in faraway places. There are associations for people in the arts, letters and the law and private libraries for quiet research and tasteful cultural events. 

The original clubs were semi-sober places for young well-to-do men, freshly moved to Gotham and on the way up, to congregate and network in the mid-19th century. Their female counterparts were formed at the turn of the 20th century. The Cosmopolitan, one of the earliest, counted Eleanor Roosevelt, the writers Pearl Buck and Willa Cather, and anthropologist Margaret Mead among its members. Bowing, often reluctantly, to social pressure and legal decree, today only two large clubs fail to admit women. The rest reflect current mores and the inadequacies of metropolitan institutions across the board: overwhelmingly white in a city that is less than 50 per cent so, with an African-American population a quarter of the whole.

Affinity can be a laden term when considering these factors. A basic requirement is financial ease — fees differ but a reasonable average for establishment clubs can approach $5,000 a year (though fees for the newer, hipper clubs that cater to coolness while feigning inclusivity can be more than double that). Memberships are now less gendered and somewhat more diverse, though they still signify social class. Exclusivity and privacy are omnipresent but more mutable. 

When I started this work, I never thought of these private places as a significant part of the fabric of New York City. Now I can’t imagine it without them. I photographed my first club in a borrowed jacket and tie, feeling semi-throttled about the neck. Over the years, thanks to the kindness of friends, I have acquired a seersucker suit for summer, a full complement of year-round outfits and a selection of ties that are no longer a cause for discomfort or embarrassment. 

The Explorers Club

Upstairs Trophy Room, The Explorers Club, 2003 © Jim Dow

Established 1904

Address 46 East 70th Street

Purpose/aim To promote the “scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space” by research and education. The club sponsors expeditions across the world but only a select number are accorded the honour of carrying the official club flag. 

Notable members Neil Armstrong (astronaut), Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (explorers), Sylvia Earle (marine biologist), Walter Cronkite (broadcaster), Jeff Bezos (businessman), James Cameron (film-maker).

Gender policy Men only until 1981. 

Claims to fame Members have been responsible for “famous firsts” including reaching both poles, climbing Mount Everest and travelling to the moon. Its adventurous annual dinner has included roast armadillo, fried tarantula and iguana meatballs.

The Knickerbocker Club

Detail, Women’s Dining Room, The Knickerbocker Club, 2004 © Jim Dow

Established 1871

Address 2 East 62nd Street

Purpose/aim The “Knick” was founded by dissatisfied members of the Union Club, the oldest private gentlemen’s club in New York, who were concerned that falling admissions standards were threatening its historic elitism.

Notable members Douglas Fairbanks (early Hollywood star), John Jacob Astor (scion of the famous business dynasty), JP Morgan (financier), Franklin D Roosevelt (US president)

Gender policy Men only. 

Claims to fame The word “knickerbocker” was the pseudonym adopted by the early-19th-century writer Washington Irving, before it became a byword for New York’s elite families. Even today, the Knick remains one of the city’s most exclusive private clubs, with no website, no women and a reported code of secrecy. 

Metropolitan Club

The Great Hall, from the Southwest, Metropolitan Club, 1999 © Jim Dow

Established 1891

Address 1 East 60th Street

Purpose/aim Social club founded by a group of wealthy men, including JP Morgan, who were frustrated that the elite Union Club had rejected the applications of many of their friends. It was christened the “Millionaire’s Club” by the press, since its 25 founding governors were drawn from “new money”.

Notable members Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton (US presidents), Salman Rushdie (novelist).

Gender policy Originally men only, although women were eventually allowed out of the purpose-built “ladies annexe” in the 1940s.

Claims to fame The original founders of the club were so affluent that it took only a month from the initial meeting in 1891 for the purchase of land to be completed. The clubhouse was finished three years later, at a total cost of nearly $2m (equivalent to about $57m today). Ironically, in later years, the Metropolitan suffered perennial financial problems. The clubhouse was nearly sold to satisfy loans in 1945 and membership fell to as low as 434 in 1970, although it has picked up since. 

The Cosmopolitan Club

Downstairs Landing, The Cosmopolitan Club, 2014 © Jim Dow

Established 1909

Address 122 East 66th Street 

Purpose/aim To provide a place where women accomplished in arts and letters could socialise and exchange ideas. Or, as the club’s official history guide puts it, “to provide fun for serious women”.

Notable members Eleanor Roosevelt (political activist, first lady from 1933-1945), Pearl Buck (writer), Marian Anderson (contralto), Margaret Mead (anthropologist). 

Gender policy Women only. 

Claims to fame The club began as the Cosmos Club, formed by an organisation for governesses. The first rooms were modest and overlooked a stable yard, but the club soon moved to larger premises on Lexington Avenue, changing its name eventually to the Cosmopolitan Club. It has a rich heritage of activism, with many members having been involved in the women’s suffrage movement. 

The Union League

Shoe Shine Stand, The Union League Club, 2000 © Jim Dow

Established 1863

Address 38 East 37th Street

Purpose/aim The first Union League club was founded in Philadelphia in 1862 to support the Union cause and the policies of Abraham Lincoln at the height of the civil war. A network of further Union Leagues was established, including the New York branch and, after the war, some more shortlived clubs in the South. 

Notable members Theodore Roosevelt (US president), Thomas Nast (satirist), William Cullen Bryant (poet and journalist).

Gender policy Men only until 1988, when the Supreme Court upheld a city statute outlawing sex discrimination in large private clubs.

Claims to fame The club was not only active in a political sense but provided military support for the Union army — including the complete organisation of an African-American infantry that saw duty in Louisiana. Later, the club supported the Harlem Hellfighters regiment during the first world war. It holds a dinner for military veterans every year. The clubhouse is home to 14,000 toy soldiers, one of the largest such collections in the world.

The Leash Club

Dining Room, The Leash Club, 2008 © Jim Dow

Established 1925

Address 41 East 63rd Street

Purpose/aim Established as a social club for canine lovers and to promote the scientific study of dog breeding. 

Notable members John O’Hara (writer).

Gender policy Men only.

Claims to fame The Leash started life as a speakeasy for dog owners, established during Prohibition. Club members would use their private lockers — engraved with the names of their dogs — to hide illicit alcohol. Although canine ownership is no longer compulsory, the lockers still exist, as does the large collection of dog paintings. Housed in a seven-bedroom townhouse, the club is one of the smallest in the city. 

The Yale Club

Swimming Pool, The Yale Club, 2000 © Jim Dow

Established 1897

Address 50 Vanderbilt Avenue

Purpose/aim All of the Ivy League colleges have prestigious clubs in New York. The Yale Club also hosts another college — the Dartmouth Club shares its facilities. Only college alumni can be members, of whom there are about 11,000 worldwide. 

Notable members Hillary Clinton (politician), George Pataki (former governor of New York), Cesar Pelli (architect), David McCullough (award-winning author), George HW Bush (former US president).

Gender policy Like Yale University, men only until 1969, though the swimming pool remained closed to women until 1987. Calls to desegregate the fifth-floor pool provoked a counter-campaign, “Save the Fifth”. 

Claims to fame The club is name-checked in many classic US novels: fictional members include Nick Carraway in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

The Collectors Club

Boardroom, The Collectors Club, 2007

Established 1896

Address 22 East 35th Street

Purpose/aim To further the study of and promote “philately”, or stamp collecting. Founded in a famous Stanford White brownstone, the club building was renovated in 2000 and last year the Philatelic Foundation, an organisation specialising in authenticating stamps, moved in to share its premises. 

Notable members John Walter Scott (stamp dealer and creator of the annual Scott stamp catalogue), Theodore E Steinway (grandson of piano-maker Henry Steinway), Henry J Crocker (a Californian businessman who was enrolled as one of the “Fathers of Philately” in 1921).

Gender policy Mixed. 

Claims to fame The club library, which holds approximately 150,000 volumes, is one of the largest collections of philatelic literature in the world.

Research by Emily Beswick

This article was amended to reflect the fact that Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers, was not a member of the Knickerbocker Club, and that the Yale Club is not the only Ivy League college club to shares its premises

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