Hotel History: The Harvard Club of New York
The Harvard Club of New York* at 27 West 44th Street was originally built in 1894 (with major additions in 1905 and 1915, 1947 and 2003) and designed by McKim, Mead & White. Its classic Georgian design recalls the buildings at Harvard Yard in Cambridge. In 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Harvard Club of New York as a landmark despite the opposition of the Harvard Club to the proposed designation. It was one of the first buildings in New York to be named a landmark. It is also listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Designation Report of the Landmarks Preservation Commission described it as follows:
Sitting erect and dignified on West Forty-Fourth Street is this trim and elegant Georgian club house. The charm of this building lies in its red brick with limestone trim and in its intimate scale, the delicate refinement of its handsome detail, and the pleasing harmony of its well related architectural components. The front elevation consists of a handsome motif, where a main entrance doorway at street level is surmounted by a central round headed window, flanked by two pairs of limestone Ionic columns which rest on the second floor ledge and support the delicately refined third floor cornice. Directly above this and centered between two windows is the handsomely carved shield of Harvard University. At the roof line, the stone coping, covering the brick parapet wall, supports a central crowning element composed of a star-studded stone ball flanked by two horizontally placed consoles.
As club membership expanded, the first addition was built in 1905 which included the magnificent Harvard Hall. Many architectural critics consider Harvard Hall as the finest clubroom in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. With its three-story-high ceiling and beautiful wood paneling, it is a rare and special place. The Forty-Fifth street elevation is considered by many to be the equal in quality to that of the Forty-Fourth street entrance façade. This exterior wall contains three-story round-headed windows set between brick pilasters, which help to light Harvard Hall. The 1905 addition also contained a Grill Room, a new library, a meeting room, a billiard room and two floors of bedrooms for overnight stays.
The Bulletin of the Harvard Club of October 20, 1902 described plans for the first expansion of the Club: "The Harvard Club of N.Y.C. has just adopted plans for an addition to the Club House which will surpass in usefulness and comfort any building of its character in the world." When this work was completed, a homecoming was held in Harvard Hall, December 7, 1905 with Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot as the principal speaker.
Ten years later, architect Charles McKim designed a seven-story tower in 1915. It added a bar, a 300 seat formal dining room, more meeting rooms and bedrooms, squash courts and a swimming pool called the Plunge on the seventh floor. During the Great Depression, plans for expansion were tabled even though membership continued to grow. During World War II, the demand for bedrooms was so great that the Plunge swimming pool was floored over to create dormitory space where members could rent a cot for the night.
After World War II, as the G.I. Bill funded veterans to go to college, Harvard's enrollment soared. Subsequently, membership in the Club increased causing the Club to embark on another expansion by rebuilding the adjacent five-story structure at 33 W. 44th Street (which the club had owned since 1931). However, the floors above the street level did not align with the Clubhouse. Furthermore, the top three floors were constructed of combustible materials and legally could not be used for clubrooms. These three floors were demolished and the first two floors provided additional staff offices, and expansion of the Ladies Dining Room, the men's restroom and the Main Bar.
As membership increased to more than 10,000 members in 2000, the Club decided to expand by constructing a new structure on the site occupied by the small building at 35 West 44th Street. The design challenge faced by the architectural firm of Davis Brody Bond was that the site was located between Charles McKim's landmark Harvard Clubhouse and Warren & Wetmore's exuberant New York Yacht Club. The controversial eight-story glass and limestone addition to the Harvard Club of New York opened at the end of 2003 to mixed reviews. "It was an exercise in respect," said Christopher K. Grabe, a partner at Davis Brody Bond, "trying to complement existing historic buildings with a new building designed and constructed in its own time frame."
The $30 million, 41,000 square foot new wing was partially financed by the sale of a John Singer Sargent painting, "The Chess Game" for $12.5 million. The 50-foot wide building has a handicapped accessible lobby; new banquet and conference rooms; 16 additional guest rooms (to bring the total to 75 guest rooms); new administrative offices on the sixth floor; expanded duplex fitness center and additional squash courts. The project also provided improved back-of-the-house facilities including a modern kitchen, with pizza and popover ovens, a new Main Bar, new men's and ladies restrooms and an expanded Grill Room.
The Harvard Club of New York consistently outperforms other university clubs in revenue per available room (Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Penn) even though 22% of its guestrooms do not have private bathrooms. The Club's 11,000 plus members (fewer than 24% are women) pay annual dues to have access to a formal dining room, the Grill Room and bar, ornate reading rooms and library, duplex fitness center, squash courts, meeting and banquet rooms and Harvard Hall.
It took until 1973 before the first woman was elected to Club membership. She was Heide Nitze '62, a daughter of Paul Nitze '28, a longtime policy adviser to American presidents. Thirty-five years earlier, the Club had a secret, separate women's entrance that took female guests up a separate staircase and through a door camouflaged as a bookcase in the Gordon Reading Room. In 2008, the Club elected the first-ever female president, Nicole M. Parent, a managing director at Credit Suisse who received a B.A. in economics from Harvard.
The first African American to graduate from Harvard University was Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922) in 1869. Greener later received an LL.B. degree from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1876, graduating with honors. He served as Dean of the Howard University Law School and later as foreign service Consul in India, Russia and China. After his retirement in1906, he joined the Harvard Club of Chicago, apparently the first African American to be admitted. The first African American to be elected as president of the Club was Reginald F. Lewis (Harvard Law '71).
On April 23, 1994, the New York Times reported that "A total of 118 Harvard Club employees are on strike, strung out on raucous picket lines outside the 100-year-old clubhouse on West 44th Street off Fifth Avenue, heckling members as they come and go. "The club had a contract with Local 6 of the Hotel, Restaurant and Club Employees Union. It was trying to lower its labor costs by, among other things, requiring employees to pay 10 to 15 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums and by redefining their jobs. The club also wanted to lower wages for new employees who work less than 1000 hours per year and pay a $500 bonus to eligible employees who waive health coverage. "We're just trying to get a handle on our costs, like any other business," said Donald L. Shapiro, president of the New York Federal Savings Bank and then president of the club.
On October 13, 1994, the noisy and disruptive strike against the Harvard Club came to an end after six months in an agreement that the New York Times said "seemed to fall well short of triumph for the club." Some members felt that the club lost far more than it gained.
After the controversial new building at 35 W. 44th Street opened in 2004, the Harvard Club of New York never looked better. The 11,000 members enjoy the most completely-outfitted university club in New York including:
- 75 guestrooms- air conditioned, Wi-Fi capability, flat HDTVs, clock radios, pillow top mattresses, hair dryers, valet, room service (during Main Dining Room hours), decorated with one-of-a-kind photographs, banners, posters and other Harvard University artifacts.
- 23,000 sq. ft. triplex fitness center including four International and three American squash courts, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, massage therapy services, yoga and fitness classes, available seven days a week.
- Library with 20,000 books and more than 100 magazine and newspaper subscriptions.
- Eighteen meeting and banquet rooms which provide the perfect setting for business meetings, birthdays, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and holiday festivities.
- A 300 seat formal dining room with a sushi bar
- The less-formal Grill Room with a buffet table
- The Main Bar and work center
Never forget that the Harvard Club is primarily a private club whose major purpose is to provide superior service for its members. Since each of those 11,000 plus members pay annual dues, they naturally feel a strong proprietary interest in the Club. Consequently, old traditions are honored and observed and change occurs slowly. Cash and credit cards are never used. Cell phones and cameras are not allowed in most parts of the club. There are dress codes but no tipping.
Disclosure: I served as acting General Manager and Consultant to the Harvard Club of New York from May 2004 through April 2005.
*excerpted from my book "Built To Last: 100+Year-Old Hotels in New York," AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011.