Friday, December 7, 2012

Venetian Splendor on the Park Slope

 
Amid the remarkable architecture of Park Slope stands a singularly distinctive building. Perhaps it is the structure’s resemblance to an Italian palazzo that makes it so unique, as it would seem more plausible to view it along the canals of Venice than the streets of Brooklyn. Housing The Montauk Club, it has stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Place since 1891, and is the creation of Francis Kimball, a prominent architect whose work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to grace New York City. Most of Kimball’s buildings are in lower Manhattan, and with the current construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, his Corbin Building has been spared from demolition and is presently being restored.

 
In 1883, not far from the Club, the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century was completed as the majestic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge first soared over the East River. At this time, the five boroughs had not yet consolidated; Brooklyn was still an independent city, and with the opening of the great span, civic pride was at its peak. Six years later, the Club was founded by leading citizens of Brooklyn whose names have been memorialized through names of streets and institutions: Pratt, Schermerhorn, Lefferts, Dean, Underhill, and Montgomery.
 
The Club’s striking Venetian architecture is complemented by graceful brickwork, stained glass, tiled roof, and terra cotta ornamentation detailing scenes of American Indian life. Once inside, the lighting, dark woodwork, furniture, and aged objects transport visitors to a different time. One can imagine gentlemen from the early twentieth century arriving by way of horse-drawn carriages, entering, and depositing their coats and hats with a butler in the vestibule. Such an entrance might be followed by an elegant dinner, preceding conversation, billiards, or relaxation in plush club chairs with brandy and cigars. There were many such clubs in existence at the time, and some of the buildings housing them still remain, although now with different functions. The most notable of these structures is the Unity League Club on Bedford Avenue and Bergen Street, fronted by an outstanding equestrian statue of General Grant. 

 
Today, access to the Montauk Club’s dining room is offered via reciprocal arrangements with similar clubs in places like the Philippines, India, London, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Through such an arrangement with a Pennsylvania institution, I had the pleasure of dining at the Club this past July. Throughout my youth, I had admired the Montauk Club’s exterior, so it was a treat to view the inside of this beautiful building. As I entered, an old grandfather clock chimed the hour in a tone that was unlike the timbre one would hear in a modern clock. This, along with the lighting, furnishings, high ceiling, and other features, offered a thoroughly unique reception. 

 
I thought it would be interesting to speak to someone who had been associated with the for several decades, so upon leaving I spoke to the General Manager, who referred me to Dino Veronese, a long-standing member and former President of the Club. After coordinating with a few different contacts, I finally made arrangements to meet both Veronese and the Club’s current President, Tim Thompson.


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I arrived a few minutes early. Once Dino and Tim stepped in to the building, we ascended to the second floor card room. There, we sat and chatted for the next hour and a half. To my right, two windows capped by leaded-glass looked out over Eighth Avenue. With Dino sitting across from me and Tim to my left, we began a wonderful conversation about the Club, and Brooklyn in general. Between the three of us, we had over 150 cumulative years of experience in the borough. We touched on each of our individual memories, as well as joint recollections.

 
First, we spoke of the history of the Montauk Club and its most notable guests, including Presidents Cleveland, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. While neither Dino nor Tim was present for JFK’s visit, Dino recalled seeing former New York State Governor, Hugh Carey, at the Club. I learned that the homes directly across the street from the Club were known as Sportsmen Row, where some key figures in thoroughbred racing lived.
 
William Gaynor, who served as New York City’s Mayor from 1910-1913, lived across from the Club as well. Gaynor was the only NYC mayor to be the target of an assassination attempt, and although he survived the incident, he subsequently suffered complications and died three years later. On a more positive note, all New Yorkers owe a debt of gratitude to Gaynor, although they may not know why: 102 years ago, largely the result of his efforts, tolls were abolished on the East River.
Originally, the Club owned the adjacent lot, as well as the entire building. The basement included a bowling alley, while on the other floors there was a kitchen, dining room card room and an upstairs dormitory where members could spend the night. Today, only two of the five floors remain in pristine condition and belong to the Club; the others have been sold as condos. Dino relayed how the times have changed, as has the way one refers to Park Slope. Today, residents say that they live in Park Slope, while years ago residents said they lived on the Park Slope. One thing that has not changed is the Club’s 38-year-old annual tradition of greeting new members with music by the Princeton Tigertones, a renowned collegiate group that has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The White House, and other respected venues around the world. 
 

       I very much enjoyed my meeting with Dino and Tim as we reminisced about trolleys, Ebbets Field, historic hotels that are no longer standing, and other aspects of Brooklyn, including our thoughts about the new Barclays Center. If you find yourself on the Park Slope, take some time to appreciate the 25 Eighth Avenue building, and if you are interested in inquiring about membership in the Montauk Club, visit their website at www.montaukclub.com.


--Tommy Coca

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