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The Clubhouse At Sea

history13 sBy John Rousmaniere

In honor of the Centennial of the 44th Street Clubhouse on January 22-25, 2001, the NYYC published a book about the clubhouse written by member John Rousmaniere and designed by member B. Martin Pedersen. This is an excerpt.

Clubhouse circa 1901.

The [New York Yacht Club] established a set of objectives for the new clubhouse and sent it to more than a dozen architects with invitations to compete for the commission. Leading the list of stated goals was a suitable Model Room: “This is the principal room, and it is to be used for the regular meetings of the Club, and also on more public occasions. It should be large and high, capable of containing 300 people, and containing approximately 3,800 square feet. Upon the walls space must be provided for exhibiting the models now in the club’s possession, with ample space for future additions, and they must be set not so much above the eye but that can be easily examined and studied.”

Next in importance was a library to house as many as 15,000 books, then a chart room where captains could plan their summer cruises.

The statement of objectives went out on November 5 [1898]. Submissions were due in only one month. “The time allowed for the drawings is horribly short,” complained one of the competing architects, Whitney Warren. Still, seven sets of plans and explanatory essays were received by the consulting architect, Dean William Ware of Columbia University’s School of Architecture. After a few days Ware reported to the club that two designs displayed “the most architectural merit.” These were handsome, symmetrical designs so bereft of nautical detail that they could have been nice houses in, say, Cincinnati.

The club chose a third design. Whitney Warren’s exquisite drawings presented something far more exuberant, nautical and eclectic -- so much so, in fact, that Ware, an elderly architect with firmly classical tastes, had dismissed his design as overly obsessed with maritime decoration. Dominating the front were three huge galleon-style windows pushing out over the sidewalk, pouring out sinuous braids of seaweed and exposing the immense Model Room to the eyes of passersby. Off in the corner (in clear violation of the classic rules of symmetry) stood the doorway under its own display of maritime decoration. This highly unusual, unbalanced arrangement and the three-dimensional carvings combined to make the building look far larger than its 75-foot width and far more fluid than the heavy-limestone construction could reasonably be expected to allow.

Warren understood the club’s purpose at both the practical and symbolic level, and he was able to express that appreciation of its identity in his plan as well as in his written essay. The other architects reverted to professional terminology, like “axial arrangement,” as though the final choice would be made by Ware. Warren dispensed with technical language. The New York Yacht Club, he wrote, must present itself not as “an ordinary social institution” but as a building whose mission is “the furtherance of naval architecture from the amateur point of view.” Warren’s inclusion of the adjective amateur is telling. Amateurs romanticize their interests; most professionals do not.

Warren zeroed in on the Model Room: “This room is essentially ‘The Club.’” His schematic plan for the room overflows with details of the sea’s history and traditions. Warren’s drawings show marine natural life, astrolabes, globes and many yacht and ship models.

If 37 West 44th Street had scriptural inspiration, it surely would be the verses in Psalm 104 (King James Version) that read: “Oh Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou has made to play therein."

Seaweed, snails, shells, dolphins, lightning bolts, clouds, stars. They all are there, even leviathans and other sea monsters snarling from the balcony, and around them all sail the ships. Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, calls this Warren’s “masterpiece of bravado.” But the daring does not end there, for this great sea is itself contained within the great ship of the building, a galleon on a course uptown upon the great expanse of the city….

Warren’s world was changing in the nineteen-twenties with the rise of skyscrapers and modernism’s sweeping away of romantic symbolism. In 1926 he said that what New York needed was “a little peace.” He continued: “Ancient traditions of pure melody clash along the avenue with the modern dissonance of jazz; the towering aggressive structures of industry and commerce are like the clarion calls of architecture, all about us. What to do? Man is not always strident, the soul is not always in haste, the eye does not always seek the restless gesture of the sky-scraper, never attaining its sky.”

There is no industrial restlessness in Whitney Warren’s remarkable building on West 44th Street. Here, all that moves is the imaginary bow wave under a favorite model and, if one looks at the fireplace long enough, the occasional sway of the seaweed. The air sometimes smells of salt.

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