From New Haven to Stratford, from Old Greenwich to New Rochelle, the Metro North railway rambles along the Connecticut coast before bidding adieu to the desolate winter landscape and descending into the depths of Midtown Manhattan and Grand Central Terminal. At the center of the city, Grand Central is a nexus of travel flowing with black trench coats and briefcases below the grimacing faces of scurrying businessmen and women — hardly the warmest of welcomes for the academia-glazed Yalie. But outside Grand Central and across Vanderbilt Avenue is a slice of home cooking for nostalgic Yalies of old and recent fledglings alike: The Yale Club of New York City.
“The Yale Club is a place to go in the City that feels like your own,” Sunny Larson ’03 said as we sat in The Clarence Day Room in the Club’s library. Larson is the Chair of the Young Members Committee, one of twelve organizing bodies specifically created to give young members more stake in the Club. It was clear that the enthusiasm surrounding Larson and her peers stems from a regained sense of empowerment not felt since their time at Yale. The Yale Club is the residential college of Yale graduates; they’re free to shape it as they please.
“I come here to decompress, to have a quick drink and snack,” Dev Gandhi ’02 added. “My favorite thing about the Yale Club is this very fundamental notion of being in a place where I’ll always be met with other Yalies. For me, it’s the main avenue to stay involved with that time of my life.”
Gandhi too met us in the library, a cozy den in which he often studied during his time as a law student in the city.
Whether you come to the Yale Club to share a cigar with your business associates in the Grill Room or to reconnect with a crush from your senior year econometrics class over an apple martini, the Yale Club has, in recent years, stirven to appeal to Yale graduates of all ages. While some undergraduates feel that the Yale Club is most suited to generations past, a night among the Club’s clientele revealed a more sundry scene. Young membership is increasing: more new members joined within the last six months of 2010 than did in the whole of 2009, and the Club is quickly becoming a social hub for recently graduated alumni living in New York City. Trendy events and reduced membership rates have drawn a surge of new applicants of late, but the Club’s rich history and grand décor still reaffirm the Yale of years past despite recent efforts at modernization and an updated ethos. Old Yale and New Yale rarely interact outside the timeless realm of tradition and lore, but at the Yale Club of New York City these worlds come face to face amongst MacBook Pros and portraits of past presidents.
Founded in 1897 by the Old Yale Alumni Association of New York, the Yale Club was first located at 17 Madison Square in a brownstone rented by the Club. But it did not take long for the Club to require an upgrade, and by 1901, it was ready to open the doors of its newly built 11-story clubhouse at 30 West 44th St. The Club’s new high-rise was newsworthy at the time: turn-of-the-century university clubs rarely occupied any building taller than a brownstone. The 11 stories provided a particular bonus to Yalies: a New York Times article from 1989 refers to a 1901 New York Tribune article quoting a Club member as saying, “It will be an easy matter to look down upon the Harvard and throw bouquets to them when there is occasion for doing so.”
The UPenn Club now occupies that spot, and the Yale Club as we know it, built in 1915, just across the street from Grand Central Terminal gained an additional 11 stories to the Club’s 1901 height, checking in at 22 stories.
The Club at 55 Vanderbilt Ave. is very obviously Yale’s: there are Yale Club logos everywhere to remind you of it. Even the paper towels in the bathrooms and the carpets in the hallways are crossed with the “YC” emblems of the establishment. The guest room mouthwash is Yale Club mouthwash; the pillows are adorned with Bulldogs.
So it may come as a bit of a surprise that the clubhouse is also shared by the University of Virginia, Dartmouth and DKE Clubs. Of the Club’s 11,000 members, 9,000 are Yale affiliates and the remaining 2,000 members are split among alumni belonging to one of the other three groups. All are welcome to participate in Yale Club events, but the other two universities and the fraternity have events specifically for their members as well.
With walls peppered with portraits, team photos and plaques commemorating Old Yale, the Club’s desire to whisk its members back to those magical college years is no subtle affair. Upon entering the elegant lobby, familiar names and insignias immediately appear. Two banquet halls recall their Trumbull and Saybrook College namesakes, and the elevator directory is designed to mimic that of Sterling Memorial Library’s famed stacks. On the fourth floor is the club’s library, and aside from the overabundance of Clancy-esque murder mysteries in place of old editions of George Berkeley’s “Treatises Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge,” it is nearly indistinguishable from a residential college library. Additionally, one of the club’s more casual dining destinations, the Grillroom, is designed to feel more like a lounge than a sophisticated restaurant despite its ambitious menu. After a moment, you may notice its striking similarity to the Linonia Brothers Reading Room in Sterling Memorial Library, also known as the Green Room.
Designed by James Gamble Rogers 1889, the clubhouse is architecturally similar to its namesake university both inside and out. Rogers constructed a whole slur of buildings at Yale — from Sterling Memorial Library and Harkness Tower to eight of Yale’s twelve current residential colleges. But the Club was, in fact, built years before Rogers was commissioned to design any of the buildings that today define Yale’s campus. It is just as fair to say that Yale resembles the Yale Club, as it is to say that the Club resembles Yale.
“Rogers built the Club before he built Yale. Many people walk in and are reminded of Yale,” said Rebecca Hinkle ’10, who spent the summer of 2010 at the Club under the Yale Alumni Community Service Summer Fellowship. “I came away with the conclusion that Rogers built rooms such as the billiards room (now the Tap Room) and Grill Room, which have a collegiate atmosphere, under the same impetus as Yale.”
Yet despite its collegiate feel, there is something not wholly comforting about the space for those more inclined to youthful exuberance. The Yale Club of New York City may look and even smell like Yale, but its atmosphere tends to constantly reaffirm its aged grace. Missing are the packs of drunken Pundits, rowdy fraternity brothers and the usual cast of characters who run wild amongst Yale’s scores of corridors. Yale is infamoulsy relaxed when it comes to rules and regulations, but the Yale Club of New York City is crawling with straitlaced sheriffs.
The Club claims to maintain “a peaceful enclave in which to escape the metropolitan cacophony just outside its walls,” and it most certainly does, but the moment you are greeted by the doorman the presence of a verbose (and pretentious) rule book is noted. There is business casual attire required throughout the house, and cell phone and laptop use is not permitted in public spaces. Cigarette smoking is limited to designated guest rooms, but cigar and pipe smoking are permitted throughout. The rules tend to be less burdensome than they are aesthetically sculpting and the club often feels like an elite Country Club, an atmosphere that the majority of its patrons undoubtedly appreciate.
But those who are more at odds with this buttoned-up aura are the very alumni the Club is attempting to attract. Younger visitors to the Club said the formality can be unwelcoming.
“If you’re used to wearing shorts and t-shirts, you may be a little uncomfortable,” Nathan Prillaman ’13 said. Prillaman’s parents were married in the Club and he has since visited with them during stays in New York.
But the pervading stuffiness of the Yale Club does not create an environment merely suited for weekly bridge games however. The three restaurants of the club offer progressive menus with varied levels of sophistication, and the in-house watering holes scattered throughout the facility are perfectly suited for anything from a drink and a business conversation to a pre-game amongst friends prior to a raucous night of clubbing. The Roof Dining Room atop the 22nd floor offers the elegance of a high-end midtown-dining destination with incredible views of the surrounding city lights. In the summertime, the roof top terrace is open to guests and a bar and lounge area is constructed on the balcony for midsummer revelry in the balmy night air.
Each Thursday of the summer is host to the Club’s Thursday Night Cocktails, the “Ground Zero of your Thursday night” according to Dev Gandhi.
The Thursday Night Cocktail event was created fifteen years ago by Charlie Guggenheimer ’55. It remains very popular with members between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five, during and right after university.
“Certainly a wide range of activities and interests are represented at the Club,” Yale Club Activities Manager Laura Rapin ’09 said.
The Club hosts over 250 events a year, ranging from wine tastings to library lectures with Yale professors and New York notables to the vastly popular Feb Club Emeritus. Inspired by Yale’s penchant for large-scale dining hall parties, the club hosts an annual Young Members Dance Party attended by hundreds of New York City’s classiest young Yalies. The décor changes each year with past themes ranging from Havana Nights to Paparazzi. This year’s theme is the circus inspired Black Tie under the Big Top, and the annual beer pong tournament March Madness is just around the corner. The varied events represent a kind of meeting of worlds: much like the “study hard, party hard” mentality of Yalies themselves, intellectualism and debauchery meet at the Yale Club on any given week.
“The only thing I proposed that was ever turned down was the fire and sword swallowers for Black Tie Under the Big Top,” Larson said.
Other members of the Young Members Committee echo this “sky’s the limit” sentiment of the Club. “As long as it’s actually physically feasible, we do our best to put it together,” Rapin added.
“At the Yale Club there is that ‘can do’ attitude you usually find in college, which is often absent in the workplace,” Larson said.
When a young male member recently lamented he was having trouble finding such quality woman in the real world as existed at Yale, the Young Members Committee organized a speed dating series to facilitate inbreeding. If crimson better suites your fancy, the Club hosts a Harvard Club Mistletoe Mixer during the holiday season. Comparable mixers exist for a variety of institutions and social entities, such as the annual DKE Christmas party.
But things have not always been fun and games at the Yale Club. Just as the values of the student body of Yale itself have changed, so too have the priorities of the Yale Club shifted with time. When the issue of gender equality emerged in the 1960’s, the Old Boys’ Club was forced to take a reevaluating look in the mirror and consider its position towards women. With the Yale Board of Trustees’ approval of the “Coeducation Plan” to admit women into Yale College in 1968, female membership became a serious question. The fairer sex was largely barred from participation within the Yale Club up until this point despite an oversight of one female member who was a Yale Ph.D. graduate and even served on the Club’s Activities Committee. A Ladies’ Dining Room and partitioned lobby area were established in 1939 for female family members and guests, a progressive addition at the time. But the ladies still used a separate door to access the clubhouse and reached the Dining Room through a separate ladies’ elevator. Membership was certainly not a topic of conversation even though women had been students of the School of Fine Arts since 1896 and the Graduate School since 1892. The 1968 decision brought the University eminently closer to a point of gender equality by which the Club could not merely entertain women as mothers and girlfriends of the Men of Yale.
In July 1969, the Club Council held a meeting to vote upon the admission of female alumni as members to the Club, and 70 percent of those present voted in favor of their acceptance. These female members were to “have no greater privileges or use of the Club facilities than wives of members and female guests of members,” meaning that they would also have access only to limited facilities. But once the doors were cracked open it was inevitable that they would one day swing freely. Lara Tumeh ’10 describes the process of “evolution not revolution” that led to the eventual membership equality in “The History of Women’s Integration into the Yale Club of New York City,” an 18-page history that she wrote as a Yale Club Summer Fellow in 2009. Women gained access to the squash courts, Main Bar and dining rooms during the 1970’s but did not gain access to the fifth floor swimming pool until 1987. This was, in part, due to the financial issues of the previous decade, since the admission of women to the pool required the building of women’s locker rooms and a major renovation of the entire floor. But even during the financial security of the Reaganomics era, the decision did not fail to stir up quite a bit of controversy — clearly the delay was not merely financial.
Apparently, the pool area had been something like the Roman baths of old during its boys’ club days; “it was considered bad form to wear clothes,” Jeffrey Jannuzzo LAW ’76 told the New York Times in 2000. But that hurdle was overcome and the Club’s 32-by-18 foot pool now boasts three very short but very coed lanes.
Women’s bathrooms throughout the clubhouse proved to be another structural puzzle. Patrons will notice that men’s and women’s bathrooms are not logically placed. Female bathrooms had to be added wherever possible, so bathrooms for both sexes are only found on some public floors. On the ground floor, a tunnel connecting the Club directly to Grand Central had to be shut off to make space for ladies’ lavatories, nixing the cozy passageway that avoided icy winds in winter and sultry humidity in summer.
Modernization hasn’t just meant keeping up with the times culturally and architecturally: the Club’s patronship has also undergone rejuvenation efforts.
New graduates who join before the first January after graduation waive initiation fees, which run as high as $580.30 for alumni who have been out of college for ten years or more. Members from the Class of 2008-2010 also pay quarterly dues that are only roughly 25 percent the rate of mature members and can access the gym without paying the $400 annual fee. These rate cuts are meant to attract young alumni to the Club in a manner that accommodates their current income level and are increased in a graduated manner. But many young members drop out once they are asked to pay increased membership rates and the annual gym fee imposed three years after graduation, Yale Club President Henry Bertram ’73 told the News in April.
“As of January 10, we have a total of 194 Class of 2010 members. Of this number, 134 are Yale grads, 41 are UVA, 15 are Dartmouth, and 4 are DKE,” Rachel Cooke ’10, Member Services Associate of the Yale Club, wrote in an email.
The evening before, during a tour of the Club’s facilities, Cooke mentioned that this number was higher than the total number of Class of 2009 alumni who joined within a year after their graduation.
This increase in young membership has come after various initiatives to make the Club more appealing to younger generations. Along with rate reductions, the Club has undergone renovations totaling over $10 million in the past ten years to create a newer look and the Young Members Committee has organized a host of events geared towards younger crowds.
The eight-week-long Yale Alumni Community Service Fellowship (YACSF) that places students in paid positions at non-profit organizations helps acquaint undergraduates with the Club as well. Students who take on positions in New York are housed in the Yale Club and, as of 2009, one student per year has worked for the Club doing research about some aspect of the institution.
“I pretended I was Eloise for most of the summer,” Hinkle said of her experience living in and working for the Yale Club of New York City.
The handful of students residing there were pampered with rooftop breakfasts every morning and occasional dinners with the Young Members Committee.
We too had our Eloise moment dining among the financiers and literati who haunt the Yale Club and its restaurants, athletic facilities, and reading rooms. Certainly the Yale Club is the bee’s knees of post collegiate social facilitators; its dining is elegant, its gym a miniature Payne Whitney, and the rooms rival those of The Plaza. It is easy to imagine cozying up with a Brandy Alexander in one of the plush armchairs of the Grill Room. But this image is conjured prematurely, more apt for a later date when we’ve gained the maturity of the same fine Brandy we hastily sip. For now, while we are just entering the tender twenties of our lives, the Yale Club remains a destination for Thursday Night Cocktails and the occasional speed dating, rather than a home away from home.