There are some places you step into and you’re instantly whisked into a bygone time. The National Arts Club in Gramercy Park is one of those . I visited this legendary private clubhouse during Open House Weekend last year and was impressed with intricately carved fireplaces, period furniture, and pieces from the permanent collection.
The Club was founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay. An art and literary critic who worked for 18 years for the New York Times, de Kay was also an ardent fan of fencing, founding the Fencer’s Club in New York. In March of 1898, de Kay called together a number of civic leaders and men prominent in the art world who supported the idea, elected the first officers and incorporated the Club in 1899. A show of American gold and silver work in October 1899 was the first exhibition held at the National Arts Club.
Within the National Arts Club there have been some smaller societies. The Men's Open Table, founded in 1910, met weekly for more than forty years for dinner followed by a talk. The American Institute of Graphic Arts is one of the organizations said to have developed from associations formed and discussions held at the Men's Open Table.
Club moved to the Tilden Mansion at 15 Gramercy Park six years later, in 1905. In the Dutch colonial era, the area was the northern edge of Peter Stuyvesant's farm. After the Revolution, the marsh became part of a larger holding known as Gramercy Farm and owned by James Duane, the city's first post-Revolutionary mayor. Duane's heirs sold the land to attorney Samuel Ruggles, who envisioned an elegant neighborhood centered around a private park. By the Civil War, Gramercy had become one of the city's most fashionable areas, and in 1863, Samuel J. Tilden, an attorney, purchased 15 Gramercy.
Samuel Jones Tilden was a leading political figure of the 19th Century. He was elected as a governor of New York in 1874. Tilden's reputation as a reformer led his party to nominate him as their candidate for President. Tilden attacked and broke the "Canal Ring," individuals whom had made millions of dollars illegally from contracts for the repair and extension of the state's lucrative canals. Tilden was defeated by Rutherford B. Hayes in a hotly disputed presidential election in 1876.(...)
Tilden, stung by the loss, turned his attention to his Gramercy Park property and threw himself into a major remodeling project. Calvert Vaux , who was co-architect of Central Park, completely reworked the facade of the house.
Allegories of the four seasons carved from Scottish Carlisle stone dotted the facade along with heads of historical figures: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Milton, and Benjamin Franklin who was, in Tilden's words, "the representative American." Above the entrance to 14 Gramercy, Tilden's library, was a sandstone bust of Michelangelo. (....)
Tilden's health was failing, and he died in 1886. Tilden donated most of his substantial fortune and his books to found the New York Public Library.
The National Arts Club, unlike many other private clubs founded during the same era, admitted women members from its inception. Throughout its history, the Club's membership has been comprised of artists, musicians, writers, and performers, as well as collectors and supporters of the arts drawn from all parts of the country.
Membership peaked at around 1,800 in 1920, declining throughout the Depression and again in the mid-1950s, and remaining at about 600 for the next two decades. The club counts three Presidents–Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Dwight D. Eisenhower–in addition to the numerous painters, sculptors and architects that have formed its ranks. Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Anna Hyatt Huntington and Paul Manship were the members of the club.
A program of accepting artist life members in exchange for a work of art valued at $1000 meant that the club amassed a collection of early 20th-century American art that still graces its walls.
Many private clubs have overnight rooms for their members, but the National Arts Club is the only club than has a revenue-generating apartment complex.
The club former president, Aldon James, was an eccentric who used the club to hoard massive amounts of junk, and who rented apartments to family members for a small fraction of their market rates. In 2011 after a 25-year reign, James finally agreed to step aside. An internal investigation revealed that James wrote $1.4 million worth of club checks without any backup documentation, oversight or invoices. He also likely stole cash from the club's bar and events receipt box, and took items from residents' apartments and stole their mail, the report concluded.
In 2013 Aldon James agreed to pay $950,000 to settle allegations by the offices of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman that he committed the acts of “self-dealing and breach of fiduciary duty.”
The National Arts Club Dining Room and bar are open only to members and guests of members. All four galleries of The National Arts Club are open to the public and can be visited Monday to Friday between 10 AM and 5 PM . There is no admission fee.