In the Montauk Club, smack in the heart of bourgeois Brooklyn, a cadre of self-styled anti-elitists find a crumbling mansion and discover a link to New York’s glorious past.
In 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made an unsuccessful attempt to kill off his most famous creation. “I must save my mind for better things,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. Clearly, he had already started saving it, at least a little. The Greek Interpreter, which appeared in The Strand Magazine that year, found Doyle casting about for ideas, revealing that Sherlock Holmes has a brother, which he’d somehow forgotten to mention in the previous two dozen novels and short stories. It’s not unlike the late-stage sitcom arrival of a cute young niece. Mycroft Holmes, Doyle writes, is every bit as intelligent as his brother Sherlock, but so lazy that he can’t put his skills to any good use. Instead, he spends his time at home, at work, or at his other haunt, The Diogenes Club, which Doyle describes thusly:
“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town.”
This is not a bad description of The Montauk Club, which opened in Brooklyn in 1889, just a few years before Doyle wrote those words, is still operating in the same space today.
Manhattan has plenty of private clubs: The National Arts Club, Soho House, Metropolitan Club, the hip-ish Norwood Club, and others. By and large, however, these clubs all still serve their core constituency: rich people. They have joining fees and annual membership fees rumored to be in the four- and five-figure range, and are full of what the novelist Dana Vachon, a Montauk member, calls “an element of American fascism…checking to see where you went to college or who your father is.”
The Montauk does none of this. New York Magazine once compared the selectiveness of its membership committee to DeVry University, which known for soliciting applicants during the commercial breaks of Judge Joe Brown. Its dress code is non existent. On any night in its grand dining room, all you’re likely to find are a few small groups of people–women in their fifties and sixties, a young couple glancing around the main hall as they plan their wedding, perhaps a lone man working on something as he slowly drains a cocktail—and four or five staff members trying to keep themselves entertained without much to do. If you stay longer than an hour, you’ll likely hear the same CD soundtrack more than once, likely Edith Piaf or the Tigertones, the Princeton a cappella group who make an annual pilgrimage to perform at the club. Its members don’t include swells from Hamptons, tycoons from Forbes, or celebs from People. While not exactly a home to the “unclubbable,” it certainly comes close. And yet, it’s signing up dozens of new members every month. Including recently, myself. Why?
A large part of the answer is straightforward: the building. The Montauk Club was founded by a group of wealthy New Yorkers: Charles Pratt, one of the first men to advocate (and profit from) the shift from whale oil to petroleum; superstar landscape architect Richard Schermerhorn (whose name would come to grace a Brooklyn street and subway stop); and railroad executive and early Brooklyn real estate developer Edwin C. Litchfield. When they decided to start a Brooklyn social club, they designed and constructed a new building just for that purpose. The trio picked architect Frances H. Kimball, who would design nearly two dozen structures around Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx between 1885 and 1911, including the home of Standard Oil on the southern tip of Manhattan and The Empire Building, one of the oldest skyscrapers still standing.
Kimball’s building sits at an odd square intersection,fronting three streets just to the west of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Inspired by a fifteenth-century Venetian palace, the Ca’ d’Oro, it incorporates its Italian cousin’s flamboyant bits of masonry, which sit atop columns that line the gently bulging frontage. Gargoyles, heraldic shields and fleur-de-lis bristle from nooks and crannies. Etched above several of the many balconies are scenes of the five-story building’s cornerstone being laid, and of early settlers interacting with the Montauk Indians, after whom the club is named—not the area of Long Island, something members have been patiently explaining to their friends for decades. It cost $110,000 to build (about $2.7 million in inflation-adjusted dollars), the result of what The New York Times called “a lively tussle between several of the influential members of the club” over increasing its budget from the original estimate of $60,000.
“If you want to be a member of this club,” says Vachon, “probably you walked by this building and you felt something in your heart. That’s a good elitism.”
The building has stayed in relatively good shape for the past century. The club inside, however, has had its ups and downs.
* * *
While never exactly a seat of power, the club spent much of the early and mid-twentieth century as a hub of upper-middle-class social life in Brooklyn. It hosted society dinners, celebrity chefs, and at various points, presidents Grover Cleveland, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.
As Brooklyn suffered through the crime waves of the second
half of the twentieth century, however, so did the Montauk. By the late 1990s, while the neighborhood was beginning to rebound, the club’s membership had fallen to an all-time low.
“I used to be on the board,” says Marilyn Courtney, a retired real estate agent and Park Slope native who joined the club in 1997, in the midst of the its darkest days. “It was like being on the Titanic. ‘The ceiling’s falling,’ this and that. It’s an old building, and it had a lot of issues, like any of these old brownstones.”
Desperate for revenue, the club’s leadership converted the top two floors, which contained the original dining room as well as member lodging, into condos to sell them to a developer. A 1997 article in the New York Times about the sale refers to the club with terms such as “long-withering,” “extinction,” and “humiliating.” It quotes the president at the time, Allan F. Kramer II saying, “The financial reality is we knew we weren’t generating enough funds to continue operating.” The club also tore out the basement’s bowling alley, the scene of the 1911 and 1939 photos of grinning men in vests holding balls with the year scrawled on them in chalk. It is now commercial offices for a consulting firm, among others.
These measures, coupled with a more thorough accounting of the club’s finances, succeed in helping it hang on, if only barely. Members slowly began to fix up the balconies, ceilings and windows. And so it sat, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle—grand, walled off, servers and princes stuck in place, just waiting to be awoken.
It was in this state in 2004, when David Carter first encountered it. Carter, now a forty-nine-year-old antiques appraiser, was living in Manhattan and working for CBS News. He first encountered the club like most other people: by killing time in the neighborhood.
“I drove out here with a lady friend who had a doctor’s appointment on the corner,” says Carter. “She let me out of the car, and I said, ‘I’ll walk around the neighborhood while you’re at the doctor.’ I stumbled on this place, and came in the front door.”
Carter is now a fixture at the club and the chair of its Membership Committee. Almost always in a bow tie and blazer with hair parted to one side, he’s youthful in his early middle age. He’s been integral in reviving an institution that was severely flagged for at least a decade by the time he first stepped through the door. He’s self-effacing and extremely frank, a natural storyteller with the habit of recounting conversations in a “he said, she said” construction more common of a twenty-something rock musician than a social club official. His speech is sprinkled with a vaguely patrician lilt, which even he would likely be the first to admit is something of an invention.
Carter, a former board member of The National Arts Club, walked into the organization and its building in disarray. “None of this furniture was here, none of that furniture was there,” he says, gesturing to the rich red leather armchairs and overstuffed sofa sitting in a curve of stained glass windows. “We had a broken player piano that someone had given, because in those days when those were popular, you bought one for your townhouse, never learned to play, and about a year later, the thing started to break. And it was never a good piano to begin with, it was just a novelty player. It was $2,000 to fix it. You’d paid $2,000 to get it, so it was a wash and you said, ‘Get it out. Where can I send it?’ Send it to your club. They’ll take it gladly.
“And it was out of tune, and bad. That, we got rid of, thank God.” Now, a gleaming black lacquered grand piano sits in its place.
“We didn’t use email,” Carter continues, referring to the state of the club when he joined in 2006. We had a manager who would answer the phone and say, ‘It’s a private dining club,’ and hang up. Every light bulb was 100 watts, because they had meetings here for Weight Watchers and things. There were a lot of attempts to make revenue from things like Gymboree,” to which the club rented space.
Carter and some other young members began to turn things around in 2007, trying to recreate the atmosphere of what it once was. The group of “whippersnappers,” as they were dubbed in a New York Magazine article at the time, tried everything they could think of to get the membership more active: movie nights, music nights, talks, readings, a beer club, a wine club. While some of these are ongoing (on a recent night, the rear-projection 1990s-era big-screen TV in the ballroom was playing Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy “One, Two, Three” to half a dozen people), they were largely unsuccessful. No one was interested. “People here want more a of pub atmosphere,” Carter says with a not-too-subtle tone of disappointment in his voice.
Still, their energy and aesthetic dedication (along with Park Slope’s rapidly increasing real estate prices and general gentility) had an effect. The club has developed into a popular wedding location, and holding a wedding here requires purchasing a membership. New members tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so forth. Now, Carter says, most of the new members are under thirty-five, and total membership has roughly tripled in the past six years.
* * *
The Montauk Club is what Vachon, a thirty-three-year-old journalist and novelist, calls “a singular discontinuity.” Two stories of yawing, deliberately underutilized rooms, with manners from a bygone age. The staff calls you Ms. So-and-so or Mister. Crisp white linens sit on the tables under gently glowing candles. Due to an arcane legal regulation that separates clubs from bars and restaurants, no cash can change hands at the bar; you’re simply sent a bill at the end of the month. This is dizzingly out-of-time: who has a bar tab they don’t settle at the end of the night? It can be dangerous, of course; one young female member is routinely shocked by the size of her bill, despite hosting a half-dozen people for brunch every few weeks.
Though the membership hovers around three hundred, one tends to see the same half dozen faces regularly. Open Wednesday through Friday nights, closed to members on Saturdays for weddings, and open again for Sunday brunch, the place has an easy, solitary air. Members filter in after work, stay for a few drinks, and then go home. I once brought a group of seven in for Sunday brunch, unsure if we’d have to wait for a table. As it turned out, we were the only customers for several hours, although we did have to wait to order. They had yet to print out the day’s menu when we arrived.
More than anything, the luxury of the Montauk is one of time. It’s a space that mixes the best part of home and business. Someone else mixes your drinks and cooks your food, but you’re free to laze around to your heart’s content, without ever being made to feel like you’re wasting anyone’s time.
“You can go to a lot of places in Williamsburg and pretend you’re at an 1850s saloon,” says Vachon. “But someone else is eyeing your barstool. I love Walter Foods, but when your plate’s empty and your glass is empty, you have to go.”
When I ask Carter if the Montauk is simply a club for rich white people, he leans back in his chair and laughs. “It’s a club for poor white people,” he says to me. “All of the rich people belong to better clubs.”
The longer you’re a member, the more apparent this is. During a recent rainstorm, I had to shelter my drink from bits of falling plaster from the ceiling with its spiderwebs of cracks. Broken tiles lay in a pile under the sink in the men’s room, which feels as though it hasn’t been seriously renovated since the 1930s. This, though, is part of its charm. “I’ve brought friends from England here,” says Courtney, “and they love the shabbiness of it.” It’s like a really stunning vintage dress, with just enough frayed threads and torn lace to make you feel comfortable actually wearing it somewhere.
The conversations you overhear from other members reveal ordinary, if upper-middle-class lives. Talk of trouble at the office is more common than the price of hotels in Dubai or Paris. It’s a matter of perspective, of course. The members are obviously more well-off than most, but they’re hardly the 1%. Maybe the 10%, not counting student debt obligations. (Yearly membership dues are $550, or $350 for those under 35.) Everyone seems to have stories about businesses about to start or businesses retired from, but hardly anyone has one currently succeeding wildly.
There are a few issues, of course. The club is unrelentingly Caucasian. It’s all the more noticeable because almost all of the staff are people of color. To further that feeling, just walk to the landing on the only staircase, where there’s an 1875 sculpture by Italian artist Pietro Calvi entitled “The Minstrel.” Nearly six feet tall and made of solid bronze, most of its height comes from its stump. Atop that, however, sits the torso of a nineteenth-century African-American minstrel, holding a banjo through fingerless gloves, dipping down to consider his instrument as a broken stovepipe hat balances on his head. An item of some contention among the members, there was an aborted attempt to remove it from the stairwell some years ago. The only tangible result of that effort is two inches of discoloration on the floorboards immediately next to the statue— the product of a failed attempt to carry it.
The lack of diversity is far from intentional. “I am desperate for a more diverse membership.” Carter tells me, before adding a somewhat carefully-worded appraisal of their success in attracting people of color: “We’re making…inroads.” The club currently has about a half-dozen African-American members, and has plans for more extensive outreach. Members are in talks with the widow of Andrew W. Cooper, the late publisher of The New York Sun and the club’s first African-American member, to obtain a photo to add to the walls. They’re also in the early stages of planning an event in his name to spotlight local African-American artists and journalists.
* * *
I first heard about the club from a co-worker of mine, who’d happened to walk by while some members were working on the yard. They’d struck up a conversation, told him about the club, and practically begged him to join. He told me the story in a bemused, “can you believe such a thing exists?” tone of voice. I was immediately intrigued.
A week later, I was on a tour of the premises. There’s an air of exclusivity that hangs over the place. The first time I walked inside, underneath the massive chandelier, past the grand ballroom with its marble statuettes, up the creaking oak staircase, past the photos of past club presidents—stuffy white men in their tuxedos stretching back to the nineteenth century—I acutely felt like I did not belong. When asked what my job was, I was put into a panic. How could I describe my various employments in the most impressive way? I stammered my way through a mostly honest recounting, which was met with a subdued nod. Had I done O.K.? We wandered the building and out onto the terraces, while I was told the history of the club, of the Montauk Indians, of the ups and downs of the building and the neighborhood. The whole time, I was obsessed with thinking about my posture, my reactions. Had I actually heard of that architect, and was I going to pretend that I had?
Now, months later, I’ve been able to relax. I come in, chat with the bartender, Antonio, who’s worked here since 1996. I sit in the same chair. I order the cocktail of the week, usually a variation of a martini, although sometimes something more adventurous (the base for a recent week’s concoction was Nutella). Occasionally, I have friends over to play a hand of cards. I’ve joined my dining car to this singular discontinuity.
“There is a beauty about being able to join in some idea of a continuous authenticity,” says Vachon. “Something that’s traveled through time, and yet doesn’t have any of the really vile social stuff. You probably could have come in here smoking a cigar, in a really wide lapel polyester suit, and they would have been like, ‘You can pay the dues?’”
* * *
Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.