For awhile a friend has been inviting me to hang out with him at the University Club of New York. Tonight he finally got me to come out with him, although I was annoyed about the requirement that I wear a suit and tie to the place. "Dress like you are going to a wedding or a job interview," he advised.
I arrived at the spot, 54th and Fifth Avenue at 6:30pm, sporting my nice grey suit with an art deco tie. He was there waiting for me, wearing a blue seersucker and a sly grin. "You are going to love this," he promises.
We’re through the revolving door of 1 West 54th Street, and suddenly I’m transported into the most opulent interior space I’ve ever been in, this side of the Vatican.
As I learn later in the evening, the University Club was started in the 1860s by some Yale grads in New York who wanted a space to stay connected with each other after graduation. The University Club became the epitome of the Old Boy’s Club, a place for old money to hang out with old money.
My friend gave me a quick tour of the place, which is deceptively small from the outside, but like something out of Harry Potter containing immense ballrooms, lobbies, libraries, reading rooms, bedrooms, and a gym.
We started in the lobby, which is ringed with enormous classical pillars made of stunning blue marble. Milling about were several dozen older couples in suits and evening dresses on their way to some cabaret concert.
Signs everywhere advise you that cell phone, PDA, and camera usage in the building is prohibited. For those that simply must remain connected, there are several old style phone booths that you can retire to without disturbing the other members.
My pal dragged me into a reading room that looks out onto Fifth Avenue. The room is decorated with plush carpet, dark wood decor and leather chairs. Despite the crowds of tourists and traffic, the reading room was almost completely silent. A gigantic bound volume of New York Tribune newspapers is turned to the front page of the paper 100 year’s ago. Old men sit in chairs reading the paper or magazines. I didn’t see anyone drinking cognac or smoking a pipe, but otherwise this was exactly like the sorts of upper echelon men’s clubs you hear about.
We headed upstairs to the second floor bar, where we ordered drinks and snacked on tiny sandwiches and cheese that were laid out on a table. Apparently, all transactions at the University Club are handled with a tab that is billed later to the members, so no money ever is exchanged in the club, not even tips. We took our drinks and wandered through the billiard room, the hotel wing, and several smaller meeting rooms.
Our next stop was the library, which looked like something out of a Sherlock Holmes novel. The walls and ceiling were richly decorated with molding and frescos depicting the various subject matter, from music to history to science. Hundred year old books lined the walls up to the ceiling, which you could reach via iron catwalks and spiral staircases. Only the computer terminals in one corner reminded you that this was the 21st century. Otherwise, the library has barely changed from the pictures of it 100 years ago we looked at.
A few flights up was the incredible main dining room of the University Club, with gilded ornate cathedral ceilings, enormous bay windows, and opulently set tables. A seafood buffet was being served that looked amazing. At one end of the dining hall was a veranda where you could sit outside and look out on the street and the nearby MOMA.
In the basement of the building is a sauna, whirlpool, pool and gym. We decided to relax in the whirlpool for awhile, then hit up the sauna and finish with some laps in the pool. It’s a men only gym, so guys walk around naked in the pool area. This took some getting used to, but felt liberating after awhile. Finishing up with a shower and a shave, I don’t think I’ve ever felt cleaner and more refreshed.
Bouncing out onto the mean streets of Manhattan, I was amazed that there are people who live like this all the time. To splurge on such luxuries once in a blue moon is one thing. But to be a lifetime member of this inner circle and have this be part of your daily routine just blows my mind.
"How the hell did you get into this place?" I asked him, amazed.
"Oh we have friends who are members here," he explained.
The University Club application process is apparently quite grueling, and spots only become available when current members die or give up their membership. To even be considered you have to be recommended by several other members. Then you are grilled in a series of interviews, that your sponsors have to attend with you. At the end, if you are lucky, you can join the 2,000 privileged souls who call the University Club their second home.
The benefits seem pretty obvious. You would be regularly hob-nobbing with captains of industry and people who are enormously successful in their fields. Every day you could bask in this elite clubhouse in the center of the greatest city on earth. Not to mention every Tuesday is burgers and fries in the taproom.
But you would also be sequestering yourself with a very elite, very white, and very male crowd. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live in that world. But it’s fascinating to visit, like exploring a foreign country within my own city.