Brooklyn Heights History: Clubs

Another feature of wealthy nineteenth century areas was club life. It was de rigueur for men to join at least one as a home away from home. Most are now gone. The only one surviving in the Heights, the Heights Casino, still functions because it is a sports club.

The first was the Long Island Club, later the Brooklyn Club, founded in 1865, which was originally housed in a mansion on Remsen Street later demolished for the Hamilton Club. Its proudest possession was an original Francis Guy painting of the Brooklyn Ferry area from around 1810, which was donated to the Brooklyn Museum when the club terminated.

The Hamilton Club, an offshoot of the Apprentices’ Library and Lyceum, began as the Hamilton Literary Society and in 1830 became the Hamilton Library Association, expressing its interest in debating and its possession of a library. It was renamed the Hamilton Club in 1882 and built a clubhouse at the northwest corner of Clinton and Remsen Streets in 1884, using the former Long Island/Brooklyn Club mansion as a base.
In 1892 it added a statue of its namesake to the front yard (Figure ), which was removed to Hamilton Grange in Harlem when the club terminated in 1936 and merged with the Century Club. The building was demolished and replaced by an apartment house.

The club moved to Pierrepont and Clinton Streets (Figure 131), on which the back of the Brooklyn Trust Company was later raised. It then moved to 131 Remsen Street, which had been the home of James H. Post, president of the National Sugar Refining Company. It passed out of existence in 2002 and its home became a synagogue.

It was perhaps the glitziest club in the neighborhood, and the Brooklyn equivalent of Fraunces Tavern, which is owned by the Sons of the Revolution, a descendants’ organization. Since Alexander Hamilton was the apostle of big business in America, the club may be viewed as promoting those ideas. The actor George Arliss visited to see its portrait of Martha Washington.

Admiral Robert E. Peary, the first to reach the North Pole, came there and was an associated club member. Several dinners were given for him, including one on January 5, 1907, at which he gave an account of his Arctic journey. Woodrow Wilson was tendered a reception while president of Princeton University (before he was President of the U.S.). Future president Herbert Hoover was a visitor in 1920, and Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler made a speech there in 1913. William J. Burns, who went on from Union military security service to found his own security firm, was also honored, as was NYC mayor George B. McClellan, son of the Civil War general, who served as mayor from 1904-1905.
The club’s major event was the Washington and Hamilton Birthday celebrations. The club was royally done up for the Hamilton observances. The grill was decorated as a forest, on one occasion with birch bark covering the walls. Menus were printed on wood, with animal skins and heads and stuffed birds.

The club featured souvenirs of Hamilton, including a lock of his hair, and two letters he wrote. There was also a copy of the ballad “The Drum” sung by Hamilton with Aaron Burr in attendance at the dinner on July 8, 1804, of the Society of the Cincinnati (a group of officers who had known Washington during the Revolution), of which Hamilton was president, a week before their fatal duel. Surprisingly, Hamilton and Burr had been friends and were witnessed leaving the old County Courthouse in Flatbush together arm-in-arm.

Starting in 1830, members often adjourned to Johnny Joe’s, an oyster bar on Prospect Street at Fulton Ferry, where they also held their reunions. The owner, John Josephs, was born a slave in Martinique around 1800, but as a boy was taken to New York by his master and freed. He worked as a waiter in private homes and then as an army servant under General Winfield Scott during the War of 1812. Scott would later become the hero of the Mexican War. In 1825 he married Louisa Britton, a former American slave, who became the cook in his restaurant.

At club gatherings at Johnny’s, members would sing an official anthem whose lyrics were:

Our trysting place at Johnny Joe’s
Our glorious John Joe’s
Where we all ate the oyster fries,
Down there at Johnny Joe’s.

When Josephs died in 1880 the Eagle obituary stated, referring to Henry Murphy, “This vestibule of the great structure should properly be christened as Johnny Joe’s monument, for who of all mortals more enjoyed his wine and oysters (and was more royally treated by him) that the immediate President of the Bridge Company, who is a distinguished Hamiltonian and whose portrait hangs in his ancient hall.”

The club had three vases given by the French government as thanks for courtesies extended their representatives during the ceremonies for the opening of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 when its sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, visited the club.

 

Robert Furman is working on a history of Brooklyn Heights called “Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rise of America’s First Suburb,” to be published later this year.

Share this Story:
  • Karl Junkersfeld

    I said it once and I’ll say it again, I can’t wait for this book to come out. I am constantly showing people the neighborhood with informal tours and this book will add tremendously to my repertoire.

  • Neil Martin

    Just an observation that the photo of the Hamilton Club would indicate the building was on the SOUTHwest corner of Remsen and Clinton, not the northwest as described in the text.

    You mention that the Hamilton Club “terminated” in 1936, merging with the Century Club, which presumably is the club that ended up at 131 Remsen St. In September 1954, when I moved into 127 Remsen St., the building next door (131) bore the title “The Brooklyn Club” on brass plaques flanking its entrance, and it was thus until at least the early sixties. Perhaps that was The Brooklyn Club’s last location before the current synagogue moved into the building? I can find no reference to any such club today. Anyway, the Hamilton Club could only have been at 131 Remsen in the relatively short period after they left their most recent site at Pierrepont and Clinton and before The Brooklyn Club relocated to the Remsen address sometime prior to mid-1954.

    I seem to remember a building with a red entry canopy bearing the legend “Hamilton Club” during this period (anyone else remember this?), but I can’t remember if it was on Remsen or Montague, farther down towards Court St. I wonder if the name had at some point been resurrected, and if that was the club’s final location.

    Also, I’m a bit confused about that last photo, captioned as The Brooklyn Club; if that is supposed to be the same site upon which the Hamilton club was later erected, it appears that the entrance was shifted from Clinton to Remsen St. Is that the case?

    There appears to be no image referenced by “image 131″ in the text. Are such image references intended for use in the finished manuscript only, and not in the context of this blog?

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

    Neil Martin

  • Neil Martin

    If the following article is accurate, then the Hamilton Club must have relocated to some address other than 131 Remsen St. after leaving the site at Pierrepont and Clinton.

    From The New York Times, January 24, 1999:

    NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: BROOKLYN HEIGHTS; A Club Dies; So Does Part Of Brooklyn
    By EDWARD LEWINE
    Published: January 24, 1999

    ”I feel very melancholy seeing this building,” Philip F. Stenger, 70, said last week as he regarded the brownstone at 131 Remsen Street, between Clinton and Henry Streets. From 1915 to 1994, it was the home of the Brooklyn Club. Now it is the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. And the club, which lingered on a few years after the brownstone was sold, is also no more. Members held their last meeting on Dec. 18.

    ”It’s a piece of my life cut away from me,” said Mr. Stenger, a club member since 1969 who works as a consultant to the European American Bank. ”It sure is.”

    The club began in 1865, meeting in a building at Pierrepont and Clinton Streets. (Opening festivities were canceled because of Lincoln’s assassination.) Early on, the club was a preserve of the city’s Protestant elite, including Henry E. Pierrepont, whose family owned large tracts of downtown Brooklyn.

    A former member, who insisted on anonymity because the subject was sensitive, said that in the 20th century the club evolved from a Protestant enclave to a mainly Irish one, attracting Irish businessmen from the many banks and insurance companies on nearby Montague Street. Women, blacks and Jews were not admitted as members until the 70′s.

    The president of Brooklyn Eagle Publications, Frederick A. Halla, 81, said the antiques-filled clubhouse was a place for convivial business lunches and quiet dinners with wives. Brooklyn’s power brokers met there. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland spoke there.

    ”The company was good,” said City Councilman Kenneth K. Fisher, whose father, Harold, was a prominent member of the club and active in Democratic Party politics. ”The food was mediocre.”

    At its peak in the early 70′s, the club had more than 600 members, Mr. Stenger said. But as the years passed, members and the businesses they worked for moved away, and fewer people used the building.

    It was sold for $1.4 million in 1994 to pay off debts. The club moved to the restaurant Foffe’s on Montague Street, which is now defunct, and then upstairs at Gage & Tollner, a restaurant on Fulton Street near Jay Street.

    Last November, members voted 70 to 2 to shut down the club. Mr. Stenger said some still meet on Fridays at Gage & Tollner and are copyrighting the club name to protect it from inappropriate use. Discussions have been held with the Brooklyn Historical Society to mount an exhibit of club memorabilia.

    ”The club is over,” Mr. Stenger said. ”It’s part of history. It’s gone.”

    EDWARD LEWINE

  • bob furman

    Thanks all for the info. I’ll incorporate it. When the Hamilton shut down it merged with the Century which was in the current St Ann’s School building at Pierrepont and Clinton, as the article says.

  • bob furman

    The only thing I’m not clear on is the relationship between the LI and Brooklyn Clubs. What I wrote seems logical. I mention elsewhere that Walter O’Malley was a club officer.

  • RF

    What about the Crescent Club, in what is now St. Ann’s? Is there really an old swimming pool in the basement? I’d like to know more of the history of that place.

  • bob furman

    I didn’t include the Crescent/Century Club. I’ll do this and other clubs
    this week.

  • Gerrry

    I rememebr many events at The Brooklyn Club for years Brooklyn Union Gas and other local corporations kept that place going.

  • Neil Martin

    Interesting, Gerry–as I was reading about the Brooklyn Club, I remembered that during the entire time I lived right next door to it, I NEVER ONCE saw any signs of life, with the sole exception of the ice man occasionally delivering a bushel basket full of ice, slung over his shoulder. He would pull up in front of the club, climb into the back of his open truck and grind the ice from a large block, filling the basket and bringing it to the front door, where he was presumably let in by some otherwise unseen presence within.

    Though I was only a youngster at the time, it still struck me as strange that I never encountered anyone coming or going, even after I would climb up to a small niche (my convenient, next-door hideout) at the top of one of the large columns flanking the front door.