It’s May ladies and gentlemen, and May means sunshine, summer, and celebrations!
Our last post took us from poetry, to the Seagram Building, and to hot dogs (ahem, franks). We’ll only go a little further away this time, to the 21 Club on 52nd Street – also known as just “21” – a singularly appropriate name for this month of celebration and alcohol.
The bar is a former speakeasy, built in 1930 for owners Jack Krendler and Charlie Berns, who had opened previous versions in Greenwich Village in 1922. This is the Prohibition Era, with raids by the police left and right on bars and any establishment that might have some sort of alcohol available. Thus the birth of speakeasies – those secret underground bars where passwords and codes were needed to get in, and where a whole network of secrecy tied together this struggle against the suppression of sheer enjoyment. When the owners commissioned Frank Buchanan to design the place, they realized that their prominent location – no longer in the back room of a building – made it necessary to devise ways to quickly get rid of alcohol. Buchanan ingeniously devised a “disappearing bar,” that, with the flip of a lever, would dump shelves of bottles into a chute that led to the sewer system. Further, he created a clandestine wine cellar hidden behind a heavy brick door that could only be unlocked by inserting a meat skewer into a small hole at a particular angle. Throughout its operation during prohibition, the bar came up dry on multiple raids.
Though the interior is wonderfully tricked out, it’s the exterior that is the focus of our photo this week. As you walk by the four-story building on fifty-second street, what arrests your eye isn’t the mansard roof, nor the intricate ironwork covering all of the first floor walls and fences – fences that were originally located at 42 West 49th Street, the club’s original location. No, it’s the colorful line of jockeys who proudly stand along the first floor canopy. These iron statues were donated by famous stables throughout the country over the decades (by families such as Vanderbilt and Mellon) beginning in the 1930s with Jay Van Urk, a socialite, sportsman, and jack-of-all-trades. The ‘21’ regular wanted to demonstrate his appreciation for the daily hospitality and began the decades-long tradition of regulars donating these iron statues. Today there are 35 of these 120-pound jockeys dotting the first floor, representing families such as Vanderbilt, Mellon, Odgen Mills Phipps, the Galbreth clan, and includes one in honor of Secretariat.
Their pose is welcoming, holding out one arm, and one could imagine them holding drinks and performing a toast to their incoming patrons. Cheers!
Architect: Frank Buchanan
Location: 21 West 52nd Street
Marilyn, Kaylor. “21”: the life and time of New York’s favorite club. New York: Viking Press. 1975.
“21 Club Historical Timeline.” ‘21’ Club. 2015.