A Short History of the Montauk Club

It was December of 1888, and 25 members of the Carlton Club gathered in the parlor of one Norton Q. Pope to establish a new private social club in Brooklyn. For reasons lost to history, these men had grown  dissatisfied with their existing club, and were determined to form a new organization. It might have had something to do with the Carlton Club being “dry”, in that no liquor was allowed. But like any good origin story, what came before is less important than what followed.

They chose to name their new club the Montauk Club, after the Montaukett tribe that resided on the northeastern end of Long Island, and for whom Montauk, New York was named. Indeed, the name “Montauk” only narrowly beat out “Seatalcot,” the name of another Native American nation of what is now the South Shore of Long Island. And these founding members chose for the location of their new club the corner of Flatbush and Eighth Avenues, from where they would see a new and growing Brooklyn emerge all around them. And within a few years of its establishment, the Club would make its own mark in this regard with the opening of its landmark clubhouse in 1891.

The Club chose Francis H. Kimball, already developing a name as a prominent New York City architect, to design its clubhouse, modeled after the Ca’ d’Oro in Venice. By the end of 1889, plans had been approved and the cornerstone ceremony held. Work was completed two years later, and the clubhouse opened with a gala reception and celebration. Members quickly settled down to enjoy the Club’s new home, with billiard games, tournaments in the basement bowling alley, theater parties, lectures and celebratory dinners. Kimball, for his part, joined the Club himself in 1910, no doubt proud of the Venetian palazzo he brought to Brownstone Brooklyn.

In the twenty years since the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, Park Slope and Prospect Heights had blossomed into booming residential neighborhoods, attracting families who wanted to live near Olmsted and Vaux’s verdant urban masterpiece, Prospect Park. The Gilded Age was in full swing, and it was the heyday of private clubs, where members could dine, socialize, and discreetly conduct business. While most such institutions restricted their membership along political, ethnic or religious lines, the Montauk Club, from the beginning, would set itself apart.

The Club’s early members covered a broad spectrum of Brooklyn society at the time, including among them Democrats and Republicans, immigrants and native-born Americans, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Though unremarkable by the standards of our era, this arrangement was quite rare for the late nineteenth century, and the membership list quickly swelled to more than 300 members. These early Club members included two Democratic Mayors of Brooklyn — Alfred Chapin and David Boody—and two Republican Lieutenant Governors of New York — Stewart Woodford and Timothy Woodruff.

Montauk Club members were instrumental in creating the Brooklyn of today. They stewarded the consolidation of Brooklyn with the independent towns of Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend, and New Utrecht in the early 1890s, and then with Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island to form the City of Greater New York in 1898. They helped create Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Early Club members’ names and legacies are steeped in the very history of the borough, and all the anchor institutions that have defined its culture and its character for generations.

That culture and character is today one of open doors, shared spaces, and communities of inclusion. We are proud to have grown with the borough we call home.

Indeed the Club’s history has always been one of adapting to a changing world, both at home and abroad. While Club membership was restricted to men for many years, the facility was available for use by members’ wives and daughters, who had their own entrance and their own dining room. In an era when nearly all women’s clubhouses lacked their own spaces, the Club was a popular place for neighborhood women’s organizations to hold breakfasts, lunches, and teas. And the women of the Montauk Club had their own internal organizations, as well. The first of the annual Ladies’ Receptions was held in 1892, with some 1,500 attendees. But the clubhouse was not only used for socializing. Agnes Hull Pendergast, wife of a Montauk Club member, held gatherings there to help win voting rights for women in New York state in 1917.

Over the years, the Club played host to many prominent names. Every President from Grover Cleveland to Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the Club. Al Smith visited the Montauk Club as Governor and supposedly sent telegrams from Albany to the Club’s New Year’s Eve parties each year. The Club was also home to the annual dinners for one of the nation’s most famous political raconteurs, Senator Chauncey Depew. His after-dinner speeches became legendary, and were reprinted in newspapers from coast-to-coast, and overseas. The Montauk Club honored Babe Ruth at a special dinner in 1938. He had such a good time, he asked to be honored again the next year, which Club leaders happily obliged.

But by the early 1930s, the Club had fallen on hard times. The Eighteenth Amendment, barring the sale and manufacture of liquor, passed into law in 1920. While it is said that Club members only paid lip service to Prohibition, Club revenues did indeed drop as a result. And when the Great Depression hit, the Club found itself in financial dire straits.

Frank C. Russell, a coffee wholesaler who had assumed the Club presidency in 1931, instituted a membership drive. He formed a Ladies’ Division, presided over by his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Betty, as well as a new under-35 membership tier to attract younger members. He also constructed a new bar on the second floor, where Club members could enjoy newly legal cocktails following the repeal of Prohibition. This “New Deal for the Montauk Club” saved the institution from bankruptcy. Today, the Club’s bar is one of its defining features, and Russell’s portrait still graces the wall of our dining room.

Several Club members served in World War II, among them Lt. Col. James Garner Conroy, who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Pacific Theatre. A plaque in his honor can be seen in the Club’s entryway. With so many members serving overseas, the Ladies Division also created a Montauk Club Red Cross Unit that assembled tens of thousands of first aid kits in the first floor ballroom to send to the front lines.

Membership soared in the booming post-war years of the 1950s and 60s. Mayor William O’Dwyer, Congressman and later Governor Hugh Carey, and lawyer James B. Donovan all joined the Club during this period. Donovan is best known for negotiating the exchange of downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, and coordinating the release of over 1,000 soldiers captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as that of  8,590 Cuban political prisoners in 1962. According to Donovan, he planned these efforts over several rounds of gin rummy with fellow members in the Club’s Card Room.

In 1968, Brooklyn Civil Rights activist Andrew C. Cooper joined the Montauk Club. Cooper dedicated his life to fighting racial inequality and integrating Brooklyn businesses and institutions, including the Schaefer Beer brewery and Drake’s Cakes bakery. As Civil Rights advances continued in the 60s, 70s, and beyond, Club membership diversified considerably. Today, our membership is among the most diverse you’ll find of any private social club in New York.

In 1973 the Montauk Club modernized its By Laws to streamline the application process and do away with gendered membership categories. But by then, membership clubs everywhere were on the decline. By the mid-90s, faced with fewer and fewer new members and ever rising costs necessary to maintain all five floors of our clubhouse, Club members reluctantly agreed to sell the building to be turned into condominiums, with the Club retaining the first and second floors. Nevertheless, even during the lean years, the Club has persevered thanks to a dedicated core of new and longtime members who contribute their time and their talents to maintaining our clubhouse and sustaining the Club’s legacy as a cornerstone institution of Brooklyn.

Our membership now approaches 500 members, a number not seen in decades. Members represent a diversity of ages, backgrounds, and professions. They participate in Book Clubs, convene for Dungeons & Dragons, play a few rounds of pool, gather to watch sporting events and award shows. They sing karaoke, converse, network, and carouse. They even come by just to read a book on our magnificent loggia overlooking Lincoln Place. They make the space their own, and this is reflected back in their experience of the Club. It is what we have always provided for our members, and what we’ll continue to do as we embark on our next 130 years as one of the  singularly unique spaces of New York.

We’ve survived Prohibition, two World Wars, the Great Depression, redlining, gentrification, fires, floods, thefts, bankruptcies, and a world historic pandemic for good measure. And through it all we’ve emerged stronger, more resilient, more vibrant, more inclusive. Our story is Brooklyn’s story, and we invite you to become a part of our history today.