Midtown Book logo

Central Park South logo

The New York Athletic Club

180 Central Park South

Southwest corner at Seventh Avenue

New York Athletic Club

New York Athletic Club from the northwest

By Carter B. Horsley

This Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style club was designed by York & Sawyer, the architects of the impressive Federal Reserve Bank of New York building in Lower Manhattan, and is the largest club facility in Manhattan.

The 21-story structure has 300 bedrooms and superb facilities including a 30-by-75-foot swimming pool on the fourth floor, a large and wonderful billiards room overlooking Central Park, two handball courts, a gymnasium, and many meeting rooms.

In their excellent book, "New York 1930, Architecture and Urbanism Between the Two World Wars," Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987, Robert A. M. Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and Thomas Mellins provide the following commentary:

"The athletic facilities were gathered together in the building's lower floors, so that the ninth floor was the principal social floor with a lounge and library. The private dining rooms were on the tenth floor, and the grand...dining rooms seating 500 persons in all were on the eleventh floor, where a large loggia was provided for summertime dining. The location of the open-air loggia on the west side of the building facing Seventh Avenue was unexpected, given the opportunity to face Central Park across Fifty-ninth Street, but the greater extent of Seventh Avenue frontage permitted a larger outdoor space. while the detailing of the limestone-clad Renaissance facades was not particularly elaborate, the building was well massed, culminating in a stubby tower in which two open and two closed handball courts were located around a 42-by-62-foot solarium lit through quartz glass windows that opened to all compass points."

The club moved into this structure in 1930. It had formerly been in a building designed by W. A. Cable at 50 Central Park West, which was demolished for the St. Moritz Hotel, which was remodeled into the Ritz Carlton Hotel (see The City Review article).

This site was formerly occupied by the so-called "Spanish Flats," designed by Hubert, Pirsson & Company.

In her excellent book, "New York, New York, How The Apartment House Transformed The Life of The City (1869-1930)," An Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, New York 1993," Elizabeth Hawes provides the following commentary about the "Spanish Flats":

"The same year the Chelsea opened [1883], the half-completed Central Park Apartments was already being proclaimed the most elegant apartment house in New York, the largest apartment house in the world, and the most important building project ever undertaken, in terms of its novelty, magnitude and cost. Designed by Hubert and Pirsson but also called the Navarro, or Spanish Flats, in reference to its building, Josť F. de Navarro, it occupied a half-block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, from 58th to 59th Street. It stood eight stories tall, towers, gables, and turrets notwithstanding, and rising above the trees of the park, it looked like a fortress, or a whole Moorish kingdom. The Navarro was a single mass divided into eight separate apartment houses, which were arranged around a central courtyard and connected internally only on the first floor. Each house had a separate name and address - Navarro named them the Barcelona, the Salamanca, the Cordova, the Tolosa, the Grenada, the Valencia, the Madrid, and the Lisbon, after his favorite places - and each was distinguishable by an entrance of triple arches. Inside, each held twelve apartments of extraordinary dimensions. The largest provided a drawing room (23 by 29 feet), a reception room (14 by 29), dining room (20 by 23), kitchen (18 by 20) with several roomy pantries, six bedrooms ranging from 22 by 24 to 14 by 18, three baths with tubs, and three rooms for servants. It was munificent space, distinctly more generous than an entire three-story house. There were not ten houses in New York with such facilities for entertainments or occasions or ceremony, where public rooms opened onto one another, like the French nobleman's enfilade, and included a covered balcony that could be converted into a formal conservatory when necessary. The general design of the Navarro was even more impressive. Its suites were not only lavishly decorated but also ingeniously arranged into simplexes, duplexes, and triplexes (the first in the city), which were stacked up, in an interlocking scheme similar to Hubert's mezzanine plan, to occupy two stories in the front of the building and three in the rear. The taller and grander rooms on the main floor were set before the park vista, and the kitchen and bedrooms overlooked the interior courtyard, where there was quiet and an abundance of light and air. The courtyard of the Navarro was vast, 40 by 300 feet, a luxuriant space filled with trees, flowers and fountains. To ensure the flow of fresh air there, and to harness the breezes that swept off the river and down across the park, Hubert had also incorporated open archways into his building, perforating its mass every second story between each of the eight sections with passageway that was loggia-like, and decorative, as well as utilitarian. Beneath the courtyard another subterranean courtyard, accessible by means of a vehicular tunnel leading directly from the street, allowed carts and wagons to deliver their supplies and provisions and to remove garbage and ashes in a manner that was inaudible and invisible to tenants. It was the most original feature of Hubert's technical design, which also included an apparatus to create steam heat, a generator for electricity (electricity was as yet an independent and expensive proposition in the city and therefore a luxury item in housing), and an artesia well to supply private water to the building. Ironically the Navarro was ill fated as a cooperative. As critics were extolling Hubert as an extraordinary architect of apartments, famous for 'striking a mean between profusion and parsimony,' the bank was foreclosing on his mortgage. It took over and completed the project as a complex of rental buildings, for only half of it was finished and functioning as a cooperative by 1885. Hubert's 'parsimony' was misplaced in this venture; his downfall was a scheme by which he had planned to lease the land, temporarily to the building owners in order to limit their cash investments, an idea that was untenable in the face of construction costs that ranked as high as those for St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Plaza Hotel."

Building's entrance looking west

Building's entrance, looking west

Hubert was only a century or so too early as far as real estate markets go.

The NYAC, on the other hand, supports its palatial structure with a far larger population: its membership numbers in the thousands.

View from the southwest

View from the southwest

Clearly the "Spanish Flats" should have been preserved, but the city, of course, did not get around to creating a Landmarks Preservation Commission until 1965, some four decades too late for the "Spanish Flats." Unlike some other landmark replacements, the New York Athletic Club has become an important bulwark of Central Park South and "headstone" for Seventh Avenue. It is quite handsome, albeit a little stodgy and its only major drawback is that it is private so the public cannot enjoy its quite sumptuous interiors and views.

In addition to its enormous and impressive lobby, the club features a sensational roof deck on the "24th" floor that is adjoined on its south side by an equally spacious dining room beneath a very high and very large skylight.  The south of this room is another roof deck that faces 58th Street.  The views from the north roof deck are stupendous and are perhaps the most sensational in the city as it overlooks all of Central Park, upper Fifth Avenue and Central Park West and is about the same height as the great twin-towered peak o Central Park West.  The angled skylight of the adjoining dining room harkens back to the fabulous waiting room of the demolished Penn Station.  While the dining room itself is relatively modest, especially in comparison with the rooftop dining facilities at the nearby but much lower Metropolitan Club, the dining room has windows on three sides.  On Thursday nights in warm weather, the club has a barbecue on this level and the roof deck and dining room accommodate several hundred contented imbibers and nibblers and enjoyers of the glories of the city.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review