In the 1990s, the Library Committee decided to record its history, to the best of its ability. As I’ve written before, that is no easy task. Henry S.F. Cooper Jr., who wrote the history, warned his readers that the history of the Yale Club Library had been “lost in the sands of time.” Nevertheless, Mr. Cooper, who wrote for the New Yorker and was well-known for his writing on space exploration, found a way to give a written tour of the library that was lively and informative. Cooper, a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper (you know you were wondering!) and a longtime member of the Yale Club Library Committee, passed away earlier this year.
It seemed fitting, then, as we prepared our Library Open House earlier this month, to revisit Mr. Cooper’s histories for each room in the library – but much has changed since the 1990s, even in the Yale Club. I updated the descriptions for each room accordingly – though I could not aspire to Mr. Cooper’s droll humor.
Not everyone can attend our Open House, unfortunately, so I wanted to would share the virtual tour here, showcasing one room a month. Today, I’ll reproduce Mr. Cooper’s overview of the History of the Library, and I will showcase a different room in the library each month.
HISTORY OF THE YALE CLUB LIBRARY
By Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr.
The origins of the Yale Club Library are lost in the sands of the history of the Yale Club itself. Beginning in March 1868, and for thirty years thereafter, there was a predecessor group called the Old Yale Alumni Association of New York—a portrait of one of its founders, Samuel F.B. Morse, ’10 (1810, that is—no Edwardian, he), greets you as you step off the elevator on the Library floor. The Old Association met frequently, often at such watering holes as Delmonico’s and Sherry’s for great, multi-course banquets; during this lengthy nomadic hegira, punctuated by magnificent stops at the elegant oases, the Yale Alumni caravan has no library. But in the spring of 1897, a splinter group of the Old Association, tired of its footloose ways and eager to sink its taproots directly into the water table, incorporated themselves as the Yale Club of New York and rented a brownstone on Madison Square, at 17 East 26th Street. Its first act was to acquire not a library but a liquor license; though from the start the Yale Club had both a tap room and a reading room.
The first reports of a room called a Library, and a group called a Library Committee, occur in the oldest surviving minutes of the Yale Club Council, which begin early in 1901, just before the Club moved, on May 1, into its own house, an eleven-story building (now the Penn Club) our forebears constructed at 30 West 44th Street, where it towered over the Harvard club’s three-story building opposite at No. 27. The move had come about because the Yalies had been invited to dinner by the Harvard Club in 1898 at its spiffy but stubby little red brick building designed by McKim, Mead & White (it had been built in 1894, while we were still bookless and sitting on borrowed barroom stools). Our ancestors felt that our Madison Square brownstone was too shabby to invite our new upscale friends back to.
When the Yale Club moved into its new home, our Library—installed in a spacious, two-story room on the second floor—had very few books. The shelves, built to hold 4,000 volumes, yawned emptily. But not for long. New acquisitions for 1901 were 1,250 volumes—though an inventory in June, 1902, showed that we had only 1,200 books on our shelves. How could this be? The explanation may lie in the Club Minutes of that same month, which complain of the early appearance of a problem that plagues all good libraries, namely the inexplicable vanishment of books. There followed a stern memo from the House Committee, which apparently did some good, for the Library expanded by leaps and bounds over the next few years. By 1903, the Library had 2,100 books. Before 1915, it had reached, or even exceeded, its capacity of 4,000. They received hard use, and by that year many of them were dog-eared and broken-spined.
Our Library came into its own in 1915, when the Club moved three blocks east into its present home at 50 Vanderbilt. The books from West 44th Street were carted over to East 44th Street in the spring and summer, though a lot of them had to be tossed out because of their bad condition. By November of that year, our 3,929 books filled only about half of the shelves in what is now the Main Reading Room but what was then the entire Library. By the beginning of 1916, the Library and Arts Committee was begging the Yale Club Council for money for 24 floor lamps and a number of user-unfriendly signs that said SILENCE. That year, a whopping 2,777 volumes were added, the greatest increment in the Library’s history. Like the rest of the building, the Library was designed by James Gamble Rogers, ’89 (1889, that is; we are not yet dealing with the post-modern generation), who was the future architect of most of the colleges at Yale. The sunny Italianate Main Reading Room, with its book-lined leather-chaired alcoves is a forerunner of the college libraries—and possibly also of the musch larger Linonia and Brothers Reading Room in the Sterling Memorial Library with its comfortable nooks, which was designed by Rogers and completed in 1939. The Yale Club Library is arguable the mother of most of the snug, cozy places to read at Yale.
There is a further link between our Library and the colleges with their libraries—the link with the Harkness family, Yale’s great benefactors and builders. Although the Yale Club Library was Rogers’ first institutional one, he had done others in private houses, including in 1905 the house of Edward S. Harkness, ’97, still standing at 1 East 75th Street. After World War I, Harkness’ mother commissioned Rogers to design the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle, which is now Branford and Saybrook Colleges; in 1930 her son gave the money for six more colleges, which Rogers, the favorite architect of the Harkness family, also designed. (Of the ten original colleges, the only two our architect didn’t design were Silliman and Calhoun.) In 1915, when the new Yale Club building with its new Library was completed, William L. Harkness, ’81 (a cousin of Edward S.) and Rogers were both members of the Library and Arts Committee; W.L. its chairman, was a major benefactor of the Library fund, as well as the Club as a whole. Yale, Rogers, and a member of the Harkness family may first have been brought together as beneficiary, architect, and patron at our Library.
The Main Reading Room today is much the same as when Rogers planned it. The large reading tables running down the center are the same ones that were there in 1915; otherwise, with the exception of some odd tables, chars, shelves, and part of the card catalogue, most of the furnishings are not the original ones. The grandfather clock at the south end was given by the children of Harold M. Turner, ’05; cryptic initials inside identify it was a present to Turner, probably at the time of his marriage, from a Yale senior society whose members perversely set their clocks five minutes fast (In a reverse perversity, this one runs on time.) Elsewhere in the Library is an original piece of the Yale Fence, a corner chair made from a New Haven elm, and a bookcase carved with the initials “DPS 1928” by an alumnus who thought he had never left Mory’s. […]
Beyond the Main Reading Room, the rest of the fourth floor—now brimming with books— was originally card-playing rooms; one of the rooms was paper with copies of the , the rest of the fourth floor—now brimming with books— was originally card-playing rooms; one of the rooms was paper with copies of the Yale Daily News. Doubtless in its first decades the Library’s silence was punctuated with predatory cries of “Ante up!” and “Seven card stud, aces wild!” Gambling was outlawed in the Club in the 1930s, when a total silence descended on the fourth floor that lasts until this day—with the exception, over the three or four decades after the Carnegie Music and Fine Arts Room was created in 1935, of an occasional oom-pah-pah from the phonograph or crash of chords from the piano. But even they were silenced and vanished decades ago.
In 1939 (the year the dining room on the roof was built) the old card rooms were paneled with oak, shelves were put I, and the Library was expanded into its present form. The rooms were bluffs were called and tricks were taken became the Clarence Day Room, the Americana room, the Thornton Wilder Conference Room, and the room where the back issues of magazines are. The last of the shelves—matching those in the other rooms—were added in the hallways in 1940.
For forty more years, the Library mellowed into a decorous decrepitude. Before his death in 1980, Thomas Larremore, ’11, had become so alarmed at the shabbiness of the Library’s faded gentility that he left $80,000 in his will to spruce things up. The task was undertaken by Peter Gluck, ’62, and completed in 1982; the result, which included air conditioning and new lighting, restored the library to its original splendor—indeed, some old-timers say, well beyond that admirable paradigm. The rejuvenation has inspired a domino effect of restoration and renovation throughout the Yale Club. As the Club’s 1997 centennial approached, the Library helped to celebrate the Club’s and its own history: Our collection of books on music was dedicated to Ben Cutlet, ’26, and the conference room was named for Thornton Wilder, “20. (Wilder was born in 1897, so that he and the Yale Club are twins.)
Today, the Library is prospering as never before. Its 40,000 books, figuring each two inches thick, would make a stack more than a mile high. If a similar stack were made of all the books currently in the Harvard Club Library, the Yale Club’s stack would tower above it by more than the height of the Empire State Building, including its television mast.
—Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., ‘56