In Roiling Coup at Harvard Club, Board Blasted Over Glass House

There’s a coup d’etat brewing at the Harvard Club. The membership

is squabbling over a modern, glass-sheathed addition to the club’s stately home

on West 44th Street, near Fifth Avenue. Critics feel the addition, currently

under construction, will wreck the aesthetic of the red- brick, 1894

neo-Georgian edifice. Some members gripe that the Harvard Club board rammed the

design down the throats of the membership at large, and many are furious that

the board sold a beloved John Singer Sargent oil painting to help finance the

$25 million project.

Now a group of these critics are taking aim at the Harvard Club

board itself. A band of disgruntled members-who call themselves the Committee

for HCNY Choice-have launched a bid to overthrow the current board. Set to come

to a boil at a club meeting later this month, the insurrection is dividing the

membership more than the tempest over admitting women in the early 1970′s.

“The Yale Club and other clubs would die for what we now have,”

the upstart  committee’s presidential

nominee, Tim McLaughlin, wrote in a letter sent earlier this year to the club’s

current president, Kenneth Standard, “and we are about to DESTROY it!”

The HCNY Choice committee’s maneuver is unprecedented; never

before has the Harvard Club witnessed such a brazen attempt to topple its

reigning leadership. But HCNY Choice’s ranks include some heavy hitters, like

Richard Jenrette, a founding partner at the Wall Street powerhouse Donaldson,

Lufkin & Jenrette, and C. Dixon Spangler, who has participated in some of

the biggest corporate takeovers in history. Mr. McLaughlin, the would-be

president, is a 1971 Harvard Business School graduate who is the chairman and

chief executive of Westminster Publications, a publisher of scientific and

medical journals. Leading the committee’s campaign are two young, tenacious

business-school grads: Seth Faler (H.B.S. ’90) and Lloyd Zuckerberg (H.B.S.

’90).

The HCNY Choice committee’s fundamental mission: kibosh the

modern addition and replace it with a design more in keeping with the club’s

old, red-brick exterior. Over the past year, the committee has taken several

dramatic steps to re-examine the controversial glass-and-concrete structure,

designed by the architect (and Harvard graduate) Max Bond of the firm Davis

Brody Bond. The committee challenged the club’s board in State Supreme Court,

wrote exhortatory letters to the membership lambasting the plan, established a

Web site to do the same, and forced the club’s board to hold a rare “special

meeting” to discuss the project.

And they continue to press on, even though the addition is

underway; it’s up to three stories, with five more to go. Mr. Zuckerberg-a

freelance real-estate investor who has been convening weekly war councils on

the balcony of Harvard Hall for the last several months-is readying the

committee for a board-election showdown, expected to take place at the club’s

annual meeting on Jan. 30. If successful, committee members pledge to

democratize the club’ decision-making-and to poll the 11,000-plus members as to

what kind of design they’d like to see. If the members reject the current

design, HCNY Choice  will push to start

over.

How do they intend to make their case? Mr. Zuckerberg, like other members of the HCNY

Choice  committee, declined to speak to The Observer about the committee’s

plans; club rules forbid members from discussing club plans with the media. But

the committee’s candidates face formidable challenges in attempting to

overthrow the current rulers of the Harvard Club. Throughout the club’s

history, the succession of power has always been handled through a process more

typical of the old Soviet Politburo than a democratic state. A nominating

committee, appointed by the club’s board, picks a single slate of candidates

for the membership to choose from-and that cozy procedure has traditionally

ensured an orderly and uncontested chain of authority. Never in its history has

there even been an alternate slate of candidates to vote for.

Privately, parties on both sides of the dispute say it’s too

early to predict whether they stand a chance of winning election to the board.

While the insurgents have big names and big bank accounts behind them, many of

the club’s retired officers take a dim view of the challenge and have closed

ranks behind Mr. Standard, the club’s current president.

“I think that they’re totally uninformed; they’re nuts,” said

former club president Walter N. Rothschild Jr., Harvard ’41. Mr. Rothschild,

the former president of Abraham & Straus, added: “They should be ashamed of

themselves.” (To be sure, the Harvard Club’s current board has its own

formidable resources to draw on. The board retained Curtis, Mallet-Prevost,

Colt & Mosle, the law firm of former club president J. Dinsmore Adams, to

handle the dissidents’ challenge.)

The coming showdown was foreshadowed at a “special meeting” in

August, when about 400 members packed Harvard Hall-an immense room with

cathedral-high ceilings, stuffed animal heads, dark paneled walls and portraits

of former graduates like Theodore Roosevelt-to air their differences on the

club addition. During the session, which ran late into the evening, sources

said that many members took turns at the microphone challenging Mr. Standard

and the board, charging them with acting in an arbitrary manner.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who had shown up with the proxies of 2,300

members opposed to the Bond design, was ruled out of order when he attempted to

take a vote to determine how many members present wanted to consider an

alternative design. Another member, Lawrence Lader-one of the founders of the

national abortion-rights movement in the 1960′s-had his microphone turned off

before he finished his tirade.

“I said, ‘I am a 60-year

member. Look, I went to Harvard; I thought we learned something about democracy

there,’” Mr. Lader recalled. “‘Why don’t you just send out a ballot’-and I was

cut off. Mr. Standard just turned off the mike. So I just used my old army

drill-sergeant voice until they made me sit down.”

Reached at his home on a recent afternoon, Mr. Standard-recently

retired from the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius-cited club bylaws

prohibiting members from discussing club business with the press and declined

to comment. But other senior members rose to the club president’s defense. Former Harvard Club president Peter

S. Heller said, “You cannot have 11,000 members voting on what style of

architecture they like.” Mr. Rothschild said that Mr. Standard was working too

hard to explain the board’s decisions, adding, “I told him he shouldn’t be

having all these meetings to try to get people to like him.”

Meanwhile, controversy over the new addition has spilled outside

the walls of the Harvard Club. Commodore Charles Dana III and the officers of

the New York Yacht Club-a neighboring landmarked Beaux- Arts building-are also

miffed about a flashy glass-and-steel neighbor. “If you look at the [rendering

of the] building at night with lights on, it’s pretty strong,” Commodore Dana

said. “With this considerable controversy, there are going to be a lot of

unhappy people-they [the Harvard Club board] have acted in a pretty arrogant

fashion.”

Within the architectural community, reaction to the Harvard Club

addition was decidedly mixed. “The architecture of the new building is itself a

historical style-it recalls in large part the corporate architecture of the

late 1950′s,” said Richard Wilson Cameron, co-founder of the Institute of

Classical Architecture. “From my point of view, it is hypocritical to say that

it’s not legitimate to do a neo-Georgian-style building, but it is legitimate

to do a building in an early Modernist or International style.”

Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture,

questioned the need to diverge from the inspiration of the club’s original

architects. Mr. Stern pointed out that reviving the Georgian style as an

architectural identity for Harvard was a central theme of McKim, Mead &

White, the firm that built many of the university’s buildings in addition to

the original clubhouse. Mr. Stern also 

said that he didn’t understand the need for a dramatic change: “Why is

the addition so different from the main building, which had already been added

to in a complementary way?”

Mr. Bond, the addition’s architect, didn’t return The Observer ‘s telephone calls. Steve

Fisher, a senior associate at Davis Brody Bond, also refused to discuss the

controversy surrounding the project, though he did note in a Sept. 6 letter to The 

New York Times that “the issues facing the club are multifaceted,

many of them having little to do with the design,” and that “communication is

as much an issue here as whether a contemporary addition is more palatable than

a faux neo-Georgian pastiche.”

Adding to the dissidents’ ire was the sale of one of the club’s

most famous paintings, The Chessplayers

by John Singer Sargent, to help bankroll the project. The $12.5 million

realized from the painting’s sale to an unidentified buyer in December 1999-a

record price for a Sargent painting at the time-is being used to finance the

design and initial stages of construction of the new building. Many members

were upset that they were not initially consulted about the sale of the

painting. (News of the painting’s sale didn’t even make the club’s annual

report for 2000, where the only evidence of its actually being sold is the

listing of proceeds for an unidentified “sale of an asset.” Later, in an August

2001 letter to the membership, the club’s board referred to the painting’s sale

as having come about due to an “unexpected opportunity.”)

Some of the HCNY Choice committee’s candidates feel that the new

building project has jeopardized the club’s financial health. There is worry

about one-time assessments on members to help subsidize the addition; one

committee member also expressed the concern that this controversial addition is

just the beginning, that the club may even consider letting outsiders join.

“Our fear is that a board that’s capable of selling off the

artwork and building an inappropriate addition may be capable of making other

changes, like admitting graduates of other universities,” said this committee

member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He added darkly: “As the Yale

Club and Princeton Club have done.”