Explorers Refurbish Upper East Side Base Camp

Explorers Club

Explorers Club President Lorie Karnath, third from left, and other Club members pose before releasing the carabiner at the newly renovated building's "ribbon cutting."

Though the Explorers Club claims as members the first people to reach the North and South Poles, the summit of Mount Everest and the surface of the moon, they have currently turned their attention to a more familiar location: 46 East 70th street.

Last week they revealed “a bit of archaeology unseen for years” in a public open house – complete with bagpipe music – at the international club’s headquarters; scaffolding had been removed after five years from a portion of the Lowell Thomas Building’s façade. Phase I of the building’s renovations was complete.

Walking by an entryway photograph of member Buzz Aldrin hopping across the moon (another member later noted to us that they had once helped him find his glasses), The Observer began the ascent up the creaking, century-old, dark-wood stairs. On the landing, we discovered one of many club artifacts on display for the day – a “polar time capsule,” which was set adrift from the North Pole in 1986, rediscovered three years later and 2,000 miles away.

The club took over their Upper East Side mansion in 1964, but it was built in 1912 by Stephen Clark, with family money amassed from his grandfather’s role as head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Club president Lorie Karnath began the building’s current $2 million, two-phase renovation a little over two years ago when she was elected.

Karnath – who walked the streets of New York,  inspecting other buildings in order to select an architect for the project — welcomed us, and about 20 others, to the open house with a building-shaped pin on which the project slogan was printed: “Cultural Heritage Starts at HQ.” The six-story building was lit largely by natural light shining through the newly revealed three-story bay windows overlooking the terrace. Rows of science books lined the room inside, while a chronology of Explorers Club flags hung on the wooden walls of the adjacent lecture room. The completed renovation also included repairing 114 stained-glass windows. Phase II will focus on the terrace and colonnade.

Architectural heritage aside, the club’s history exists also in its members.

“There are a lot of people here who are unusual,” said Don Morley, who had just arrived from Texas wearing his Explorers Club tie. “Your peers are doing very interesting things as a rule.” (On one expedition with club members, Morley traveled in a submarine to see the remains of the Titanic, and as a souvenir he kept a Styrofoam cup on which he had scrawled a note that shrank to the size of a thimble due to the change in pressure.)

To gain full-fledged entry into the club as a “fellow”, one need not to have graduated from an Ivy League college or even know how to play squash, but solely to have contributed to scientific knowledge, “usually evidenced by scientific publications documenting fieldwork or explorations.”

“I feel that it’s all about curiosity and asking questions,” explained Ms. Karnath, who had just returned from digging up dinosaur bones in Canada the weekend before.

We asked Ms. Karnath, sitting in her office cluttered with more books and artifacts, about the acceptance rate: “If you’re qualified, you get in. Let’s put it that way,” she said. In the NYC chapter, there are more than 500 members.

According to cultural preservation enthusiast Mabel Purkerson who was visiting from her chapter in St. Louis, even the cat went through a selection process: he was chosen by the president of the Philadelphia Explorer’s Club chapter out of 32 felines “interviewed.”