On Manhattan’s West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, is a block once known as “Clubhouse Row.” The street, and those nearby, has for more than a century been home to buildings which provide networking events, gym amenities and recreational activities, including those for alumni from Ivy League schools like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.
While the alumni clubs have long been shrouded in elitism and exclusivity, the institutions are now attempting to market themselves to new and young members in an attempt to remain viable.
A number of the clubs face existential threats, financial and otherwise. In December, the Harvard Club was named in a lawsuit where numerous women accused James Toback, a film director and Harvard alumnus, of sexually assaulting them at the club. The institution allowed Toback’s misconduct to continue for years despite receiving reports of his behavior, according to the complaint. The Harvard Club declined to discuss the matter.
Meanwhile, New York’s Princeton Club, which was first established in 1866, shut down in 2021 after defaulting on its $39 million mortgage and losing a third of its 6,000 members and more than a year’s worth of income during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leonard Levie, chairman of investment firm American Industrial Acquisition Corp., is reportedly interested in opening the club in a new location and has applied for Princeton Club trademarks. But both Princeton University and 15 W. 43rd St LLC, the company now controlling the club’s former building, are poised to raise objections.
Unlike most other alumni clubs, the Princeton Club also didn’t receive any financial support from the university, according to Scott Taylor, a former board member. “It’s a separate corporation,” he said. In addition, Princeton’s lack of professional schools, such as law and medical programs, meant that there were less potential members for the clubhouse, said Taylor, who first joined in the 1980s while working as a Wall Street trader.
Retention of younger members was always a challenge for the club, said Taylor. Recent graduates are simply less likely to be able to afford the institution’s annual dues, which were more than $2,000 when it closed, he said.
Before the Princeton Club shut down, it shared its building with an alumni club for Williams College. While not belonging to the Ivy League, Williams’s club has been around since 1913 and had its own location near Clubhouse Row until 2010, when it made an arrangement to share the Princeton Club’s facilities.
It isn’t uncommon for alumni clubs to share the same buildings — Columbia University’s club is located at the Penn Club, while Dartmouth shares with Yale.
Financial issues in the past few decades
By 2010, “the club was just barely making ends meet,” said Dale Riehl, who has been director of the Williams Club since 2016. Williams College, which had been making the club loans during this time, eventually decided to sell its building, he said. “One has the sense that running any kind of club, maybe even more so a collegiate-driven club, in the last 30 years or so has become more difficult.”
This is partly because alumni would rather eat at New York’s restaurants instead of clubhouses, said Riehl. The term “club” has also begun to feel outdated, he added. “Because it’s outmoded it hinders graduates, and recent graduates especially.”
Around 65 percent of the club’s current members are above the age of 30. Its biggest challenge now is to attract younger members, said Riehl. The club offers lower dues for recent graduates, with an annual charge of $385 and no initiation fee for those between the ages of 21 and 24. Membership prices increase based on age, with prospective members aged 35 and above paying annual dues of $1,850 and an initiation fee of the same amount.
Other schools offer similar discounts, with the Harvard Club charging $471 annually for those who have graduated in the past 4 years, compared to $2,356 for those who graduated 10 or more years ago.
After the Princeton Club shuttered its doors, the Williams Club moved in with the Penn Club. The club is currently attempting to regain its former levels of membership, said Riehl, as a meaningful portion who initially registered while at the Princeton Club location haven’t signed up again yet, in addition to the pandemic causing a dip in membership.
The pandemic had financial implications for a number of other alumni organizations, such as the Yale Club, located at 50 Vanderbilt Ave. The club, which was founded in 1897, lost more than $5 million in 2020 and around $400,000 in 2019, according to tax filings, despite previously having positive net incomes since at least 2011.
A need for younger members
The club’s primary challenge has always been economic, said Stephen Scher, who was formerly on the Council of the Yale Club, the equivalent to a board of trustees. “It has a hefty endowment, but one of the main concerns of the council is always maintaining a healthy economic position.”
During his time at the club’s council, Scher said there was great concern on introducing activities in order to attract a different demographic. “There’s always the need to attract younger members and undergraduates,” he said.
At the time, there was a gap within membership between older members who were fiercely loyal to the club, and younger members with children and less financial resources who desired more family-oriented programming. “That was an area of concern,” said Scher, who formerly ran a chemical manufacturing company based in New Jersey.
In order to attract recent graduates, the club introduced programs specifically for young members, such as a sailing trip on the Hudson River. The club’s council also has an annual meeting near the university’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, where they invite graduating seniors and attempt to recruit them to the club, he said.
The club has also been focused on meeting diversity standards in recent years, said Scher, in large part because of Yale’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program, and has held events focused on these initiatives in addition to reportedly funded undergraduate programs representing cultural and racial minorities. “Everything that happens at Yale sort of filters down,” he said.
Scher, who has been a member of the club since the 1950s, has seen a number of changes throughout the years, including the 1969 decision to allow women as members. And in his former position as head of the club’s art committee, he was in charge of commissioning three portraits of women for the building, which previously only had paintings of men.
“The evolution of society has to be tracked and reacted to by such clubs, which were very exclusive,” he said.