Walkabout: The Crescent Athletic Club

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Manly displays of athletic prowess have always been popular in most societies throughout time. Our highly civilized urban environment of Brooklyn was no different at the end of the 19th century. In 1884, a group of socially prominent young men gathered to form a football club, so they could play games in Prospect Park. They were known as the Crescent Football Club, and they were inspired by a famous Yale-Princeton game, Yale being the alma mater of most of the players. This organization became the Crescent Athletic Club in 1886, soon to be the wealthiest and most important social and athletic club in Brooklyn. Their first president was Walter Camp, the Father of Football, the man who invented the quarterback, the forward pass, and codified the rules of football used to this day. He was also the famous and influential director of football at Yale, where he is still a minor deity. By 1894, when Brooklyn was still an independent city, the Crescents had a clubhouse at 25 Pierrepont St, in the Heights, and a sprawling complex in Bay Ridge, with fields, a boathouse and a country club. In 1902, they built a new clubhouse on Pierrepont, across from the Brooklyn Historical Society. That building was designed by Frank Freeman, and remains a fine example of the popular Neo-Classical style of architecture. The building had 12 levels, and included a swimming pool, rifle range and bowling alleys in the basement, as well as a grand hall on the second floor, a double height oak paneled dining room on the third floor, a gym on the top floor, and sleeping rooms, squash and handball courts, a library, billiards and other rooms in the building.

Membership in the club at that time was limited to 1,500 members, and dues in 1902 were $50 a year, or about $1,200 today. At the time of the new clubhouse’s opening, the president of the Crescent was Wall St. Broker Charles M. Bull, who lived five blocks away at 269 Henry St. His son, Charles M. Bull, Jr., was a frequent champion in tennis, squash and bowling. Interestingly enough, one of Mr. Bull’s first edicts for the new club was a strongly worded letter to members to stop stealing the club silverware, hair brushes, and other items embossed with the club’s crescent moon logo.

Back in 1889, the Crescents merged with the Nereid Rowing Club, and acquired an elaborate boat house on the shores of Bay Ridge. They went on to buy the nearby property from the shore, to 2nd Avenue between 82nd and 86th St, purchased from the Van Brunt and Bergen estates for $51,500. They used the old Van Brunt mansion as a clubhouse, and began to expand their playing fields. By 1912, the Crescent Athletic Club was competing in sailing, rowing, tennis, track, lacrosse, baseball, football, rugby, cricket, golf, ice hockey, shooting and basketball, as well as the sports enjoyed in their new Heights clubhouse. The teams were called the New Mooners, and were champions in most of the amateur sports listed. They may have been a bunch of rich boys, but these guys could play. They played against other sports clubs, college teams from Yale, Columbia and Princeton, other city and social teams, and in solo sports, the best amateur players of their day. One of their greatest triumphs at the Bay Ridge Club was in 1902, a victory in tennis against the British in a tournament that would become known as the Davis Cup, lacrosse championships in an 11-2 season in 1912, and a consistent string of victories in hockey between 1896-1918, helping to make the Canadian game a popular sport in New York. The club’s membership had now grown to 2,650 members.

However, no winning streak lasts forever. In 1929, a bad year for most things, the Crescent Athletic Club expanded to include a 215 acre site in Huntington, Long Island, to allow for polo, cricket, a new golf course, and other sports. Membership started to fall off due to economic hard times, the acquisition of the Huntington Club was a financial strain, and by 1936, the Bay Ridge Club was sold. In 1941-42, the grounds were transformed into Fort Hamilton High School, and the Fort Hamilton High Athletic Fields, which were renovated again in 2001 to include track, football, baseball, softball and public spaces. The clubhouse and boathouse are now only in photographs. The Long Island club still exists as the Huntington Crescent Club. Back in Brooklyn Heights, the club declared bankruptcy in 1939, and vacated the Pierrepont headquarters, closing after only 56 years. The building became offices and stores, and the Crescent Bowling Lanes operated out of the old club lanes in the basement in the 1950′s. In 1966, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church bought the building for $365,000. The building was renovated and St. Anne’s School has operated there since. Several of the building’s original rooms still exist, although covered, altered and unrestored. The oak paneled dining room is now the library, but the original murals, by the Rambusch Decorating Company are damaged and dark with age. A search of Crescent Athletic Club in both the New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle yields pages of reporting on the many matches, tourneys and wins in almost every sport imaginable for this remarkable club. Its history may be relatively short, but they are an important club in this city with a history and legacy of superior sports clubs.

Thurs: Hockey, boxing, political rallies, sporting events, revival meetings, trade shows. Madison Square Garden? Nope, somewhere in Brooklyn.

Research from: NYT – Streetscapes by Christopher Gray, BrooklynBallParks.com – http://www.covehurst.net/ddyte/brooklyn/crescent.html. Photos on Flickr.

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