The Bikers, Singers, Athletes or Riders? Which Long-Gone Social Club Would You Join?


    The social landscape of ye olde Brooklyn was as cliquish as a high school comedy. You got your rich guys, your athletic guys, your bike nerds. And their clubhouses were killer.

    Brownstoner previously profiled Brooklyn’s social clubs of today, but now we take a look back at the remarkable social clubs of the borough’s past.

    Entirely male, these organizations attracted members based on either mutual interests or ethnic groups. They often began small and grew rapidly, only closing down when too many members lost interest or left the neighborhood.

    But everything old is new again. With Brooklyn’s current real estate boom and cultural renaissance, now seems like an opportune time to take a second look at these classic social groups.
    Brooklyn Historic Social Clubs

    The Unity Club in 1944. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    The Unity Club
    Founded in 1896, The Unity Club was an “upscale Jewish men’s organization” that provided members with social and philanthropic opportunities in the face of Jewish exclusion from many other social institutions. Originally located at 482 Franklin Avenue, in 1914 they moved to the Union League Club building at Grant Square. The club provided recent immigrants, many of German descent, with programming to help them better assimilate and work in America while maintaining their Jewish identity. In 1944, with many members moving out of Brooklyn, the club bought a more manageable property at 101 8th Avenue in Park Slope. Urban flight further depopulated membership, and the club eventually went defunct and abandoned the property in the mid-1970s.

    Brooklyn Historic Social Clubs

    1905 postcard

    Borough Park Clubhouse
    New York’s youngest State Senator, developer, and convicted felon William H. Reynolds founded the Borough Park Clubhouse in a Queen Anne he had built on 13th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in 1898. The Clubhouse became a hub for various Borough Park organizations and social events, from banquets to fundraisers, sports clubs to union meetings. Eventually Reynolds sold the club and moved on to other projects in Coney Island and Long Island, but The Borough Park Club remained in-use. Following the wave of Jewish immigrants that entered the community following World War II, the Clubhouse became a Jewish Center, and then a yeshiva. By the 1980s, the yeshiva had moved out, and the clubhouse was demolished and replaced with commercial strip Salomon Plaza.

    Brooklyn Historic society

    Kings County Wheelmen members at an outing to Bath Beach, 1894. Photo by Brooklyn Eagle

    Great Kings County Wheelmen’s Club
    The Great Kings County Wheelmen’s Club was Brooklyn’s best-known amateur bicycle club, as well as one of the borough’s earliest clubs. Established in 1881, the group held meetings in rooms they’d rent on Williamsburg’s Clymer and Division Street beginning in 1882. Many well-educated and wealthy, the club’s young men became household names performing in parades, racing, and defeating other bicycle clubs citywide. Growing popularity and expansion led the club through a series of bought and built clubhouses, but by 1904 membership was dropping off and the club disbanded.

    Brooklyn Historic Social Clubs

    The club in 1946. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    6th Assembly District Democratic Club
    Originally known as McGuire’s Democratic Club, the 6th Assembly District Democratic Club was led by local character and borough water register William R. McGuire. After having run the club for  some 20 years, McGuire stepped down in 1905, the same year a new clubhouse for the building opened in a recently built building at 116 Tompkins Avenue. Despite the departure of their foundational personality, the club lived on through the late 1950s. Following the club’s closure, the clubhouse became a series of churches.

    Brooklyn Historic Social Clubs

    1918 postcard

    The Apollo Club of Brooklyn
    The Apollo Club of Brooklyn was founded in 1878 in Brooklyn Heights as one of many wealthy men’s singing societies in the borough at that time. Despite being a men’s club, women were often involved as soloists in performances, and eventually became subscribing members. After lacking a permanent home for several decades, in 1914 the club purchased two buildings at 41 and 43 Greene Avenue in Fort Greene. Following a successful second life in the 1940s and ’50s, the Apollo Club faced financial difficulties, holding their final concert in 1966. The lots of their clubhouse buildings have since been demolished and replaced by condos.

    Brooklyn Historic Social Club

    Crescent Athletic Club. 1905 postcard

    The Bay Ridge Crescent Athletic Club
    Founded in 1884, the Crescent Athletic Club was considered Brooklyn’s most distinguished sports club. Consisting of rich athletes, old and young, members met at a domed clubhouse on Clinton Street until building a limestone meeting place on Pierrepont in 1902, and subsequently relocating there. In addition to the Brooklyn Heights properties, the club also purchased various boathouses and sports facilities throughout their existence — purchases which ultimately led to their over-expansion and bankruptcy in 1939.

    Historic Social Clubs of Brooklyn

    Brooklyn Historical Society

    The Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn
    An elite equestrian club organized in 1889 and located on the perimeter of Prospect Park, the Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn charged a pricey $100 annual membership fee, an inordinate sum at the time. The club bought land and built a three-story, Roman Circus inspired clubhouse between Vanderbilt and Butler, complete with blacksmith shop and carriage storage. The club lasted until 1938, by which point many of their foundational, wealthy members had decamped beyond the borough and equestrianism was not so popular. The facility was sold for $250,000 the following year, and demolished piecemeal until nothing remained.

    131 Remsen St. Bklyn Club

    Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

    The Brooklyn Club on Remsen Street
    Founded in 1865, The Brooklyn Club was known for claiming membership of some of the wealthiest, most influential Brooklyn Heights residents at the time. The club hosted sporting events, from billiards to hockey; they also had a yacht club. In the 1970s, the club began omitting non-white males, likely due to declining membership. By 1999, membership had slipped to under 100, down from a 600 member peak, and the club voted to cease existing, but first copyright their name.

    So. Which club would you have wanted to join in old-timey Brooklyn?

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    Past and Present: The Great Kings County Wheelmen’s Club
    Past and Present: The Borough Park Clubhouse

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