Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Heights Casino
Address: 75 Montague Street
Cross Streets: Hicks Street and Montague Terrace
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1905
Architectural Style: Flemish Revival
Architect: Boring & Tilton. Recent renovation and upgrades: Richard Rice Architects
Other Works by Architect: Ellis Island Immigration Station, Casino Mansions Apartments, next door.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights HD (1965)
The story: The Heights Casino was never a casino, as we know the term. Any gambling that took place here was under the table and spoken in whispers. “Casino” means “little house”, and this was always a tony private club, founded in 1904, and was, for most of its history, a club whose members had blood as blue as a yachtsman’s fine navy blazer. It is also home to the first indoor tennis court in the United States, and has always been about racquet sports, specifically squash and tennis.
The club was founded by and for the Heights’ wealthy residents. Sports clubs were important in Society, and the Casino would join other prominent clubs in the area, the most important being the Crescent Athletic Club, whose grand headquarters is now home to St. Ann’s School, on Pierrepont. This club was always about squash and tennis, unlike the Crescent, which had many teams in many different sports.
At the center of it all, of course, was the social prestige of belonging. The tennis nets could be taken down, and a huge ballroom emerged, and the Casino was home to several of the most exclusive social soirees in Brooklyn Society; the Ihpetonga Ball, and the Yuletide Ball, formerly the Debutante Ball. The Yuletide Ball, which at one time was at the St. George Hotel, is still an annual event, and raises money for charity.
The building itself is quite distinctive. William A. Boring and Edward L. Tilton were friends long before they became partners. They both attended the prestigious L’ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and then both went to work for McKim, Mead & White, before going into business together. They designed the landmarked Hotel Colorado in 1893, and then their award winning Ellis Island Immigration Center, beginning in 1897. It is now on the National Register. There are other fine works in their repertoire, along with the apartment building at 200 Hicks St, next door, built to complement the Casino. William Boring would eventually go into academics, and became the Dean of the Columbia School of Architecture in the 1930s.
The Casino was designed both to accommodate the sports and club activities inside, and also to reference Brooklyn’s Dutch heritage. Many of its members were from the same Old Brooklyn heritage themselves, having become some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest and most important families. The Dutch gables, the elaborate brickwork, and the Colonial Revival interiors all are a reminder of who these people came from, and how far they had come.
By the 1950’s, however, the Casino’s restrictive policies had driven it almost to bankruptcy. No Jews, certainly no Negroes, none of the “wrong” kind of people, no new money. Their policies changed for changing times, over the next twenty years, leading to new rules that would encourage diversity and keep the club alive and well. They reduced their dues and opened up to more people, saving themselves from extinction, and surely in the process, making the place more fun. The Heights Casino remains one of the most prominent squash clubs in the United States, home of champions of the sport. They recently received an extensive renovation by Richard Rice Architects. GMAP