Past and Present: The Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn

Photo: Brooklyn Historical Society

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn was organized in 1889. Contrary to what the name of the club implies, it was an equestrian club, not an automobile club. It was established by some of Brooklyn’s new elite to be THE equestrian club in Brooklyn, and was located on the edge of Prospect Park. The club started with “thirty men of position and wealth” who wanted an indoor place to ride, practice dressage, harness and polo and generally hobnob with like-minded lovers of expensive horseflesh.

In order to keep the club elite, they limited the membership to only two hundred, but before the year was over, they extended it to four hundred. There were a lot of rich men in Brooklyn who were quite willing to pay the $100 yearly admission fees. One hundred dollars was a princely sum, considering the average working man had a yearly salary of around $500. Participation and membership in the club was restricted to the male members, their wives, sisters, unmarried daughters and minor sons.

The RDCB bought a plot of land on the west side of Vanderbilt Avenue, between Plaza Street and Butler Street, now Sterling Place. Building began in January of 1890 and was completed in 1891. The building was designed by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, and cost $48,000. The design was the work of Sidney Stratton, a long-standing partner in the firm. It would actually be his last major commission. For inspiration, he turned to Rome, as MM&W architects often did, and came up with a design that was truly equestrian in nature: the Roman circus. That’s Circus Maximus and chariot racing, not Ringling Brothers.

The club consisted of three interconnecting buildings which curved around the Plaza between Vanderbilt and Butler: the clubhouse, the riding ring and the stables. The clubhouse was on Vanderbilt and was three stories tall with two twin towers on the sides to reference the Roman towers which marked the entrances of their circuses. The building had men’s and women’s sections with dressing rooms, lounges and sanitary facilities and a glassed-in gallery that looked out onto the riding hall. The clubhouse interior was kitted out in fine mahogany and all the finest accoutrements.

The riding area in the large hall was 100 x 180 feet — the largest private indoor riding ring in the country. There was a small viewing stand, 33 box seats and a musician’s gallery. All was lit by large arched windows that ran the length of the building and electric lights at night. Behind the ring was the stable building, a large, three-story structure that balanced the clubhouse. It had stalls for two hundred horses with ramps that led to the upper stories. There was a blacksmith shop and storage for carriages and riding equipment.

The club was successful beyond its founders’ expectations, so much so that by 1894 the clubhouse had its first major overhaul and new addition, designed by Brooklyn architect Frank Freeman. The planners had totally underestimated how many women would be interested in joining. There were so many that when the club was reconfigured the entire building was given over to their needs, kicking the men into the basement where they had to make do with a new plunge pool and other manly facilities.

There also wasn’t enough room for all the horses and equipment, so the club bought the lot next door, making the club’s footprint extend all the way to Flatbush Avenue. Frank Freeman designed a new stable, styling his building to complement Stratton’s original design. The new addition was for carriages, mostly, but one hundred new stalls were also added, allowing the club to house three hundred horses at the facility.

By the early 1900s, the “driving” in the club’s name took on a new connotation. Most of the members had bought themselves fine new automobiles, and wanted the club to house them as well as their horses. The last empty piece of land owned by the club, behind the carriage house, was taken up by a new garage for automobiles, a sturdy, poured concrete structure faced in brick with three levels. The basement had charging stations for electric cars, upstairs was a ground-level parking garage, and the third floor had long term parking. The garage also had a gas house, a mechanic’s station and a chauffeur’s lounge. It could hold 100 cars. The garage was completed in 1905. The RDCB now had a rambling complex of five buildings.

By the 1920s, things were changing for the club. The club had survived the first two decades of the 20th century thanks to an increased interest in equestrian sporting events, and the patriotic fervor of World War I. However, the Roaring 20’s were proving to be harder. People had found other fun things to do and running the facilities of the club was getting more expensive every year. The dues were not keeping up with expenses. Other changes in the area were also taking place. The rich were decamping to the new suburbs and to Manhattan, leaving their mansions to the wrecking ball, and the construction of apartment buildings. When wealthy residents left, membership shrank accordingly.

There were more and more people in the area, and even the subway was intruding, with the Grand Army Plaza entrance to the train right across the street from the club. Buses were constantly circling the Plaza and cars had totally taken over the roads. In 1926, the club was negotiating with the Montauk club about a merger, and a new clubhouse, with a high-rise athletic club with all the newest amenities, including the riding club on the site of the old club. It never panned out.

They limped along until 1938, hosting horse shows, private lessons and other events, and that year formally disbanded. The riding ring briefly became a public garage. In 1939, the entire facility was sold for $250,000. The clubhouse and riding hall were demolished and two apartment buildings rose on their sites. The carriage house and motor garage were used as commercial garages until 1959, when they too, were torn down for apartment buildings. The Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn was history. GMAP

Photo: Brooklyn Historical Society

Plaza Street buildings, once the site of the Riding and Driving Club of Brooklyn. Photo: Googlemaps

Club in 1917. Cut for GAP subway station was being dug in foreground. Photo: Brooklyn Historical Society.

Riding ring interior. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library.

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