An artist’s concept of the River Club building.
Challenging the Present with an Eye to the Future
The River Club Remains New York’s Top Family Club
by Jack Smith
Since its completion in 1931, the art deco building that rises above the East River between 52nd and 53rd Streets has earned fame for sheltering the cream of Manhattan society. River House is famously discreet and from the beginning housed an elegant five-story private club: The River Club. The club’s 1932 membership list resonated with the names of the great American families of the era: Astors, Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, Pulitzers and du Ponts, among others. It was intended to be a social club, completely divorced from business; bringing business papers into the club was frowned upon. As longtime member and former president Tom McCarter recalls, it was unabashedly select. “When I first joined the board, all the governors knew each other and came from families who knew each other.”
For all the prestige that accrued to membership, The River Club wasn’t a place where people went to bask in the awareness of their elevated status. As Town & Country magazine advised in an article from 1931, “It is an active place, as distinguished from a sedentary eating, talking, reading club. It is created for people who like to do things.”
From the outset, the style of governance was patrician yet benign. The first board of governors had decreed that there would be “no rules for the club that are not absolutely necessary.” While it stood at the apex of New York society, The River Club was devoid of the rigid taboos that marked some New York clubs.
Unlike the clubs elsewhere in America and Europe, which were designated to be either men’s clubs or women’s clubs and dominated by one sex or the other, The River Club was co-ed; of those first fifteen members on the board, seven were women. It’s a pattern that continues to this day. “As long as I can remember it’s been 50-50,” says board member Nicky Grant. “Today I’m the board member in the family.”
“…this place is not what you might expect of a club; there’s not a lot of dark, heavy wood.” Credit: A. Edgeworth
Mrs. Grant recalls her first day as a member. “I joined in 1994 as a summer member. On my first day at the club I went to the pool and sat on the terrace and had lunch. It was all very relaxed, a departure from the stifling ambiance of the old-fashioned London clubs. Of course, we were on our best behavior. It was wonderful to join The River Club. It wasn’t a “drink after work” kind of place, it was a place for the whole family.”
Above: One of longtime member and former president Tom McCarter’s favorite places is the River Suite and Library, which looks out over the river. Credit: Karriem Simmons
Her fellow board member Celeste Rault agrees. “There is a strong sense of community about this place, especially during the holidays. Christmas is especially fun with the members and staff all getting involved. The nice thing is, nobody comes here with an agenda or attempts to promote a point of view. I suppose we’re all rather like-minded.”
For Mrs. Rault, the club’s significance was illustrated several years ago when she and some of the other parent members organized a series of events at the club called the “Twenty Somethings.” “The idea was, our children had made so many friends from The River Club. Now they were coming back from Deerfield or Buckley or Groton and wanted to get back in touch. The place that meant the most to them was The River Club and it has been a great success.”
Likewise, the club now offers dances for 5th- and 6th- graders as well as etiquette classes. “The point is, we’re more than a men’s or women’s club, we’re caretakers of a fabulous tradition.”
Above: The Main Dining Room. Credit: Karriem Simmons
The core of this tradition—and the symbol of enduring change—was tennis. Tom McCarter recalls the times he used to spend on the club’s courts. “The club has always been associated with some of the greatest tennis players of all time, such players as Bill Talbert, Sidney Wood, Ham Richardson, and Gene Scott. Thanks to my being a member of The River Club I could say I had played them, though I really couldn’t hold my own against them. They just let me hit the ball with them but it was a thrill, knowing that I was playing on the same court with some of the best players in the world. Later, as I got older, my interests shifted and the club became a place to make and meet friends. Even though, at 90, I no longer play, it’s a treat to watch from the sidelines.”
According to legend, one reason why the players are so good is that the courts they play on are without peer. The porous Har-Tru courts are impeccably maintained, the courts are completely separated, and surrounded by real walls. There is plenty of space around the courts, the lighting and sound are perfect and the ceilings are high. “You can hit a high lob and play all out,” says Tennis Director Paul Saputo.
Members all have their own favorite places within the club. One of McCarter’s is the River Suite, which looks out over the river. “You know, this place is not what you might expect of a club; there’s not a lot of dark, heavy wood. It’s light and airy, more like an oasis within the city. First-time visitors say they never imagined a place like this. It’s an extreme privilege to be invited to The River Club. Something happens when you walk through the door.”
“It’s like walking into an extension of your own home; it’s a very personal space. As long as I’ve been here our vision for the club has been shaped by our members’ family lives,” says club president Andrés Coles. “Once it was all tennis, now there’s a lot of interest in squash and golf, sports they’ll play all their lives. We always had good squash players, but now we use the latest high-tech practice techniques. I-squash is one of these. There are only a few of these elaborate laser-driven devices in the city and we have one of them.”
Above: The Main Dining Room. Credit: Karriem Simmons
Above: The recently renovated saltwater pool. Credit: Karriem Simmons
Though there is no golf course at the club, it makes the sport available to members via state-of-the-art golf simulators and an inter-club program in which club members compete annually for the Shea Cup against four other clubs, The Brook, Knickerbocker Club, Union Club, and The Links.
“As long as I’ve been here, our vision for the club has been shaped by our members’ family lives,” says club president Andrés Coles. Credit: Karriem Simmons
“We have close to 200 kids in our tennis program, 50 or 60 in golf, and a like number in swimming. We have 70-80 children in squash—some of the city’s best elite youth squash players training for top collegiate level teams. Next we’re going to introduce paddle tennis. It’s an obvious next step,” said Mr. Coles.
With five children, Andrés Coles gets plenty of use out of the club’s tennis courts. “I especially enjoy hitting balls with my children. We pay attention to the kids; this is the premier family club and kids are the catalyst of change. If there is something new, they’ll pick up on it and want it and make it popular. We’re watching pickle ball, to see what happens there. Will it remain a practice game or will it catch on like paddle tennis? For that matter, it wasn’t that long ago that squash was in decline. But no longer.”
“Squash is having a renaissance at The River Club,” says former president Charles Berry, who captained the squash team while at Yale. “It’s one of the few places in New York where boys and girls can play this wonderful sport.” Today, he says, even tennis devotees recognize the sport as a great way to develop racquet skills, footwork, and hand-eye coordination. “Contrary to the old belief, playing squash does not hurt a tennis swing.”
The club’s squash program is likely to become even more prominent with the recent addition of Chris Walker, Director of Squash. He’s one of the biggest names in the game, a four-time World Champion and former Men’s and Women’s U.S. National Coach (2004-2013). Mr. Walker has also been ranked No. 1 in the World in Hardball Doubles and No. 4 in the World in Singles.
Left to Right: Nicky Grant, board member; Former president Tom McCarter; Former president Charles Berry.
Board member Celeste Rault: “There is a strong sense of community about this place, especially during the holidays.”
General manager Brendan Slaven.
“There are so many reasons why this club is special for me and so many of our members, so much of my life has revolved around the club,” continued Charles Berry. “When I think of The River Club, I think of holiday meals over the years; rehearsal dinners and weddings, anniversary parties; memorial receptions for both of my parents. The intergenerational aspect of the club is one of the greatest pleasures. My parents met playing tennis here in 1946; our two sons are members and our granddaughter is learning to swim here. Inter-club match play is a growing and particularly sociable and enjoyable feature.”
The rigors of running The River Club keeps Brendan Slaven, the club’s general manager, in touch with his peers in other clubs. “We have reciprocal arrangements with about 20 premier clubs in this country and around the world, including clubs like Polo de Paris in Paris, Hurlingham Club in London, and Lyford Cay Club in the Bahamas. We can offer top-notch golf through these arrangements.”
“The club is well-positioned for a bright future,” observed Andrés Coles. “We have a strong, enthusiastic board. We raised a great deal of money from our supportive members, through subscriptions and reasonable assessments, to extensively renovate and transform our unique clubhouse while respecting its long history. This included a complete renovation of our sports floor (two new international squash courts, new gym, new locker rooms, new golf simulators, renovated saltwater pool, renovated
Paul Saputo, tennis director and head professional, teaching a children’s clinic. Credit: Karriem Simmons
tennis courts), as well as beautiful redecorating and refurbishing of our primary public rooms. Our decorator is Tom Sheerer, who has done beautiful work at Lyford Cay, the Jupiter Island Club, Fishers Island, Maidstone and Piping Rock, and has a good understanding of how to preserve the tradition and style of the club’s spacious rooms while brightening and modernizing them. Our architect, Randy Gerner, did a masterful job of reworking spaces throughout the club efficiently and tastefully. It’s an exciting time for the club.”
There are so many reasons why this club is special for me and so many of our members”—Charles Berry. Credit: A. Edgeworth (Left) Theik Smith (Right)
“It’s like walking into an extension of your own home”—Andrés Coles. Credit: Karriem Simmons