This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.
For the many architects who visit New York City, the Downtown Athletic Club is a must-see. Not only is this orange brick tower a handsome example of the Art Deco style, but this building has become a place of homage because of the role it plays in the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ influential book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto, published in 1978. Koolhaas, who designed the Prada store in SoHo, as well as Seattle’s controversial Central Library, lived in New York City during the mid-1970s, a time when the city’s faith in itself was possibly at an all-time low. His provocative essays offered a surprisingly bullish view on vertical development and what he termed the “culture of congestion.” In his brief chapter devoted to the club, he discussed the role that “constructivist social condensers” like this can play in urban centers.
The Downtown Athletic Club, like the neighboring apartment building at 21 West Street, was designed by the architects Starrett & Van Vleck. Completed in 1930, most of the all-male membership was drawn from the nearby financial district. In comparison to the monumental neo-Renaissance style New York Athletic Club that was built overlooking Central Park the same year, the slender 35-story Downtown Athletic Club stands in a more prosaic location, between West Street and the ramp that leads from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. At the time of construction, neither the tunnel nor Battery Park City existed and this vertical clubhouse would have been clearly visible from the river and possibly New Jersey. The boxy brick facades display relatively little ornament and the arrangement of the setback massing suggests specific interior functions and zones. While the lower floors were mostly devoted to athletic pursuits such as handball and squash, the middle floors where the library and dining rooms were located served a more social function. The bedrooms, where, as Koolhaas said “metropolitan bachelors” might spend the night, occupied most of the upper fifteen floors. Of particular interest was the indoor swimming pool, miniature golf course and roof garden, unusual midair features that bared little connection to the city below.
Though the club was well-known for awarding the Heisman Trophy, given to the nation’s outstanding college football player each year since 1935, due to financial difficulties it closed in 2002 and the building was converted to apartments. Today, the player is selected by American sports writers, and the former clubhouse is possibly best known for how it refueled our interest in cities and encouraged the proliferation of mixed-use towers.
– Matthew A. Postal