- Historic Sites
An exclusive preserve of New York’s social elite —its rise, its flourishing years, and its slide into genteel decline
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
Although the possession of inherited wealth was never an absolutely essential criterion for admission, a substantial number of members were blessed with it, and working for a living was viewed with suspicion by many of the original Tuxedoites. Bankers, financiers, and others who dealt with money only in its more intangible and dignified aspects, however, were acceptable.
The number of members was at first restricted to two hundred gentlemen of distinction, but the pressure for membership was so great that within a year the permissible number of club members was increased to four hundred, exclusive of resident members. By 1888, as a result of this more democratic policy, there were 348 nonresident members and 29 resident members, among them a sizable contingent of parvenus who had been judged worthy. Indeed, the difficulty of getting into the Tuxedo Club perhaps has been exaggerated, at least by outsiders. According to the late George Rushmore, who grew up in the park and whose father was one of the original club members, “if a person could get a proposer and a seconder and kept quiet, he was likely to make the grade without too much ancestral background. The one way not to be elected … [was] to buy a house in the park before election.”
Nevertheless, it was the club’s reputation for exclusiveness, whether deserved or not, that was the key to the unique prestige of Tuxedo Park, first as a seasonal resort and later as a place of permanent residence. Without the club and the elevated social functions of which it was a center, the park, for all its superb combination of natural beauty and civilized amenities, might soon have degenerated into just another inconvenient and overly pretentious suburban backwater. The luxurious clubhouse was an ideal rendezvous for genial coaching parties and a perfect setting for anything from a cozy tea party on the terrace overlooking the lake to a stately cotillion in its elegant ballroom. The grand climax of the Tuxedo season, and the first major event of the New York season as well, was the club’s Autumn Ball. This glittering affair soon became the traditional occasion at which Tuxedo debutantes made their formal bow as huntresses for husbands. It was at the first of these balls, incidentally, in October, 1886, that Griswold Lorillard, younger son of the founding father, is alleged to have introduced to America the first truncated set of evening clothes.
But the gayest time of all in the heyday of Tuxedo was the week between Christmas and New Year’s when the clubhouse overflowed with members and their guests celebrating the holidays in a hectic round of “Pigeon-shooting, coasting, skating, tobogganing, dancing, flirting, singing, card playing, and last, but by no means least, eating and drinking. …” Flirting was one of the more popular of those diversions and, as one sardonic observer put it, “while sleigh bells jingled outside, the society belles jangled inside.”
All through the nineties and the first decade of the 1900’s, the sounds of men at work with hammers and saws echoed across the hills and dales of the park. Architecturally there were two distinct periods, the modest and the pretentious. Houses of the modest period adhered faithfully, for the most part, to the cozy style of the original cottages designed by Bruce Price. Modest at Tuxedo meant a structure of wood or stucco containing from five to ten bedrooms. After a dozen years of steady building, nearly a hundred of these earlyTuxedo-style cottages were scattered along the park’s winding roads. Snuggled into a hillside, as the rugged terrain usually demanded, they blended gracefully into the landscape and were deceptively unimpressive from the outside. But in an era of ostentatious display, even the disapproval of Lorillard himself could not prevent the spread at Tuxedo of an unseemly taste for competitive grandeur. By the turn of the century, architectural pretentiousness was epidemic.
One of the first to succumb was Charles B. Alexander, a corporation lawyer who had married a California gold-rush heiress. The Alexanders, unaccustomed as yet to mingling with the more aloof members of the Tuxedo set, sought to confirm their wealth and station with a castellated brick and stone affair large enough to contain a spacious ballroom. But the Alexander house was soon overshadowed by Henry W. Poor’s immense, brick, Tudor-style manor house.
Architects of the Gilded Age were themselves not always immune to the insidious lure of the grandiose, and their clients sometimes got more than they bargained for. One mishap of this sort occurred with a house built for Mrs. Henry Barbey, a sister of the founder. Mrs. Barbey’s main residence was in Switzerland and she had in mind only a small chalet where she could spend a month or two each year in her native land. The planning was done by correspondence, however, and her instructions were not too precise. The result was that her small chalet turned out to be an imposing mansion with a great hall and fifteen-foot ceilings and all but impossible to heat in the winter. A gentleman who rented it one year ate breakfast in his fur coat. Mrs. Barbey herself, according to legend, took one look at the house and never came back.