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It Wasn’t Just the Pandemic That Closed the Princeton Club

Photo: Presley Ann/Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan

In late October, Bruce MacEwen searched online for news about the Princeton Club of New York and saw a headline that shocked him: The club was closing “indefinitely.” The management consultant, who had graduated from Princeton in 1976, had been a loyal member since the early ’80s, and he enjoyed having a place to entertain colleagues without wrestling over the check as well as being able to book rooms at reciprocal establishments like the Royal Air Force Club in London. MacEwen knew the club was struggling — he had donated $500 in response to a May request for help on top of the roughly $7,000 in dues he had happily paid over nearly two years of the pandemic, even though the club was closed for most of that time. But no one from the club had responded to his requests for updates, and he said he felt “betrayed” by the sudden news of its closure.

When Sebastian Gold, a 30-year-old member, learned the news, he had already started going to the gym at the nearby Penn Club, which has a reciprocal arrangement with the Princeton Club. The tech consultant had been thinking about ending his membership because “it seemed odd” that the Princeton Club was not fully reopened the way other university clubs were. “I was starting to wonder if it was just severely mismanaged,” he said. “I didn’t know they were having financial troubles.”

The pandemic meant that the club had gone 15 months without the usual income from its two restaurants, a bar, a gym, event spaces, and 58 guest rooms. It also lost about a third of its 6,000 members, each of whom pays dues ranging from $350 for recent graduates to $3,255 a year for those at least 15 years out, onetime initiation fees, monthly assessments (which pay for renovations), and a food-and-beverage minimum. The Princeton Club was also the only one of four Ivy League clubhouses in midtown that did not receive some form of financial support from its university. Now an auction to sell the club’s $40 million debt is wrapping up, with initial reports that Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and a 1976 Princeton alumnus, is a top bidder.

However, the club had struggled to recruit and retain members even before the pandemic. Some blamed its drab 1963 building; as one alumnus wrote in 2009, “The Princeton Club is ugly and embarrassing compared to the Harvard and Yale Clubs.” The 22-story Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue, for instance, is a neoclassical landmark building from the early-20th century that evokes the grand (and all-male) heyday of New York’s private club scene. Others pinned the decline on a late-1980s renovation by the architects Robert Venturi (Princeton ’47) and Denise Scott Brown: Ceilings were dropped and blond wood appeared. The redesign was reportedly intended to attract younger and female alumni, but many members hated it, said one club insider — enough that to this day, some members insist it drove people away. Jason Anderson, an architect and former member in his 40s, described the building as “kind of weird,” “a little bit hodgepodge,” and “perpetually in need of some renovation.” And Yelp reviews of the club, like this one in 2018, continue in this vein: “The facility overall seems old — and not in a charming Ivy League sort of way.”

For younger alumni, the problem isn’t just the building. “The more recent students look around and see a bunch of gray-hairs, and say, This group isn’t for me,” said Scott Taylor, a former board member and retired Wall Street trader. (The club’s spring 2020 programming included a workshop on how to use an iPhone.) “It felt very Princeton-before-they-let-in-the-women to me,” wrote Carolyn Holm, a translator and communications consultant who visited a handful of times between 1993 and 2010. (Until around 1990, one of the club’s restaurants, referred to as the Men’s Grill, featured a floor plaque that read, “Where women cease from troubling and the wicked are at rest.”) Holm added that friends of hers who joined did so for networking, but as someone who worked in fashion, not banking or finance, she didn’t see how she would benefit from joining.

Tao Leigh Goffe, a Princeton alumna and Cornell professor in her early 30s, chose to join the Yale Club, where she attended grad school, rather than Princeton, her undergrad alma mater. She explained, “As a Black woman, I am always being surveilled, and at the Yale Club this did not feel like the case, while it did the few times I went to the Princeton Club.” There, she said, “My Princeton affiliation was second-guessed.”

The club’s board was aware of its image, said one insider. At the club’s 2019 “Princeton Night,” the emcee joked, “How many Princetonians does it take to change a lightbulb? One to change it, 25 to protest that they liked the old lightbulb better, and 50 to write letters to the [alumni magazine] blaming the darkness on co-education” — a reference to the days when alumni frequently groused about the university’s going coed in 1969.

To better appeal to younger graduates — especially those working in tech — the club became the first Ivy League clubhouse to allow jeans around 2010. It also provided free housing to undergrads doing summer internships in New York. In 2016, it changed the name of its Woodrow Wilson dining room in response to campus protests against the former university and U.S. president, four years before the university removed his name from its school of public policy.

But perhaps the biggest concession to newer alumni happened in 2018, when the club shrank its members’ lounge and built a business center where people could freely work on their laptops and phones. It had been a point of contention; some of the board wanted to introduce co-working and embrace tech, said the club insider, but the house committee received frequent complaints about people working in the lounge, where “no papers are to be spread out and conversations are to be kept social,” said Taylor.

These and other efforts did boost the number of younger members, said a source who claimed it aspired to become “the Soho House of the Ivy League.” However, without university support — including, for example, access to university email lists, a dedicated campus employee to facilitate events, or the steady stream of catering business other clubs get from hosting university events — they were hard to sustain. The club was built to serve 12,000 people, but membership had hovered around a break-even point of 6,000, and never above 7,000, for at least the past 15 years, the source estimated.

When, in the late 1990s, the club began to accept alumni from other schools, that felt like a negative selling point to some. “It seems to defeat the purpose of the club when most of the people you meet in the elevator did not attend,” wrote Goffe. Nonetheless, it was a major blow when the Columbia Club ended a two-decade residency in 2017 (it had moved in after losing its own building across the street) and moved into the Penn Club. At one point, Columbia Club members had constituted 2,000 of the Princeton Club’s 6,000, the inside source estimated. Alumni from NYU (whose clubhouse went bankrupt in 1989) were also a sizable chunk. Gold observed that because they felt no emotional connection to Princeton, his NYU friends had decamped to the National Arts Club relatively early in the pandemic, after it became apparent that other clubs were fully reopened while the Princeton Club was not.

Until the end, the club’s bank was convinced it would receive a bailout from Princeton University, said a source with knowledge of the negotiations. However, the university declined to intervene: “The University is aware that their decision not to support the club means the club may cease to exist,” club president Christine Loomis wrote to members. After the closing, a Princeton University spokesperson downplayed the importance of the club in the student paper, noting that a separate entity, the Princeton Association of New York City, holds events for local alumni that “are either free or low cost.”

The club may yet reopen if Eric Schmidt wins the auction, since he is considered to be friendly to the institution. But if the winner ends up being someone who doesn’t want to reopen, at least one insider claimed the board might team up with a well-heeled alumnus to fight the foreclosure — and quoted Ho Chi Minh to describe this prospect: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” They also said the club could reopen in a new and smaller space, perhaps somewhere more appealing to tech workers.

Some members, though, say their loyalty has run out. “If the club were to somehow rise from the dead and reopen, I would not rejoin on a dare,” said MacEwen, the management consultant, adding that he and his wife have already joined the Penn Club. Sebastian Gold mused, “I might wind up just not bothering with a social club and joining Equinox.” Tao Leigh Goffe quit the Yale Club years ago, after moving downtown. “I would love it if there could be alum club spaces that would welcome people who look like me,” she wrote. “You don’t want to pay to feel alienated. We already did that in college.”

It Wasn’t Just the Pandemic That Closed the Princeton Club