Time and Tide Gnaw at a Downtown Enclave

April 26, 2009 at 3:56 pm Leave a comment

It’s a tough time for India House, the luncheon club near Wall Street, midday lair for mandarins, which these days seems as musty as your last pair of socks.

“We, ah, took quite a hit financially last September,” said Bruce Godfrey, the manager, who was nibbling at a burger and some French fries. “What we want to do, you know, is attract more members. Get it occupied again.”

He was sitting in the dining room near four old men, skeletons who muttered about their doctors’ bills. The men wore sagging suits and somber faces; one of them wore a Band-Aid on his nose. The hush was such that one could hear their forks clank on the antique china plates. The chandelier above them had a pair of burnt-out light bulbs; a mirror above the oak buffet reflected the empty chairs.

Mr. Godfrey, a Londoner with tired-looking eyes, was coming to the end of an impassioned speech about the vanished institution known as lunch.

“It may be dying,” he suggested, with a morbid dab of napkin at his lips, “but the odd part is, there’s actually a shortage of places downtown for a serious business lunch. Places where the noise isn’t awful and where you’re not rushed in and out.”

Once there was the Broad Street Club and the Stock Exchange Club, private haunts for the financiers of Wall Street, killed off by the blights of merger and recession and by the money crusades of Eliot Spitzer, the former governor and attorney general of New York. India House, a stately Renaissance palazzo, is among the few survivors in the neighborhood that still provides a decent turkey club and the kick of a crisp martini for its aging clientele.

Established in 1914 by 38 guests at a special dinner at the Metropolitan Club, India House has long been a refuge for mercantile masters, a sanctuary near the stock exchange where men from J. P. Morgan or General Electric could gather, in the words of a founder, Walter Clark, to foster “relations between the bankers and the promoters of foreign trade.”

Its name is a nod to the West Indies; its décor is mildewed maritime. A 100-year-old globe of the earth looms beside the hostess’s desk. The dining room is hung with smoky paintings: “A View of Canton Harbor.” “The Steam Yacht Aguan.” “The Capt. Anthony Kelley, Jr. Passing Flushing, 1859.”

But much like the ship chandlers and maritime lawyers who dined there years ago, the captains of finance are gradually disappearing, leaving little more inside the dining room than the sunlight spilling in from Hanover Square. Membership is down, Mr. Godfrey said. The club has relaxed its dress code. It is considering staying open in the evenings. There are now such forced frivolities as Scotch and Barolo tastings at the bar.

It’s enough to get one thinking of the course of New York City history, a force so cruel and monolithic that the mightiest are left to froth like sea spume in its wake. The merchant bankers who hung those paintings on the wall and ogled them while chewing on their beefsteak in the ’20s surely had no clue that in another half-century their pre-eminence would be gone. Could the same be true of the asset traders and default swappers of today?

Mr. Godfrey mulled the question. The four men hobbled from the room.

“A.I.G.,” he said, “was a significant presence here.”
New York Times


Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan, Maritime. Tags: , .

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