All the old Ivy League universities maintain downtown rookeries in Manhattan where graduates, if duly credentialed, may be granted membership, with monthly dues guaranteeing an inexpensive place to stay in the city as well as meals, meeting rooms and bathrooms.
The H club is one of this fraternity. 120 years old, it’s an assemblage of five-story apartment buildings united by a grand façade. The public rooms on the ground floor are equally grand; the vast dining room is decorated with the heads of African wild beasts and the milder portraits of a succession of college presidents, their dark parade interrupted by an unlikely watercolor of a woman—wife of one of them, or what?—sitting in sunlight and surrounded by flowers.
Upstairs, though, grandeur is replaced by serpentine corridors and stairs that link the old buildings; every room gives on an airshaft, and most of the rooms are tiny. The cheaper rooms share a hall bathroom. This Spartan arrangement would be deemed unendurable at most New York hotels, but here it fits with the general air of genteel deprivation that also marked the dormitories; we are all perhaps too civilized or at least too disciplined to expect creature comforts.
In case we forget where we are, which seems unlikely, the corridor walls are lined with college memorabilia. My favorite is a placid child-like watercolor of an innocent looking church, its decorousness somewhat undermined by two towering flowers, each as tall as the church itself, which the artist may have put in to soften the angularity.
The watercolor is carefully inscribed “A perspective VIEW of the Episcopal CHURCH in Cambridge” (the state name is not needed) by Saml Farrar”—written in the old way, the l floating above the rest of the name—“1793.”
Other walls are hung with portraits of the past greats of the place: a puttee-clad veteran of the Army of the Potomac (Faulkner understood the appeal of this university for southern boys), James Russell Lowell, wild-haired and densely-bearded, and a procession of the lesser-known bearers of familiar New England names.
Beyond hang framed programs from musical evenings featuring the glee club and its main or perhaps only rival, Yale, and a strong sketch of the captain of the football team, 1931; trophies are surely stored in a locked room labeled, “In Memory of the H Football Team, 1931.” What other wonders lie within?
My dismal room is decorated with large framed photographs of the Freshman track team and the Freshman crew, circa 1911. How pale and untouched the boys look in their white sleeveless shirts and white shorts, the hell of the war some of them would attend in 6 years undreamed of—and this was the long past era when the sons of privilege often went to war, and died there.
So the place breathes—if it breathes at all—an air of masculinity and propriety that seems to have disappeared but of course has not really. When I go into the dining room to eat, I am nearly always asked, “Are you meeting your husband?” (“No, I’m meeting myself”) or “Just one?” (“Isn’t one enough?”).
For although the club was forced to begin to accept women members decades ago, as a condition of receiving federal money, we still seem more welcome in the basement retiring room with its chintz-skirted dressing tables and little reclining couches than upstairs where the mystique of the Great Ones, enshrined in deprivation, still looks out from the glass eyes of a huge mounted African elephant.