On January 20, 1890, Allentown and most of the Lehigh Valley were in turmoil over a play called “Passion’s Slave”. He packed them into a local theater. Apparently its plot is lost to history. Perhaps it featured a rural-loving swain pierced by the well-turned ankle of a young Victorian girl. On the same day, a small group of Allentown men – perhaps they had already seen the piece – met in Lounge A of the American Hotel, the ancestor of the Americaus, to discuss the creation of a private gentlemen’s club. The driving force behind the meetings was Robert Iredell Jr., head of a prominent newspaper family; and Louis Soleliac, Managing Director of the Adelaide Silk Mill, among the region’s largest local employers. The object of the meeting, stated in its 1904 history, was to establish a social club for the enjoyment of its members as well as “to improve by social relations the physical and mental efficiency of its members as well as for friendly relations commercial prosperity of the locality in which it is located.” In short, a business and social club. Three days later another meeting was held at the same location and Iredell and Soleliac were elected officers of the new club.
Among the founding members of the Livingston Club was Amable B. Bonneville. French Canadian trained at the Jesuit College in Montreal, he then took a course in civil engineering. He left Canada at the age of 25 and became involved in various business ventures, including being president of the country’s largest plaster manufacturer. Arriving in the Lehigh Valley in 1886, he became involved with the cement industry factories at Coplay and the Allen factories at Siegfried, later Northampton, which he expanded considerably. Bonneville was vice-president of the Livingston Club when he died aged 64 in 1895. His son, William Bonneville, later became a member and built the large house on South 15th Street later owned by General Harry C’s aide Trexler, Nolan Benner.
Another important function was fulfilled on the day the club was founded. It was “unanimously resolved that the name of this club shall be the Livingston Club, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, in honor of the Livingstons connected with the ancient history of this city“. The Livingstons were an important New York landowning merchant family in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of them, Chancellor Livingston, was holding the Bible when George Washington was sworn in at his inauguration. They had married into the Allen family when Mary Masters Allen, youngest daughter of James Allen, married Henry Livingston. Later, one of their children, Walter Copake Livingston, would marry his first cousin, a daughter of Anne Penn Allen Greenleaf. They occupied Trout Hall, called while in residence the Livingston Mansion, largely during the summer months. From the 1820s through the 1840s, the Livingstons supported civic and commercial enterprises in the area. Walter Livingston lost his fortune in the collapse of some iron furnaces near Media, Pennsylvania. The couple had 11 children, all of whom died childless.
Perhaps with the name, the founders of the new club thought it brought them closer to the revolutionary generation. According to other sources, there were other, less rosy reasons for founding the Livingston Club. Under state blue laws, all drinking places, aka saloons, were closed on Sundays. This forced community leaders to go to the backroom of a local pharmacy if they wanted a drink. And in the 1890s, many of these men, who had comfortable fortunes, felt he was unworthy to have to do.
In the 1890s, America and Europe were going through a period of club madness. Even the popular fiction of the time was full of it. Jules Verne’s book, “Around the World in Eighty Days”, had its main character, Phileas Fogg, as a member of the exclusive Reform Club in London, a veritable institution that still exists today. The plot was based on a big bet with the members of Reform on Fogg’s ability to make the trip in 80 days. In the early 1890s, New York World reporter Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, under the pseudonym Nellie Bly, replicated Fogg’s fictional feat by traveling the world in 72 days. She briefly stopped while passing through France to visit Verne. His book of his travels was a bestseller.
On September 16, 1893, readers of “Harper’s Weekly” were treated to Arthur Conon Doyle’s latest Sherlock Holmes mystery, “The Greek Interpreter,” set partly in the Diogenes Club, a club of eccentric men fictional characters whose members included the tall and portly detective. brother, Mycroft Holmes. The members occupied separate, comfortable reading chairs, but did not speak to each other. “I myself found a very calming atmosphere,” Holmes told Watson.
Members of the Livingston Club also could not ignore during those years that the new Metropolitan Club was being built at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City by architect Stanford White under the direction of mega-investment banker JP Morgan. Morgan was said to have been furious when the Union Club, founded in 1836, rejected his nomination of John King, chairman of the Eire Railroad, supposedly because of King’s atrocious table manners. “It’s harder to eat like a gentleman than to talk like one,” said a member of the Union Club. “Build a club worthy of gentlemen, to hell with the expense,” Morgan thundered at White. Four years and nearly $2 million later, the architect, according to a biographer of Morgan, presented his client with “a lavish colonnaded Italian Renaissance pavilion” whose main feature was a “dramatic double staircase leading to a loggia On the second floor”. The building was described by the “New York Times” in 1892, as “a clubhouse the like of which does not exist in this country or in any other”.
The members of the Livingston Club had something more modest in mind. They rented a house on Seventh Street South in Allentown for $600, on a two-year lease with an option to buy for $8,000. On September 20, 1892, the house was purchased along with a lot at 20-22 South Seventh Street. The design of the pavilion was probably done by Joseph Howard Martz, son of the building contractor, Joseph Martz. Young Martz worked in the office of Lewis Jacoby, the city’s chief architect. The Martz family helped redesign the Central Market Hall as the opera house, now Miller Symphony Hall. Martz created a three-story Romanesque Revival structure in red brick and sandstone with a modest tower. It was to be the home of the Livingston Club for the next 109 years.
A major change in club management took place in 1897. In that year, a group of investors led by Harry Trexler established the Lehigh Portland Cement Company. Trexler had been a member of the Livingston Club since 1890, but now he had played an even bigger role. Although the Livingston Club from its inception viewed itself as encouraging the growth and development of Allentown and Lehigh Valley businesses, Trexler’s involvement took it to a new level. He encouraged the executives of Lehigh Portland Cement and then asked them to join the club. A diligent individual, Trexler made membership necessary for their advancement. A photo taken a year before his death shows Trexler descending the steps of the Livingston Club, a figure clearly in charge.
In 1904, the Livingston Club had 150 members. The main recreational “entertainments” were limited to cards, billiards and billiards. In 1901 there had been a demand for something different and for just over $3,000 a Brunswick-Balke bowling alley was installed, “which added very materially to the enjoyment and popularity of the club “.
The Livingston Club opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 1 a.m. when the steward “discontinued coffee services”, i.e. closed the bar. No member could send a servant out of the club for any purpose and members were asked not to reprimand any servant. Playing cards was only permitted in the card room, and no entertainment was permitted on the evenings of the annual meetings. Bedrooms could be provided at a cost of one dollar per night per person and one and a half dollars for two persons.
Several attempts were made over the years to admit women as members, but it was not until 1949 that women were admitted to the dining hall after 5 p.m. if they came with a member. In 1978, after protests from the National Organization of Women, they were admitted as full members.
Any organization that had so many important people as members was surely a place where major issues in front of the community were discussed. But, as it was a private club whose members wanted to exchange ideas and business away from the press, the public records as such were not kept for better or for worse. Certainly things like the creation of the Allentown park system, the location of a new hotel, or business dealings between Lehigh Portland Cement and other companies could have been discussed at the Livingston Club around bourbon and dry martinis. It is almost certain that the community’s response to the Great Depression of the 1930s developed here.
Not everything was strictly Allentown. Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel was a member of the Livingston Club, and Boise Penrose, the boss of Philadelphia’s mighty Republican machine, came to the club to get community sentiment.
Perhaps the most historic night for the Livingston Club was December 13, 1917. A then little-known political figure, Senator Warren Harding of Ohio, spoke to rally the war effort of World War I. Schwab, who was in attendance, touted him as “the man who could be the next president of the United States,” but few would have gone that far when Harding rose to speak that evening at the Allentown’s Odd Fellows Hall on North 9th Street. By the end of the rally, a blizzard had disrupted all rail and intercity traffic. Harding and Schwab spent the night in the rooms of the Livingston Club. In 1920, Ohioen would be elected president.
This and many other stories were reduced to ruins in November 1999 when a nearby bank decided to take over the Livingston Club property and demolish it to expand a car park. In those days, modern business and community leaders had other ways to do business than within the confines of a downtown club.