Wednesday, August 3, 2011

NY: Aviation Club Secures a Home on Park Avenue, in a Space With Significance

From the New York Times: Aviation Club Secures a Home on Park Avenue, in a Space With Significance
In the 1950s, when commercial aviation was growing and space travel captured the American imagination, the Wings Club of New York settled into a first-class home. Over the next several decades, it was a congenial gathering spot for aviators, celebrities and even presidents.

Candles glowed on birthday cakes sometimes delivered by beautiful flight attendants. Drinks were served in the club bar. Late-evening songfests were held around the piano.

But as air travel changed in the last decade, so did the Wings Club. In 2002, high rent and an economic downturn forced the club from its deluxe Manhattan home and left it without a place to call its own.

So the club — which is part social, part professional and part dedicated to aviation education and related charities — was happy that it found a new meeting place this summer. And it was doubly pleased that the new address is in the MetLife Building on Park Avenue — one of the most famous aviation landmarks in the city, from its days as the headquarters of Pan Am.

“This is a place to actually plant the flag,” said David McKay, the club’s president, “a place that is a symbol, a place for the board to meet, because I think it represents permanence and that’s something we want to foster.”

When the club was founded in 1942, it was a tenant at the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue. World War II pilots used the place as a hangout and sometimes as a hotel.

In the 1950s, the club moved into the luxury Biltmore Hotel near Grand Central Terminal.

“In the early years, it was very prestigious to be a member,” said Harris Herman, general manager of the club and, in the 1990s, one of the committee of 12 that scrutinized each membership application. “It has always been something that people wanted to be part of.”

By the ’70s, the Wings Club had a membership of 1,500, including its first female members, as well as celebrity honorary members like Jimmy Doolittle, Arthur Godfrey and Curtis LeMay. Executives of Pan Am, TWA, Eastern and American — airlines that were, at that time, based in New York — were also members.

When the Biltmore Hotel was demolished in 1981, the club moved into equally deluxe accommodations at 52 Vanderbilt Avenue. In the dining room, white linen draped the tables and steak was served on china. In the library, members could order a drink while talking about flying.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed much about aviation, and the Wings Club, whose budget comes from dues and corporate donations, was no exception. In 2002, the club closed the doors on its spacious 18th-floor haven and spent the longest time since its founding without a place to call home.

Reopening in the former headquarters of Pan Am is special for the club, which now has a membership of 1,200.

“There’s this wonderful connective tissue that just runs through the entire place,” said Mr. McKay, who is the president of United States Aviation Underwriters, the insurance firm.

The Pan Am Building was once under consideration to be the home of the club, in 1963. Pan Am’s most famous executive, Juan Trippe, was a club member, and Mr. Trippe’s personal pilot, Albert Ueltschi, founded the aviation training company Flight Safety International. The chief executive of that company, Bruce Whitman, will lead the Wings Club in 2012.

The new club, however, much like the state of contemporary aviation, is a stripped-down version of its former self. Gone are the plush library, the dining room, the wood-paneled bar. With more than a nod to how airlines have eliminated meals and free checked bags, the 2011 Wings Club consists of a boardroom, a kitchen and a workspace for visiting members’ use.

Still, some gracious touches remain. On the walls hangs a collection of aviation art by John T. McCoy, Clayton Knight and the famed painter of clouds Eric Sloane. The collection has been appraised at more than $500,000. Framed photos of events at the club are also on display.

John Kent, now retired, lunched regularly at the Biltmore and Vanderbilt Avenue sites when he was an airline pilot based in New York and flying 747s for United Airlines. In the spring of 1987, he arranged a party at the club to celebrate the birthday of the World War I flying ace George Vaughn. Attendees reminisced about Charles Lindbergh, whom some knew personally.

In the new club, photos of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Bush and the pioneering 1930s-era pilot Jacqueline Cochran hang on the walls. They were honored guests, as were the actors James Stewart and Cliff Robertson. Attendees at annual galas have included the astronauts John Glenn and Kathryn Sullivan.

Performing was another part of the club culture, according to a written history that recounts some late-night songfests. For a members’ dinner in 1996, Robert Crandall, then the head of American Airlines, appeared in a video playing the piano and singing a satirical version of the song “My Way” dedicated to Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines.

The club’s monthly lunches are still held at the Yale Club, where members have dining and hotel privileges that supplement the limited offerings at the new clubhouse.

“It’s not glitzy like it was 30 years ago,” Mr. Herman said. “I never thought we’d open this club. In the dark days, when we had to close and move, I thought it would just be too expensive, because I was thinking, dining room, kitchen, bar, library.”

“I don’t think it requires a fancy, jazzy thing,” Mr. McKay rushed to add.

Access to the movers and shakers in the industry is what the club has always been about, Mr. McKay said. “Being in the roster with Bob Crandall and Herb Kelleher has some value to some people,” he said. “If I wanted to pick up the phone and dial Richard Branson, I could. And he would probably pick up the phone. I think that’s remarkable. Quite frankly, that’s enough.”

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