The Colony Club was the first social club established in New York City by and for women. It was formed in 1903 by Florence Jaffray Harriman, wife of J. Borden Harriman, and was modeled on clubs for prominent men. Stanford White was commissioned to build the club premises, and the construction of the original building took place between 1904 and 1907. Elsie de Wolfe, actress turned interior designer, created the interiors, and her iconic garden pavilion in particular resulted in many lucrative future commissions.
The founding members established an initiation fee of $150 and annual dues at $100, which put the Colony Club on the level of the most expensive men’s club. They also set exclusive admission standards. Members were also asked for contributions to finance construction of the clubhouse. J. P. Morgan, whose three daughters were all members, agreed to subscribe $10,000 if nine other men would do the same. William C. Whitney offered to put up $25,000 if the women built a clubhouse as large as that of the Metropolitan Club, though the building did not quite measure up to this requirement.
The Colony Club served as an athletic facility for its members. The founders felt that existing gymnasiums in the city did not adequately serve the needs of women, particularly business women, who often were forced to work around the schedules of the businessmen who frequented these more public venues. The Colony Club featured a gymnasium, a pool, a running track, and other standard athletic facilities for the benefit of its members.
When the club opened, the key difficulty proved to be the liquor license. A law prohibiting liquor licenses within 200 feet of a church without the church’s consent had not been taken into account, and across the street from the Colony Club’s original building was the Madison Avenue Baptist Church. The church refused to grant permission, because of its strong stance on temperance. Club officers denied that the club served alcohol, stating that members brought in their own. The club was not able to get a liquor license until it moved north to its larger quarters on Park Avenue in 1916.
The New York Times published a complete membership roster on the first anniversary, which included four Vanderbilts, four Whitneys, the three daughters of J. P. Morgan, Mrs. John Jacob Astor, and Ethel Barrymore among many other prominent women of the time.