New York’s First AA Clubhouse Chelsea History

| 20 Nov 2015 | 03:57

Today, Alcoholics Anonymous holds dozens of daily meetings in every borough of the city. Its first New York Clubhouse, though, was at the now-defunct address of 334 1/2 West 24th Street, in Chelsea.

Nowadays, AA meetings are held in church basements, community centers, senior centers and other spots throughout the city. But in the early days, when the program was getting started, its members had a hard time finding places to meet. In 1940, the members of the group decided that they needed a clubhouse.

They finally found the building on West 24th Street, which had several incarnations beforehand, including as a livery stable, a tinsmith’s shop, and a speakeasy, according to an article in the New York Times from Feb. 15, 1960, about its closing. Immediately before AA took it over, it was the headquarters of the Society of Illustrators, now on East 63rd Street.

Details about the clubhouse are somewhat hard to come by because of the anonymity of the AA program. But some material has survived. An article in the AA Grapevine newsletter from 1947 by Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of AA, says, “Some of the older members signed the lease … We cleaned and we scrubbed, and we had a home.” For a while, Wilson and his wife Lois lived in a room in the building before they moved to Westchester County.

In a speech to a Manhattan AA group in 1955, Wilson (who was known within the program as “Bill W.” during his lifetime), described some of the early meetings as somewhat rowdy affairs. Drinkers who had not yet achieved sobriety sometimes disrupted the procedures, he said, card players sometimes formed their own little cliques, and “dictators” (presumably authoritarian leaders) ran amok.

In 1941, the Saturday Evening Post published a favorable article about the program, and a period of explosive growth followed. In his 1955 speech, Wilson described how the principle of anonymity wasn’t as strict then as it later became – a photo of some of the members in front of the fireplace in the 24th Street clubhouse was published, although none of their names were used.

The 24th Street Clubhouse proved too small to accommodate the rapid growth of the program, so in 1944, AA took over a church building at 405 West 41st St. and established a new clubhouse there. Another Times article, from December 1944, on the opening of the clubhouse revealed that by that time, there were 365 AA groups in the U.S. and Canada. The opening ceremonies, said the Times, had hot dogs, sandwiches, soda and coffee.

The 24th Street Clubhouse continued to be used, however. The 1947 AA Grapevine article mentioned that the “AA Seamen” held meetings there. In November 1952, a memorial service was held there for Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith (or “Dr. Bob”), the other co-founder of the program, who had died two years before. The 24th Street location became known as the “Old Clubhouse.”

The 1960 Times article said the building was demolished to make room for a “six-block housing project.” The author was not referring to a new NYCHA project, but to Mutual Redevelopment Houses, also known as Penn South, which opened in 1962.

Today, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the location of the Old Clubhouse. 24th Street itself was reconfigured during the building of Penn South into the curved street we see today.

But somewhere in the vicinity, countless men and women took the first step away from alcohol addiction and toward sobriety.