The Century Association is a private club in New York City. It evolved out of an earlier organization – the Sketch Club, founded in 1829 by editor and poet William Cullen Bryant and his friends – and was established in 1847 by Bryant and others as a club to promote interest in the fine arts and literature which was open to "Artists, Literary Men, Scientists, Physicians, Officers of the Army and Navy, members of the Bench and Bar, Engineers, Clergymen, Representatives of the Press, Merchants and men of leisure." It was originally intended to have a limited membership of 100 men. Its early members included Bryant; painters Asher Durand, Winslow Homer, Jervis McEntee, and John Frederick Kensett; sculptor Paul Manship; architect Stanford White; judge Charles Patrick Daly; author Lewis Gaylord Clark; and architect Calvert Vaux, who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, was the co-creator of Central Park. However, by the middle 1850s, the membership primarily consisted of merchants, businessmen, lawyers and doctors.
The Century possesses a notable art collection, including important works by Asher Durand, Thomas Cole, Thomas Doughty, and other Hudson River School painters. It is also an important venue for the exhibition of contemporary art created by its members.
The club agreed to start admitting women members in 1989, after a strenuous legal battle.
The Century Association resulted from the merger of two earlier private clubs for men "of similar social standing or shared interests." The Sketch Club had focused on literature and the arts, while the Column Club had been a Columbia University alumni organization. The initial invitation for the combined club was sent to one hundred men, which became the basis for the name "The Century", later slightly altered to the Century Association.
The club rented a variety of temporary locations in Manhattan, gravitating to the area around Union Square and Madison Square. Among these locations were over Del Vecchio's picture store at 495 Broadway, 435 Broome Street, over a millinery shop at 575 Broadway, and 24 Clinton Place (later redesignated 46 East 8th Street). Rapid growth in membership to 250 led the club to incorporate and purchase a permanent location in 1857.
The club's first permanent headquarters was an existing two and one-half story residence located at 42 East 15th Street, later redesignated 109-111, between Union Square East and Irving Place. Built in about 1847 and purchased by the Century Association in 1857 for $24,000, the dwelling was extensively remodeled four times during its 34 years as a clubhouse. The first time was immediately upon purchase under the direction of New York architect Joseph C. Wells, a Centurion. At a cost of $11,000, the renovated building was more than twice the size of the original house and styled like an Italian palazzo with facing of ashlar or possibly stucco treated to resemble ashlar masonry.
Continuing its growth in both membership and programs during and after the Civil War, the Century Association required larger facilities. Although it considered relocating, financial constraints led them in 1867 to ask member and architect Charles D. Gambrill (1832–1880) to enlarge the current structure. Gambrill's plans called for internal alterations, an expansion to the rear to accommodate an art gallery on the second floor and a billiard room on the main floor, a mansard roof, and a new unified, brick exterior trimmed with Lockport limestone. The rear extension was promptly completed, but for reasons no longer understood the rest of work was delayed until 1869.
By the time construction began again, Gambrill had replaced his previous partner, George B. Post, with noted young architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886), who had recently returned from his architectural training in France and joined the Century Association. Although uncertain, it appears that Richardson was involved in changes to Gambrill's initial plans, making this one of his early works, before he became one of the most influential architects in the United States (Jeffrey Karl Ochsner calls it Richardson's eighth commission). The 1869 remodeling cost $21,000, and included an upwards expansion into a mansard-covered third floor. Completely eliminating the prior palazzo feel, it featured a unified neo-Grec style. Although Richardson would later develop a highly personal Romanesque style, his training at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris equipped him to design in neo-Grec with its abstracted classical features that worked well in modern materials such as the brick employed here. In 1878, Gambrill and Richardson dissolved their partnership, and in the same year Richardson made yet further modifications to the clubhouse.
The building is the oldest surviving clubhouse in Manhattan, and has been a New York City landmark since 1993. The exterior was restored and the interior converted in 1996-1997 by Beyer Blinder Belle, and in recent years it has been the Century Center for the Performing Arts, which had a 248-seat theatre, a ballroom and a studio. As of 2006 it is the New York production facility for Trinity Broadcasting Network, a religious television company.
In 1891, The Century Association left 15th Street for its current location, an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo at 7 West 43rd Street. At the time of the move the club had about 800 members. The building at this new address was designed by McKim, Mead & White. It is also a New York City landmark, as it was designated in 1967; and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982. McKim, Mead & White's design established a preferred style for private clubhouse buildings all over the United States in the following decades. The building was restored by Jan Hird Pokorny in 1992.
In late 2010 members of the Century Association – which had only begun admitting female members in 1989, and then by court order – were embroiled in a hotly contested internal debate, that involved an "unusual vote of the entire membership". At issue was whether it "should sever ties with a prestigious, all-male club in London, called the Garrick Club, that allows women to enter only in the company of men." As of March 1, 2011 the reciprocity agreement was slated to end. London's Daily Telegraph interviewed a Garrick Club member who said he "would not be mourning the loss of his colonial cousins — or access to their facilities. 'The Century's a crap club anyway,'" he added. On the other side, a male Century Association member told the New York Observer that giving up infrequent visits to the Garrick Club "versus condoning the discrimination of women" seemed like "a pretty easy trade-off".