As did other early eating clubs, the University Cottage Club, founded in 1887, took its name from its building -- in this case, the "University Cottage" on University Place. No illustrations exist of this building in its original location, and after five years Cottage decided to join Ivy Club and Cap & Gown in constructing a clubhouse on Prospect Avenue.
In 1891, Cottage considered a plan for a clubhouse
in the ornate Richardsonian style popular in the second half of the 19th century. This structure featured a pair of prominent towers with conical tops, with a stone first story and either shingle or terra cotta on the second and third stories. It was never built. Instead, in 1892 Cottage chose to build a less elaborate shingle building on the site of its current clubhouse.
Designed by an unknown architect, this structure
featured a pair of turrets on either side of the facade; a porch running across the front; a small second-floor balcony; and a widow's walk. It was entirely covered in shingles, the predominant material in domestic architecture of the period. Especially when compared to the Richardsonian-style design that Cottage had rejected, this building lacks exterior ornamentation although decorative swags appear over the windows and door.
By 1903, Cottage decided that it needed a new clubhouse, "the wear and tear of a decade" having rendered its old building "completely inadequate." An additional motivation, doubtless, was Ivy Club's new Gothic clubhouse next door, which had been completed in 1899 and was the object of great admiration and envy. To make way for its new building, Cottage accordingly sold its shingle clubhouse to Tower Club, which moved the building to 89 Prospect, where it saw years more of service for several different clubs.
Cottage then commissioned Charles McKim, principal in the firm of McKim, Mead and White and one of the great architects of the day, to design a new clubhouse. McKim spent the summer of 1903 touring England to examine university towns and country houses, and when he returned in the fall he drew up plans for a three-story brick clubhouse in the Georgian Revival style. McKim was thinking on a grand scale: the dimensions he proposed, 104 feet by 102 feet, with a central court measuring 55 feet by 38 feet, required Cottage to acquire the land behind its original lot before construction could begin.
Modeled on the great Georgian country houses of England, Cottage is a
beautifully proportioned structure with two broad bays projecting slightly at
either end of the facade. The main exterior features of Cottage as built
are a striking, curved pediment with an elliptical window, a strong string course between the first and second floors, white quoins on the corners, a small balcony over the front door, and a widow's walk. The rear elevation
is only slightly less formal, with the rear courtyard enclosed by a series of columns. The structure cost $119,793 -- enormous for the time -- with two thirds being contributed by the Palmer family.
As exquisite as the finished product is, McKim's rendering for Cottage
may be even better. There are a number of small but significant differences. The roof has no widow's walk, for example, and only two dormers instead of four. The curved pediment is slightly smaller and thus better proportioned, while the quoins are of brick, not stone, giving them a more muted appearance. A double string course, instead of single, separates the floors. The windows are curved to match the pediment and the balcony door is topped by a swag that is missing in the final building.
Unlike many of the eating clubs, the quality of Cottage's interiors equals that of the exterior. The main staircase and the library, a copy of the library at Merton College, Oxford, are particularly lovely spaces. The floorplan is also very well contrived, offering excellent circulation.
Other clubs, notably Colonial, would endeavor to match the splendor of Cottage, but without success. In this structure, designed by a top-flight architect and adequately financed, the eating club phenomenon reached it apotheosis.