Friday, March 18, 2011

Skull and Bones Club - Saint Louis

The club has been right here in this unassuming building for over a hundred years. There are no signs or any outside means of identification to give it away. It was built in the early 1900's and remains virtually unchanged to this day. This place represents a time when the automobile was still a rarity on the streets and businesses were locally owned. Well-connected business owners would form civic clubs under whose umbrella they would collectively make decisions regarding civic and social issues and just about everything else of interest to the area leaders of the time. But most business was conducted elsewhere, this club was primarily a social club, a place to make friends with your business associates (a subset of members were also active in a specific sport which otherwise lent some outward public legitimacy to its existence). The door is manned by a butler 24/7. Smoking is allowed and the bar is evidently always open (there is at least one bar on each floor that I accessed). If you need a room with absolute privacy for a night or several, this is the place. The nature of the club is such that it otherwise has literally no public presence. There's no website and no source of history on it readily available. In fact, this post right here is the largest collection of photographs and information pertaining to this establishment made available to the public, let alone on the internet, since it's inception as far as I can tell.

The most notable undertaking of this club is their financial backing that fueled the 1927 flight of a then unknown US Air Mail aviator named Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh sought the Orteig Prize, which was a $25,000 reward to the first Allied aviator to make the flight from New York to Paris. The prize was announced thusly: "Gentlemen: As a stimulus to the courageous aviators, I desire to offer, through the auspices and regulations of the Aero Club of America, a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator of any Allied Country crossing the Atlantic in one flight, from Paris to New York or New York to Paris, all other details in your care. Yours very sincerely, Raymond Orteig". It was in this club that St. Louis civic leaders agreed to back Charles Lindbergh and for this reason his plane was named the "Spirit of St. Louis".

Joining this club is not easy; They don't recruit and you have to be sponsored by current members. Not the least of which, "Bonesmen" are counted among its ranks. On November 15th, 2010, one of the annual Bones Men Dinners was held here. While this is not solely a Skull and Bones Club, their membership clearly overlaps. Membership here is not cheap either. I don't know the exact figures but $50,000 is the average initiation fee for these sorts of clubs.

The outward "sports club" aspect of the place notwithstanding, I am particularly intrigued by just such a thing as this. But not for the self-appointed exclusiveness of it. In fact, I couldn't care less about what the "upper crust" is up to or how exclusive their exclusivities are. I've never gotten along well with spoiled rich kids who spend unearned stacks of daddy's money on frivolous extravagances for the sake of being frivolous. Being born into money doesn't earn an ounce of my respect. No, what interests me about this place is that this is one of the last vestiges of the "old guard". A place where you couldn't identify the current century just based on interior appearances. This place hasn't been updated to suit the modern snobbishness of the more sensitive and wealthy elitists, so they can, and do, simply go elsewhere. This is the Men's Club, a place where smoking indoors is still a thing and no amount of city ordinances will change it, a place that by all accounts shouldn't really exist anymore and yet here it is in all its unassuming, unchanged and stoic old charm. I appreciate the fact that a place still exists where a man can walk in at any time of day and have a scotch and a cigar in the company of an impressive taxidermy collection in complete privacy in the middle of a busy city. This is a place where you can effectively step out for a while, far away from prying eyes.

I'm an adventurist and a scholar. I enjoy researching history and chasing mysteries into existence. When I first learned of this place, I filed it away as something interesting that I'd probably never get to see in person. But then one day, the exploring gods shone their countenance down upon me. I knew that I couldn't lug around my DSLR once inside, let alone get it in undetected, so I had my crappy point and shoot ready. A regular rotation of charged batteries was kept on hand for the day. The camera barely fit in my pocket. Once inside, I casually struck up conversation with an administrative member. It was evident that he wasn't going to be forthcoming. I tried asking about their business, explaining that I couldn't find anything else online about the club. His reply was simply "That's by design". Shortly thereafter, he had business to tend to and I set off on my own.

His office was near the front door. Just outside it was the main dining room. Down the hall was the lower dining hall and bar. In the hall connecting the two was an area for members with club newsletters and information. On the wall was a list of officers. Among the current club officers listed on the wall are many of Saint Louis' most recognizable names which include, among others, Busch and Schlafly. Past officers include William Lemp, Jr.

I quickly grabbed a newsletter and a few photos on my way to the second floor without the butler so much as looking up at me. I was by the Duck Room upstairs when I heard someone coming and had to retreat back downstairs. There was no good excuse if I was to be found roaming the halls.. I passed an old grandfather clock and a large Buffalo head on the wall towards the lower dining room. The bar area was complete with a taxidermy collection including a shark, bear and several elk. This morbid collection was most likely hunted a hundred years ago by some long dead person of far nobler lineage than I-surely someone who helped shape the course of history of Saint Louis but whose name and memory are all but a stuffed, dead, animal hanging on the wall. I was taking photos of these when, to my surprise, the bartender asked me if I needed anything. I wasn't aware he had seen me enter the room. I casually made distracting small-talk as I took a picture of the dining area and then quickly left.

These photos definitely suck but even if they did allow photography, you can't exactly walk in off the street and start taking pictures of the place..

I later came across this.. well, interesting photo. It is my guess that this is some sort of initiation for new candidates.

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