How the Friars Club Renovations Are More Than Just Cosmetic

When the Friars Club of New York City reopened in April 2021, members and guests not only found polished remnants of the club’s illustrious past, but they also witnessed signs of the club’s entry into a new era as the club’s leadership sent a clear message that the business-as-usual motif left with the old carpeting.

The busted water pipe that closed the club in early 2020 was more than a sign of wear and tear on the building. It also represented the overall decline of the club. As a result, the closure allowed Friars Club management to provide the building with a needed facelift and a revision of the club’s mission.

Mixing the Old with the New

Although the renovated Friars Club is still reminiscent of the bygone eras of the Rat Pack, Bing Crosby, and Jerry Lewis, it shows obvious signs of renewal. Some of the notable cosmetic changes include replacing the dark wall-to-wall carpeting with herringbone flooring and refinishing the original flooring in the Milton Berle Room. Meanwhile, the club’s walls went from dark to light and colorful, and the bar in the Barbra Streisand Room was fitted with antique mirrors on the back wall and new leather banquettes.

The club’s long-time amenities remain intact, including the card rooms, billiards room, barbershop, gym, and the famous sauna. However, the club’s overall environment indicates that the men’s-only Friars Club days are gone.

The primary intent of the renovations was to give the club a lighter and more contemporary tone. New club “dean” Arthur Aidala told the New York Post, “We want to embrace the nostalgia we have for the entertainment industry, but we also want to embrace the business and other worlds to join us and share in the heritage of a new Friars Club.”

As part of the revamping project, management added high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the building and a state-of-the-art, on-site podcast studio. Plus, the new Abbot’s Lounge (formerly the George Burns Room) has become a WeWork-type office with tables, desks, and chairs for working members.

The Roots of Change

In January 2020, a water pipe burst on the fourth floor of the New York Friars Club’s home on East 55th Street. The building was empty because it was the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Consequently, the water flooded the club for several days.

Significant water damage caused the Friars Club to close temporarily. Then, two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and drove all the other private clubs to close as well. As a result, Friars Club general manager Anthony Trombetta and staff saw this situation as a perfect time to complete the club’s renovation. The 14-month renovation period allowed them to make more than physical changes.

Up until the water pipe burst, the Friars Club had been in a state of gradual decline. It had gone through some scandalous times, including the federal tax crime convictions of a former director. Just as concerning, the membership was steadily declining due to aging members and cultural changes.

To confront these problems, Trombetta and his team set out on a mission to spruce up the club’s appearance and image to attract young New York entertainers and professionals, particularly young women professionals. At the same time, they planned to make the Friars Club a place where members of all ages and backgrounds could enjoy the club’s offerings. Trombetta told the New York Post, “We want members who are interested in joining from ages 21–90.”

The Physical and Social Changes

Along with brightening the walls, Trombetta and the team did a significant restructuring of how they handled every aspect of running the club, including serving their members. For example, during the entire shutdown, they conducted “Zoom Socials” to pique members’ enthusiasm for the club and the re-opening. These online gatherings featured a packed schedule of comedians, musicians, and Friars Club-related games.

As part of the renovation, the management created space for comedians and writers to meet, collaborate, and inspire. This purpose was the main reason why they built the in-house podcast studio and the workspace. Contrary to most renovation projects of this magnitude, long-time employees did all the work.

From a social standpoint, the Friars Club made an inviting gesture to the younger generations by relaxing the dress code. However, the most crucial attraction for all potential and present members is the programming. The initial plan included a significant number of live events like “Comedy & Cocktails,” a “Long Island Wine Tasting,” and “Friars Club Live.”

Looking Ahead

Like many things affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Friars Club may never be the same. However, given the circumstances, that’s probably a good thing. The prospects for more laughter and fun times are there. Now that the cosmetic and operational makeovers are complete, Friars Club management and members intend to return the club to the limelight for generations to come.

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Harvey Bell

Harvey Bell serves as a managing director, team leader, and senior portfolio manager with Morgan Stanley in West Orange, New Jersey.