Fire of 1914


When the Club was 20 years old, its membership rolls were filled, but admissions remained brisk, because members were regularly expelled for failing to pay dues.  The marshland north of the Club’s campus hosted a mosquito infestation that plagued all of Shippan.  When this was addressed by raising that land with dry fill, much of the runoff pooled in low parts of the Club’s property.  That inspired a plan to dredge a Club channel and use the removed earth to level the land and build tennis courts on it.  The Club and its neighbors successfully resisted an effort by the City to build a road on the 50-foot strip of land just south of the Club’s property.  (We bought that strip nearly a century later.) 

It was not a bad time in SYC’s life; yet, the annual meeting of 1911 brought a complete change of management.  Meeting minutes are much too polite to explain the politics, but a reader will sense that some active members became impatient with the administration’s reactive style of management over the preceding three years.  The newly elected flag officers were Commodore Edward Y. “Stubby” Weber, Vice Commodore Edward Corning and Rear Commodore Walton Ferguson.  Ferguson had already been a flag officer for ten years, ending in 1907.  He served only one year with this administration, so it appears that his role was to help Weber get elected and turn the Club in a new direction. 

Weber wasted no time.  At his first board meeting, he proposed plans for major renovations of the facilities, which would be “subscribed” (paid for) by interested members.  Then he passed a sheet of paper around, so that every member of the board would feel obliged to make a generous pledge, before asking other members for theirs.  This campaign was a great success, not only in paying for the renovations, but in generating excitement and a spirit of stewardship among the members.  Weber and those he recruited to the board were successful in business, and the Club began to thrive under their proactive leadership.  They were enthusiastically reelected in 1912 and 1913.  Onward and upward!

Then the cook’s kerosene lantern burst into flames and the entire clubhouse (which then consisted of the original clubhouse and an annex) burned to the ground.  It happened around 9 PM on Monday, January 13, 1914.

Consider for a moment how this must have felt to Weber and other members who had invested so much time, money, and effort in accelerating the Club’s forward movement over three years, only to have it brought to a screeching halt by such a freak accident.

Just 70 hours after the fire started, Weber assembled the board for a special meeting.  One member was given the job of collecting fire insurance proceeds.  Another was put in charge of having a new clubhouse design ready for presentation to the membership within two weeks.  Member Frank Gurley offered the rent-free use of a building on Shippan Avenue as the Club’s temporary headquarters.  The Dance Committee volunteered to stage a party on January 30 to raise funds for the new clubhouse.  Progress on these and other tasks was reviewed at special board meetings nearly every week. 

Such times reveal the quality of friendship.  The insurance recovery was inadequate, so members voluntarily bought second mortgage bonds from the Club to finance about half the cost of rebuilding and refurnishing.  Stamford’s Suburban Club immediately offered its premises for all board meetings.  Clubs on Long Island Sound invited SYC’s members to enjoy their facilities while the new clubhouse was being built.  Member Frank Marion, when asked for the specifications of the Marion Cup, which was lost in the fire and had to be replaced at the Club’s expense, offered a generous alternative.  If the competing boat owners would agree to accept a photograph of the cup as their annual prize (and they did), he would waive the trophy’s replacement and contribute $500 toward the decoration of a trophy room in the new clubhouse, conditioned only on the Club’s adding the $300 for which the cup was insured.  In similar spirit, members began offering tangible gifts for decoration of the new clubhouse; some of the nautical art received that year is still on display today.

The fire did not inspire all our members to dig deep and help.  Four members responded by resigning their memberships immediately.  A larger number left in February and March.  Despite the untimely negative impact on cash flow, this “test by fire” probably refined the overall quality of membership.

While some directors devoted their attention to the building project and others sought to upgrade our insurance and petition Stamford for a hydrant, still others were responsible for program continuity.  On land and water, the Club’s undamaged facilities were kept busy during the entire year of construction.  In January 1915, members constructed a fleet of 17 “skate sails” for racing over triangular courses when Holly Pond was frozen.  (When one participant broke through the ice and nearly drowned, it was Commodore Weber who led the rescue effort.)  SYC was recognized as the regional center for the new sport.  There was also an effort to raise funds for a “hand tennis” building, but it failed for lack of subscriptions.

Today’s clubhouse, designed by George A. Freeman and built by Harris Construction, was formally opened on May 22, 1915.  Our board of directors actively monitors the sufficiency of our property insurance and our fire alarm system is state of the art.

Stubby Weber served as our Commodore for six years.  In 1922, he headed the syndicate of former SYC Commodores who built and campaigned the Six Meter SYCE.  (Staff Commodore Towse headed a syndicate to restore SYCE in 1990, and he still races her today.)  Weber headed a family business in NYC and later served as President of Stamford Hospital.  He died in 1930 and is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Edward Y Weber