Explorers Club

Someday I hope to be invited to gatherings and private clubs as a colorful writer type who tells amusing anecdotes and tries to leech money from the rich for her latest novel. Alas, for now it is just a dream while I work on a signature eccentric style and, you know, actually publishing a book or something. However, I recently got to see the private Explorers Club with an Atlas Obscura envoy, touring the collections and rooms of the organization’s New York location on the Upper East Side. As you will see, that mostly included taxidermy animals, but there were plenty of curious artifacts as well.

A quick history: the Explorers Club was started in 1904 by some intrepid explorers who had been the arctic ends of the earth. The club continues to dedicated itself to exploration, whether its of the ocean, land, air, or space. It seems most any 20th century explorer of note has been a member, from Sir Edmund Hillary (and Tenzing Norgay as well) to astronaut John Glenn. Carrying the Explorers Club flag is a big honor, and there is a whole wall in the club of the framed handmade flags, each uniquely made for an explorer on a significant quest. After taking the flag to the North Pole, moon, submarine, Amazon, or other locale, they are returned to the Explorers Club archives along with details of the expedition. The club has only been in its current Upper East Side location (the Lowell Thomas building) since 1965, but its got the vibe of having long been a place for explorers to hang their pith hats. This is due to the beautiful wood walls and over 100 medieval stained glass windows in the building, and the incredible collection of expedition artifacts, including a globe used by Thor Heyerdahl and Robert Peary’s sled.

We started our visit in the downstairs lounge, where a fireplace was flanked by elephant tusks (sort of a trend in the place) and a lovely cat greeted us. The bar has unfortunately long been closed, which is probably why we had the place to ourselves. I was especially interested in a French phrase that was on all the windows: “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” Now, my old French is a little rusty as it’s been years since I read La Chanson de Roland, but a rough translation is “Shame to him who think evil.” Some internet research tells me it’s the motto of the Order of the Garter. This ties into an odd story about King Edward III dancing with his daughter-in-law and her garter slipping down her leg, causing people to laugh. When Edward put it on his own leg, he gave the accusation: Honi soit qui mal y pense. Although the windows were in place before the Explorers Club took over the building, it’s interesting that Sir Edmund Hillary was in the Order of the Garter. If we had been in a Dan Brown novel this would have been the start to some sort of conspiracy adventure.

On the second floor, there was the above pictured Polar Bear and a lovely library with a terrace. There was also an old elevator that worked if you knew how old elevators worked, or didn’t overthink it into some sort of mechanical puzzle. But the most interesting was the trophy room on the top floor, full of taxidermies and artifacts brought back from expeditions. Some guy was lucky enough to make his portrait so massive, that the only place to fit it in the club was above the Trophy Room fireplace in between two hoofstock heads that looked remarkably similar…like they had to have been killed at the same time. There were mounted heads so high on the ceiling beams that I can’t even imagine hanging them. I also enjoyed the obviously fake yeti scalp and really wanted to look at the huge, antique books of maps, but they were safely behind glass. Safe from people like me who want to touch the tips of the teeth and claws on the lion skins and tap lightly the African drums by the fireplace.

I probably could have spent the rest of the day lounging in the Trophy Room, pretending I lived there or was at some sort of semi-exciting board meeting about an expedition to the Congo. It is unfortunate for my expedition daydreams that most of the world has now been explored. Now the Explorers Club focuses as much, if not more, on scientific discovery rather than races to the poles of the earth. Although considering my inability to navigate the trails of Central Park without my iPhone, it’s probably better I don’t go out into the jungle.

Being that our Atlas Obscura group is composed of internet addicts/technology nerds, this visit has been heavily documented. You can read the Atlas Obscura blog post here, and see photos taken by Sarah here and Annetta here.

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