A historical photograph hanging in the venerable Thames Club in New London offers an interesting glimpse into the club’s personality.
It’s a sepia-toned print taken in 1924 during a summer picnic held at Red Top, the boathouse where the Harvard crew team trains for its annual Yale-Harvard regatta. The Thames Club members are all dressed smartly in what appear to be woolen suits and dress shoes, gathered for a photo to commemorate the occasion.
These were southeastern Connecticut’s businessmen, the influencers of the time, who exchanged ideas in a regal building on State Street that still today boasts wide banisters, ornate fireplaces, and a fondness for tradition.
But move in closer to the photo, you’ll find three men in the front row who have been caught mid-joke. Two older gentlemen are turned toward one another, and they are giggling. In their starched shirts and bowties, arms crossed. The third man, to the right in the picture, is looking down at the ground and smiling at what he’s overheard.
This seems to be the personality of the Thames Club: a social club steeped in custom, finery, as well as a robust camaraderie. It is a social club, after all.
The club, about to commemorate its 150th year, was founded in 1869 in downtown New London and lays claim as the oldest social club in Connecticut and third oldest in New England.
The current facility opened in August 1905 after the original building was destroyed by fire. The building includes a lower level and three upper floors with everything from meeting rooms and a dining room to duckpin bowling and a library. It serves lunch daily, and hosts guest lecturers each month, a bowling league, book club and card league, among other activities, and can be rented for private functions.
The membership swelled to a little more than 200 during its heyday and now hovers around 100, a number the club is working to steadily increase.
Members have the opportunity to connect in a way that offers a deeper level of collaboration and community than happy hour ever could, and to don formal attire for something other than the occasional wedding.
“It’s a little null space, a little respite when I wasn’t at work, and I didn’t come here to be at work—I came here to meet people,” said member John Stratton, now retired, talking about how he’d stop by the club for a chat at the end of a work day.
Past president Russell Carr described the club as a place that he and his wife can enjoy together.
There are mixers and holiday parties, a summer picnic, a Thanksgiving extravaganza, Christmas party, brunches, and socials. Not to mention an impressive gathering of brainpower on any given day.
“It’s just a really nice place to go and have lunch at noontime with people that you know,” said former president Jack Scott. “We don’t do this, but we always joke that if we recorded our noontime conversations and sent them to the United Nations, we’d solve all the (world’s) problems.”
Scott was president during one of the momentous occasions in the club’s long history, when the membership voted in 1992 to allow women as members. The bylaws had said nothing about gender, Scott said, so it was merely a matter of custom.
Scott credited Bob Tuneski, a local attorney who served as president just prior to him, for initiating the measure, which passed as Scott was being sworn in.
“Many of us recognized that it was something we really needed to do, to become co-ed,” Scott said. “So many women had started and opened or run businesses around the New London area. And they should be able to come in and sit down and have lunch and talk to other businesspeople.”
Millie Devine, who established the Southeastern Connecticut Women’s Network in 1976 to help professional women meet and support one another, was the first female member of the Thames Club. A few short years later, the club had its first female president.
Also counted among the club’s most memorable characters is Elizabeth Kienle, a longtime manager remembered for her thick German accent and the no-nonsense attitude that went along with it.
“She had complete control of this club,” said current manager Nancy Blair, who has worked at the club on and off since 1990 and trained under Kienle.
Back when the club insisted on suits and ties but before the building was air conditioned, it was Elizabeth, and only Elizabeth, who could offer relief on a sweltering midsummer’s day.
“OK gentlemen, you can take off your jackets now,” she would announce in her thick German accent.
She was structured and orderly, Blair recalled—’you serve one plate at a time, serving from the left and clearing from the right’—and elegant. A photo hangs in the Member's Room, likely upon Kienle’s retirement, of a stunning gray-haired woman with a beautiful smile. She retired in 1999 and moved to Pennsylvania, where she passed away in 2013.
Place and personality
The who’s-who of members is a long list that would leave important names out with any attempt to highlight them, although actor James O’Neill does get a mention on the club’s website as one of the first Irishmen invited to join.
Among current members, George Jagger is the oldest and possibly the most storied, with a background that includes fighting in the Battle of the Bulge (the last major German military campaign and effort by Hitler to turn the tide of World War II after the Invasion of Normandy), and a banking career in New York City. Jagger lives in downtown New London now and lunches at the Thames Club regularly.
But the club membership reflects a range of ages, interests and professional backgrounds. A lot of the younger members enjoy the bowling league, while others play cards or meet to talk books.
The top floor is now used for storage, but its rooms once housed local military men. There are still dormitory-style showers and even a bathtub here.
The second floor has a library and meeting rooms with honorary names like The Hinkle Room—named for David and Muriel Hinkle, founders of Sonalysts Studios. The President’s Room and the Lunch Room are located on the first floor, each appropriate for dining and chatting. The lower level consists of the more informal Pub Room with a billiards table and the bowling alley. The walls of the Pub Room are adorned with ceramic silhouettes of members past and present.
And in a building with so much history, it would be remiss not to ask about ghosts, especially after Stratton casually mentioned it. Are there ghosts here? He didn’t dismiss the idea.
But Blair and Scott each have a specific story to tell.
For Blair, two events come to mind. Once in the afternoon, as she was pulling books off a shelf in a second-floor room, she felt a tap on her shoulder and assumed it was Elizabeth, the only other person in the building at the time. Turning around, Blair saw no one.
The second occurence was within the past couple of years. Blair was working late; it was about 10:30 p.m. and she was in deep thought in her office (also on the second floor) when she felt something again. She said she quickly turned off the light and headed out, reading it as a sign that she had been at work too long that day.
Scott recalled a stormy winter’s day in 1992, when he was at the club waiting to hold a meeting. No one else was there, so he began calling members to let them know the meeting had been canceled due to the snow.
Scott was standing in an area that looks into the serving area when he heard a door close downstairs and then creaking noises on the stairway. He told the person on the phone that one other person had just arrived, but that he’d let the member know the meeting would have to be rescheduled.
When Scott went to the entrance area and called out a hello, nobody answered. There was no one there.
He tells the story with a smile and a shrug—old buildings creak. But it’s still a pretty good ghost story.
As the social and economic landscape of southeastern Connecticut changes and grows, the desire for community endures. Thames Club is looking to add 15 members a year for the next several years, Carr said. Admission to the club is by application; and people of all races, religions and ethnic backgrounds are welcomed. The club enjoys reciprocal agreements with more than 70 similar organizations around the country and around the world. There are different levels of membership; more details are available at www.thamesclub.org.
“It’s such an enjoyable place,” Scott said. “I hope it’s there for a long time.”
For more information, call 860-443-5504.