Courtesy of Cornell University

Surviving the pandemic, The Cornell Club remains a necessity for Cornellians across generations as a hub for dining and socializing.

December 5, 2022

“A Piece of the Hill”: How the Cornell Club Supports Alumni Community, Withstanding A Pandemic

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Over 200 miles from Ithaca, Cornellians have another place to meet, work and host events: The Cornell Club in New York City. Located on Club Row, on the block of East 44th St. between Fifth and Madison Avenue, the Clubhouse is a space for Cornellians to stay, eat, exercise and attend various programs, most of which have recently returned in-person after the pandemic. 

Like other regional Cornell clubs, the Cornell Club of New York was founded by a small group of alumni in 1889 but it is the only one with a physical space. One hundred years after the Club’s formation, the Clubhouse opened its doors at 6 East 44th Street on Dec. 1, 1989. The Club has 48 guest rooms along with two restaurants, a fitness center and various meeting and event spaces. Its members include Cornell alumni as well as Cornell faculty, staff, students, parents and graduates of the club’s affiliated schools. 

Craig Lasnier is the general manager of the Club and has spent thirty-one years working at the Club, an experience which he says has made him feel like “an adopted Cornellian.”

“There is no other club that has the same relationship with the University that we do,” Lasnier said. “My whole belief is that we need to be good ambassadors for Cornell and the main objective when this Club was first purchased and built is… to make sure that Cornellians are kept engaged.”

Rob Chodock ’89 is a member of the Club’s board of directors and became a member after graduation, soon after the Clubhouse first opened. 

“I think people recognized that we wanted to have a presence here, a little piece of the hill down in New York City,” Chodock said. “There are Cornell clubs all over but we had the opportunity [to have a physical space] and what’s unique about New York City is you have this history of city clubs.”

Leslie Nydick ’85 noted the benefits of having a physical space. After graduation, Nydick joined the leadership of the New York City branch of the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network. She said that once the Club opened, it became a space for CAAAN to hold events, such as its annual welcome reception for admitted students.

“Sometimes the medical college would help us with space, but it was always a struggle since it was a fairly large reception,” Nydick said. “We started hosting it at the Club and the people who actively lead CAAAN in NYC still have the reception [there].”

Part of keeping alumni engaged with the Club comes from hosting events. As a member of the Club’s board of directors, Chodock helps the Club offer programs that appeal to a wide range of members

“We really want to make the members feel that they’re getting value, and we do that by providing events that they would like,” Chodock said. “We run everything from lectures from popular professors to networking events to a wine tasting”

While Nydick was a member of the Club’s board of directors, she proposed her own event. She started the club’s first “Breakfast Club” in 2005 and still runs it today. The Breakfast Club is a monthly moderated discussion and networking event that allows Club members to get to know one another. 

“I wanted to create an event that was monthly where you really build relationships,” Nydick said. “It’s not the same people every month but we have some regulars. It just gives you the chance to get to know people.”

Nydick said the event has attracted a wide range of people from artists, lawyers and even current Cornell students. 

“The most heartwarming thing is that no one wants to leave after… they’ll just stay for the next hour if I let them,” Nydick said.

The Club’s business model depends on membership dues, though Lasnier said that they try to be as inclusive as possible for all Cornellians. Lasnier said the Cornell Club had cheaper annual dues compared to the other Ivy League clubs in New York City. Annual dues for new graduates who are Manhattan residents cost $345 for the Cornell Club, compared to $360 for the Penn Club and $471 for the Harvard Club.

“If the object of the place is to really keep the alumni engaged and active in Cornell, you don’t want to take that inclusiveness and turn it off with unreasonable amounts of money… you want to invite people from all different backgrounds, from all different areas,” Lasnier said.

Like the rest of the hospitality industry, university clubs were particularly vulnerable to the effects of pandemic restrictions. The Princeton Club closed indefinitely in October 2021, due to a lack of operating income which forced it to default on its mortgage. According to Bloomberg News, the Princeton Club lost a third of its 6,000 members during the pandemic. Since its closure, past members of the Princeton Club no longer have reciprocal benefits at the Cornell Club. Individuals without reciprocal benefits at the Cornell Club can still join if they are sponsored as a Business Associate of a Cornell Club member.

The Harvard Club of Boston was similarly affected by the pandemic. While it maintains its clubhouse in the Back Bay neighborhood of the city, the Club’s lease in the One Federal building was passed to a biotech company. According to the Boston Globe, while the club had been planning to end its lease, the pandemic accelerated the decision by several months. The Harvard Club of New York still has a location down the street from the Cornell Club. 

According to Lasnier, the Club staff kept the building maintained even when guests were not allowed. 

“We made sure that no employee here suffered any hardship, we cover medical coverage and that kind of thing,” Lasnier said. “And I had a system where I communicated every week where they got reports from me directly so they could know what was going on: The good, the bad [and] the ugly.”

While members were not able to come to the Club in person during the pandemic, it was important for the Club to stay in touch with them through newsletters, emails and social media.

“First thing that we did here is, I said ‘I want to communicate with these people on overdrive,’” Lasnier said. “I wanted to make sure they know that we’re thinking about them, that we’re still here, we’re still going and we’re here for them.”

Lasnier praised the Club’s members and staff in bringing back in person operations after such a long hiatus.

“To go through a dark time like that and then all of a sudden see members walk through the front door again and employees who I hadn’t seen in a while… it made me feel good and I was very proud of that,” Lasnier said. 

With in-person programming back, Chodock said the Club is hoping to attract recent Cornell graduates to the Club through events focused on professional development and networking.

“Staying involved with your class, or your college or just the University in any form is important because once you do, it’s lifelong learning,” Chodock said. “We definitely try to have things that are attractive to young alumni.”

For Lasnier, seeing Cornellians stay engaged with the Club over generations has been one of the highlights of his role. 

“We’ve had alumni who are Cornellians going back a few generations and they bring their children here and I watch them get into Cornell, do wonderful things after Cornell and then they carry on that tradition and bring their families here,” Lasnier said. “It’s just a very rewarding thing for me.”

Correction, Dec. 6, 1:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that the Cornell Club was located on East 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. The Club is located on East 44th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenue

Correction, Dec. 7, 3:10 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Princeton Club members have reciprocal benefits at the Cornell Club. After the Princeton Club closed, the temporary reciprocal agreement with The Cornell Club ended.