On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, tucked among foreign embassies, luxury apartments, and high-end shops is The Explorers Club. The building is located one block over from Central Park, and serves as the headquarters of the organization, a nonprofit founded in 1904 to gather together thinkers and explorers and to promote interest in exploration among the public. While few today know of its existence and work, The Explorers Club, and specifically its headquarters in New York City, continues to have an important role in promoting interest in exploration and the advancement of human knowledge in the general public.
The Explorers Club’s headquarters may seem just like any other building on East 70th street; however, it has been named “Manhattan’s best kept secret” by Curbed New York. On East 70th street, there are a variety of different architectural styles that are represented, so the brick mansion does not stand out any more than the other buildings do. From the outside, one can view the building’s impressive stained glass windows and wide, arched doorway. The club displays both the American flag and its own flag above the front entrance. While the inside of the building is not completely open to the public, there are many photos online that illustrate the architectural style of this Jacobean revival mansion. In many of the rooms, the walls and ceilings are covered in dark wood. The rooms are furnished with historically significant items from all around the world. For example, one room contains a chair from Westminster Abbey and a desk from 16th century China. The building also houses a library, which is the one room where visitors are allowed to access for research purposes. One room in particular contains several of the club’s retired flags, which have been carried by some of the club’s best known members, including Sir Edmund Hillary, who carried one of the club’s flag to the top of Mount Everest, and Buzz Aldrin, who carried one to the surface of the moon. One of the building’s most prominent rooms is the Trophy Room, which is filled with taxidermy and more wood-paneled walls. It also contains the tusk of a woolly mammoth and a table that is rumored to have been used to draw out the plans for the Panama Canal (Zoe Rosenberg). Although the club was founded in 1904, the building itself did not become its headquarters until the 1960s.
Before the Explorers Club took over the Jacobean revival mansion at 46 East 70th Street, it belonged to Stephen Carlton Clark, who built the mansion in 1910 as a family home. A businessman who inherited the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Clark grew up in New York City, and through his parents he developed an interest in collecting art. This interest continued throughout his life, and he became a prominent figure in the art community, especially in New York (Fenimore Art Museum). The 46 East 70th Street mansion housed an extensive art collection during his lifetime, just as it does today. Most of Clark’s impressive collection ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, while the Explorers Club brought with it its own collection of “heroic portraits and memorabilia” (Robert McCracken Peck). In 1965, the club purchased the house, renaming it after Lowell Thomas, journalist and club member. Before the club moved to its current headquarters, it had spent the first 60 years of its existence moving from place to place around the city (The Explorers Club).
The organization itself sounds like something straight out of a children’s story, especially when described by writer Eve Zibart. She writes,
for more than a century, those with the ‘right stuff,’ including astronaut John Glenn and sound-barrier blaster Chuck Yeager, have come together in Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, to swap tales of terror and unknown territory, submarine mysteries, wrecks and ruins and lunar craters. (Zibart)
As much as the Explorer’s Club seems to have been inspired by old adventure stories, the club has actually had its part in inspiring these types of stories. Not only has the club influenced the public through its work, but the building itself and some of the club’s members have also indirectly promoted the advancement of human knowledge and captured the general interest of the public by inspiring filmmakers and authors. The inside of the building has inspired those like director Wes Anderson, who based the clubhouse in his film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on the New York headquarters of The Explorers Club (Zibart). Also, Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park is said to have been based on member Philip Currie, who was a dinosaur expert. While these films have no direct connection to the club itself, its role in the exploration and science community has clearly had an impact on popular culture.
While the club may not be known to many today, it captured the attention of the public on several occasions in its earlier years. For example, one of the most fascinating tales to come from the organization was that members were served preserved wooly mammoth and giant sloth at one of the club’s famous annual dinners. The story came out in 1951, and while it has been deemed false, the rumors did exactly what the club was looking for, which was to create interest in exploration and the club itself. This annual dinner always has piqued the interest of the public because of the bizarre foods that are served. While members may not have actually eaten wooly mammoth or giant sloth at these dinners, they have eaten “items such as tempura-fried tarantulas, teriyaki-glazed scorpions and cockroaches, fried crickets and durian (aka stinky fruit), sweet-and-sour bovine penis, bull testicles, and pork uterus” (Zibart). These annual dinners are about more than just about the food, however. They are centered on different areas of exploration, and give the explorers a chance to share their stories and inspire each other, as well as honor the club’s most outstanding members.
Today the club’s president is a woman named Lorie Karnath, the second woman ever to hold this position. Karnath, who became a member of the club in 1989, grew up as part of a family who loved to travel and has been an explorer practically her entire life. Unsurprisingly, she has an impressive track record just like many of her fellow club members. Karnath has climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia and been a part of dinosaur digs in Mongolia (Mary Ann Potts). While those accomplishments are impressive, to Karnath, the most important part of her job is to share what she and others have learned, and that is why she has founded several schools and care facilities in western Myanmar and the Yunnan region of China with her husband, the chair of the Western European chapter of the Explorer’s Club (Zibart). She recognizes that many may argue that there is no longer a need for something such as The Explorers Club because the world has been explored and human knowledge is more advanced than ever before; however, she counters that there is always more to learn about the planet and the universe, and how it all came to be (Zibart). She says we may think that we know everything for sure, but some years down the road we may find out that we were in fact wrong. She says, “we may have to adjust our theories of evolution. The ocean covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface and we know more about outer space than we do the ocean” (Zibart). Today it is easy to forget that there is still so much that humans do not know about the world, but The Explorers Club continues to push its members to question things and continue to explore. She claims that exploration is just as critical now as ever before, stating that it is no longer about “filling gaps on a map,” but rather, finding ways to care for and protect the planet (Potts).
The Explorers Club is an international organization, with chapters everywhere from South Asia to Sweden and members from all around the world; however, the New York location, as the headquarters of the entire club, has an especially important role. The club itself would be nothing without a physical place for its members to gather together and share their ideas and discoveries. The New York headquarters provides this and much more. It is a place that totally embodies the spirit of the club and truly brings its accomplishments to life. It preserves the history of the club and its members, as well as the history of the world and those who have dedicated their lives to exploring it. There is something about the interior of the headquarters that makes one want to drop everything and go on an adventure.
Given its invisibility in recent years, it is easy to see how some may consider the club obsolete and unimportant; however, in order to see how The Explorers Club is relevant today, all one must do is take a look at some of the club’s current members. These include Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and founder of Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer. With members as notable as these, one may wonder about the requirements in place for those considering membership. According to the club’s official website, all one needs to become a member is to carry out or be involved in, “field science expeditions to study unknown or little known destinations or phenomena in order to gain knowledge for humankind” (The Explorers Club). So, while the club does have several famous members, it also includes ordinary people who have dedicated their lives to exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. Additionally, the club provides funding for research both for its members and the general public, and has several grants for high school students and college undergraduates and graduates. Funding is what makes so many of these expeditions and research opportunities possible; however, the networking opportunities that come with being involved are arguably the most important resource that the club provides for its members. The club brings together brilliant minds, enabling them to work together on projects that they hope will teach us more about the world and the universe (The Explorers Club).
Since she became the president of the club, Karnath has worked hard to make the public more aware of the club and its accomplishments by granting interviews and opening Monday night lectures to the public. Today, the club continues to be a place for scientists, thinkers, and explorers of all kinds to share their discoveries. As Karnath puts it, “If we don’t share our scientific knowledge, it’s meaningless… Exploration is a personal pursuit, but it’s not a personal exploit” (Zibart). The Explorers Club and its headquarters will remain an important part of our society as long as there are people who desire to explore and share their discoveries with like-minded individuals.
Karnath, Lorie. Beyond the Edge. National Geographic, 27 Feb. 2012.
Peck, Robert McCracken. “The Explorers Club [New York, N.Y.].” Magazine Antiques 166.6 (2004): 96-101.
Potts, Mary Anne. “The Future of Exploration: An Interview with Explorers Club President.” Beyond the Edge. National Geographic, 16 March. 2011.
Rosenberg, Zoe. “Inside The Explorers Club, Manhattan’s Best-Kept Secret.” Curbed NY. Curbed NY, 09 Sept. 2014.
“Stephen C. Clark.” Stephen C. Clark, Sr. Founder of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum (n.d.): n. pag. Fenimore Art Museum.
Zibart, Eve. “The Explorers Club’s Members Have Seen It All.” Gotham Magazine – Events, Style, Fine Dining & Culture. Gotham Magazine, 4 Jan. 2012.
The Explorers Club. N.p., n.d.