Inside The Explorers Club: An Exclusive Tour Of A Legendary Society
It’s easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there.
From the sidewalk on East 70th Street in New York City, the only mark distinguishing building No. 46 from the other palatial townhouses is a diagonal tricolor standard flapping in the wind. But unlike the flags of other consulates and societies that grace the quiet, civilized Upper East Side, this flag has been to the Moon. And Mt. Everest. And the Mariana Trench. And the North and South poles.
To set foot inside is to retrace history. This 1910 Jacobean mansion was originally the home of Stephen Clark, a distinguished art collector and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. But since 1965, it’s been the official headquarters of one of the nation’s oldest and most accomplished societies: The Explorers Club.
Founded in 1904 by a group of gentlemen looking to promote humanity’s progress, the Explorers Club took little time distinguishing itself in the field of discovery. Only four years later, they conquered the North Pole when member Robert Peary planted their flag on the northern-most point of the planet. Listed on a plaque in the Club’s lobby are a few of the other “firsts” for the Club: The 1911 South Pole expedition, Hillary and Norgay’s 1953 Mount Everest climb, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard’s 1960 deep dive, The 1969 Apollo 11 mission.
“If you’ll look below the 1969 Moon landing, you’ll see a space we’re holding for whoever is first to set foot on Mars,” one member told us.
Inside each of the Club’s wood-paneled rooms, artifacts from front-page expeditions abound—from Apollo missions to Thor Heyerdahl’s solo trans-Pacific journey (his diary, globe, and relics stand just outside an old-fashioned elevator). The stories are endless.
The clubhouse is meant to be an urban oasis for its members, but has all the casual charm of an ultimate hangout designed by a 10-year-old and his grandpa, Teddy Roosevelt.
In the lounge near the foyer, two elephant tusks frame the fireplace. These are, of course, subject of heated controversy among members. The Club’s hunting members would like to contribute further to the collection; they say that the tusks and copious taxidermy are simply parts of the Club's storied history. But many of the conservationist members would like nothing more than to see these relics removed because of the association with poaching elephants simply for ivory.
“Below the '69 Moon landing, you’ll see a space we’re holding for whoever is first to set foot on Mars."
But hell if they aren’t imposing. So much so that they overshadow the coffee table—a hatch from an unarmed research vessel that was one of the few ships to survive the Pearl Harbor attacks. Just a few feet away is a second-hand chair; turns out, the “first hand” was the wife of China’s last emperor.
Going upstairs, we came face to face with an enormous polar bear on its hind legs, frozen in place (taxidermied, folks). Included in the room was an expansive library of thousands of books and well-traveled flags complete with an illustrated centerpiece of Adolphus Greely’s cannibalistic expedition.
It should come as no surprise that one cannot simply join the Explorers Club out of pure interest—current membership is reserved strictly for those who have proven their dedication to the field. (Unless you’ve crossed America by solar plane, lived on Antarctica through sub-zero temperatures, shattered the sound barrier, located the Titanic 12,500 feet below the sea, or served as a UnitedStatesPresident, well, add your name to the list, buddy.)
In recent years, they’ve welcomed a handful of new high profile members with big ambitions, including Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos and real-life-Tony Stark Elon Musk, whose galactic travel company SpaceX recently hosted an event at the Club. Naturally, one of their full-time employees is a final candidate for the Mars One mission, a select group of volunteers who will make a one-way trek to the Red Planet to live out the rest of their lives. If she makes the cut, here’s betting she’ll be carrying one of their flags there with her.
It has all the casual charm of an ultimate hangout designed by a 10-year-old and his grandpa.
But while many of the framed faces on the wall are responsible for some truly groundbreaking discoveries and scientific advancements, you might be wondering, what else is there to, well, explore?
“There are real things out in the real world still to find, to share and to experience,” says Kevin Murphy, the Club’s Director of Media and Communications. Those responsibilities fall to Executive Director Will Roseman (pictured above), and his team. While many of today’s members are rugged adventurers who perform feats of endurance, just as many have academic backgrounds who explore and research in less-overtly exciting ways that aren’t quite as swashbuckling and Hemingwayish as those in the past. After all, there can only be so many Magellans. According to the terms of membership outlined on their website:
“You need not have climbed Everest, dived to the deepest point in the ocean, or discovered a new dinosaur… We are looking for individuals who have gotten their hands dirty and their feet wet working in the field as participants in one or more documented scientific expeditions.”
Prove that, find a current member to sponsor you, and you very well may make it into the ranks, which currently stand around 3,000 in 26 chapters around the world. (Here, if you're so inclined.)
This brings us to Ted Siouris, seen here above. Inducted as a member in 1995, Siouris is a hunter and an expert in taxidermy who led Supercompressor through the Club’s storied and controversial trophy room.
A successful investment banker in a former life—his early career wins afforded him an early retirement at age 42—Siouris practices ethology (the study of animal behavior) and travels the world on exotic hunting expeditions. Now, at a sprightly 81, he exhibits the energy and enthusiasm of a man 25 years his junior.
The trophy room is a vaulted, stately space on the sixth floor. It resembles a more extravagant, glass-free version of the American Museum of Natural History’s hall of dioramas—one you could have a Scotch and a cigar in without being tasered. It’s covered floor-to-ceiling with a collection of the conquests donated by members over the course of the Club’s history. As a benefactor and instrumental member of the restoration process that the room recently underwent, Siouris shared the stories he knew.
“The lion skin comes from Colonel Theodore Roosevelt,” Siouris explained. (Imagine the stir it’d cause today if President Obama brought one of these back from his father's homeland.)
Because the Club and its artifacts have moved locations a few times over the last 110 years, many of the trophies' provenances remain a mystery. For instance, the cheetah (pictured below) is of unknown origins. "But it certainly is an iconic thing to have,” says Siouris.
“There's also a cape buffalo, which is what they call one of the African Big five. It’s unbelievable to hunt, because when they start charging, nothing will stop them. You either kill it, or it will kill you.” When asked what it takes to take down the big guys, he said simply, “You gotta have a big rifle.”
Maintaining a private showcase to animals that been “honored” or “murdered,” depending on your point of view, is a contentious issue in this age of preservation. But Siouris has long defended its legacy, spearheading its restoration and even campaigning to keep it from being removed when an outspoken group of members threatened to put its dissolution to a vote.
Siouris's early career wins in high-finance allowed him to retire at the age of 42. For the last 40 years, he's traveled the world, living only as most of us dream.
Like many trophy hunting advocates, he believes that it’s actually a boon to the preservation of endangered species. Trophy hunters who enter foreign countries must pay a hefty fee to shoot particular big game, which goes to the locals and discourages poaching.
However you weigh the matter, though, it’s hard not to stand in awe of the mounted beasts and artifacts around the room.
“Over there, looks like a big turnip? It’s the penis of a sperm whale,” Siouris explained. “I was in here one day and two elderly ladies were looking around and they said ‘Excuse me, what is that?’ and I said ‘Oh, that’s the penis of a sperm whale!’. ‘Oh!’ they said, and walked out."
“And the penguin, can’t forget this guy,” continued Siouris, who told us he was “taken” by Edward Sweeney, a three-term president of the club. Not a dangerous beast, per se, but majestic in its newfound empire nonetheless.
Adorning one of the room’s larger windows is a wooly mammoth tusk. “Obviously, nobody shot that,” Siouris said. But members did dine on mammoth in 1951 when it was served as an appetizer at the storied annual dinner, famous for its unusual cuisine.
"It’s the penis of a sperm whale.”
In 2013, they had a full 235-pound ostrich that took 6.5 hours to cook—more than your fancy bird burger—along with Madagascar hissing cockroaches that were raised on a farm in New Jersey. Also on a recent menu was martinis with goats’ eyes, a steamed and dried goat penis with honey, and a dessert of strawberries dipped in white chocolates with maggot-sprinkles as garnish. After those choice items, roasted gator complete with teeth, muskrat, and beaver, don’t seem so crazy.
Another highlight is a set of four elephant tusks, tucked away in the right hand corner of the photo above, circa 1936. The tusks came from a single elephant in Africa. “They’re really extraordinary. It’s a real weird thing to develop in nature,” Siouris told us. There were rumors that such an anomaly existed, but it wasn’t confirmed until a local man in Congo came upon the decomposing elephant attached to them. They were, naturally, a hot commodity, and changed hands quite a bit—including those of a Greek ivory trader who wanted them turned into carved totems—before finding a safe home here.
One of the most storied pieces of the trophy room never had a heartbeat. A long, wooden table prominently situated on a woven rug sat in Sagamore Hill in upstate New York, where President Teddy Roosevelt held his cabinet meetings, and is what he and his coterie of engineers drew up the initial plans for the Panama Canal on. Getting it up to the sixth floor was no easy task and involved an enormous crane.
In 2013, they had a full 235-pound ostrich along with Madagascar cockroaches.
Despite the Club’s long history, traditions, rigorous criteria, and artifact-riddled HQ, it's definitely not a stuffy exclusive place where dinosaurs gab about the golden days of colonialism. In fact, there're plenty of ways for the public to get involved. The club hosts events open to the public including a semi-regular dinner and speaker series, featuring guests like Apollo astronauts and photographer and mountaineer Jimmy Chin. This fits with the Club’s agenda to “help clarify the discourse of exploration in the age of advertising and 24/7 media, as the word 'explore' has become so saturated,” says Murphy.
The Club has taken measures to increase its outreach in some interesting ways. “We just had a Skype session with students and Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31 at the bottom of the ocean,” says Murphy. “There's all sorts of engagement at work on individual and institutional levels to keep membership fresh and current.”
But though Cousteau can Skype, Murphy says many of the older, less-Internet savvy members only regale their wisdom and stories in the classic oral tradition, with brandy and cigar in hand, so it’s on you to seek out the saltiest and most intoxicating tales, if you want them.
“The stories," Murphy says, "can make the most interesting man in the world look dull."
A very special thanks to our photographers, Julian Ungano and Tommy Agriodimas, without whom this story would not have been possible. Ungano + Agriodimas have spent their careers photographing some of the most important people alive today; it's with great pleasure and gratitude that we are able to feature their work on Supercompressor. Find them on Instagram @UNGANO_AGRIODIMAS
Ethan Wolff-Mann and Joe McGauley have been waiting to spend a day at The Explorers Club their entire lives. Hear them wax nostalgic for the time they spent there on Twitter: @EwolffMann & @DontCallMeJoey