How golf’s best clubhouses create a lasting impression

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When the founders of Newport Country Club set out to build a clubhouse in the 1890s, they held a design competition, which, in a signal of the commission’s desirability, attracted more than 40 submissions from architects around the world. The winning entry was from an American in Paris, a young, socially connected architect of great promise, Whitney Warren. Having recently completed his studies at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, in France, the country club would be the first commission of what was to become an illustrious career. (Warren would later be on the team that designed New York’s Grand Central Terminal.) Drawing from his education in France, he designed the clubhouse in the manner of a French chateau, with symmetrical wings flanking a central pavilion. Situated on the course’s highest point, it is visible from every hole. As club president Barclay Douglas Jr. says, “It’s like a diamond in a perfect setting.”

Richard Diedrich, author of The 19th Hole: Architecture of the Golf Clubhouse, agrees. “Newport is the most sensational example of an early clubhouse—it’s just outstanding,” he says.

That “sensational” architecture aside, and despite its rarefied history—a Gilded Age club founded by the likes of the Vanderbilts, Astors and Havemeyers—by the time the clubhouse reached 100 years old, it was showing signs of age. As Douglas remembers, “One day I went walking around the clubhouse, and I went upstairs where we had an apartment for the pro, and I saw paper towels stuck in the window to keep water from coming in.” Struck by that visual of someone’s improvised attempt at building maintenance, he started taking a closer look. Over the years, ad hoc changes had been made, but they were never in the context of a cohesive master plan. The building’s heat, for example, came from a patchwork of three systems: gas, oil and electricity. “Things weren’t really thought out,” Douglas says.

In 2004, the club hired M. Jeffrey Baker of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects to undertake a comprehensive restoration of the clubhouse. “Everything went down to the studs,” says Douglas, referring to the process of stripping everything back to the house’s original fundamental structure. Working with historical documentation, the architects restored original features. A 1930s renovation, for example, had removed a grand, central staircase and replaced it with two smaller stairways of more prosaic design. The meticulous 2004 restoration brought the staircase—and the entire building—back to the way Warren had designed it, and it equipped the building, invisibly so, with 21st-century systems, including air conditioning, fire-suppression technologies and waterproofing materials that obviated the need for paper towels.

In the assessment of Diedrich, who taught clubhouse design at Harvard for 16 years, Newport set a standard not only for historic clubhouse architecture, but also for restoration efforts. “There is so much renovation that has gone on in recent years, and the one that comes to mind as a big success is Newport,” he says.

RESTORATIONS VERSUS RENOVATIONS

For many historic golf clubs, Newport’s experience will sound familiar. On one hand, club boards and management are heirs of buildings with considerable architectural pedigree. On the other, many inherit decades of deferred maintenance, diminishing performance and the daunting prospect of complex renovations to bring them up to 21st-century standards.

A meticulous 2004 restoration returned the clubhouse at Newport Country Club to the way Whitney Warren designed it in the 1890s.

At Shinnecock Hills, for example, where, in 1892, preeminent Gilded Age architect Stanford White designed the first purpose-built clubhouse in the United States, years of salty breezes had left the clubhouse in a condition beyond cosmetic touch-ups and into the realm of life-safety concerns. As member Bernard Bailey puts it, “The wiring was getting scary, and the building was not on a firm foundation.” Rogers McCagg Architects recently oversaw a restoration of the historic structure. Without moving the building or disturbing the course, the design team inserted a modernized back-of-the-house basement. In its original design, the structure had been supported at its center on a pier of solid ground, flanked by two smaller, disconnected basements. To go from one side to the other, the staff had to climb up to ground level, walk to the other end, and go back down into the second basement. Now, the newly inserted basement includes a range of administrative uses, allowing the club to optimize operations. A new geothermal heat-pump energy system enhances the building’s efficiency and introduces the mechanical comforts of contemporary buildings without the noise and unsightly equipment that it normally takes to keep those systems running.

Jon Cavalier

For clubs founded at any time, great clubhouse architecture can be a point of distinction, a reference to history and an emblem of place—as it is at Shinnecock Hills.

In many cases, the work of restoration architects is as much undoing earlier attempts at renovation. Says Diedrich: “So many clubhouses have been messed up by band-aid remodeling.” When architect Douglas Wright started working on the 2013 restoration of Winged Foot’s clubhouse, there was the original building, an iconic 1920s Clifford Wendehack-designed structure made in the English scholastic tradition, but there were also layers of additions, which, at points in time, had met the needs of the club but had detracted from Wendehack’s intent. “We stripped away all the stuff that had been thrown in over the years, like weird lighting from the 1950s and ’60s, and restored it to its appearance in the 1920s,” Wright says. “We maintained the character of the place to such an extent that a lot of the members thought we hadn’t done all that much.”

But some interventions did make a noticeable change. By moving air-conditioning equipment to more strategic positions, for example, Wright was able to improve sight lines of the historic clubhouse from the approach and from the inside looking out. “Now,” as he says, “when you’re in the locker room, and you look through the skylight, you see sky—not an air-conditioning unit.”

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DESIGNING FOR FAMILIES

Wright’s scope went beyond the clubhouse restoration. He was commissioned by Winged Foot to do a comprehensive facilities master plan, which entailed the entry drive, parking, pool and golf shop. “The fun thing about working with Winged Foot,” he says, “was the range of experiences that went into the question of how to rejuvenate a classic club, and how do you adapt it to work in the 21st century.”

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Across the United States, many historic clubs are tackling that same question. Though that typically means making mechanical-engineering upgrades to render environments comfortable, and structural updates to make them safe, it also means a consideration of architecture’s cultural role. It’s true that many historic clubhouses were built before air conditioning, but they were also built before now-common standards of gender and social inclusivity, and parenting approaches that more often see families participating in activities together than men gone playing golf on weekends and evenings. Architecture communicates. This happens by way of style: In the architecture of Winged Foot’s clubhouse, for example, there are legible references to golf’s birthplace. But architecture also communicates in subtler ways, by creating spaces that reinforce social and family dynamics. This, too, is a message in the midst of change in many golf clubhouses. “In my work with clubs,” Wright says, “the message I keep getting is a desire for family spaces, where parents can be with their kids or watch their kids.”

“Structures by themselves aren’t just structures; they’re there for a reason; they convey values,” says Medinah Country Club general manager Robert Sereci. “Today’s members look beyond a beautiful clubhouse.”

With that in mind, Sereci took a hard look at Medinah’s facilities and commissioned a master plan to make sure they were conveying the right story. Designed in the 1920s by Richard G. Schmid, Medinah is one of the most recognizable clubhouses because of its stylistic merging of Byzantine, Louis XIV and Italianate references. At 110,000 square feet, it’s big. Its iconic nature, though, came with a cost. Citing the hushed sense of awe it would provoke to those people inside, Sereci says, “that’s great if you’re an architect, and great if you’re visiting, but it’s not so great if it’s your home, or your country club, which should be your home away from home.”

To make the clubhouse a more hospitable and comfortable place to spend a day, just this year, Medinah completed a three-year renovation of more than $20 million. “We went out of our way to create a softer, residential feel,” Sereci says. Working with OKW Architects, the club made considerable infrastructural upgrades, but it also gave it an aesthetic overhaul to soften it up, transforming, for example, a formal dining room into a more casual member bar, and dispensing with the formalities—table cloths and window treatments—that had given the clubhouse a more formal atmosphere. To reinforce that message, Medinah created a series of other structures—including tennis courts, platform tennis courts and a golf learning center, all meant to communicate a vibrant year-round community.

Jon Cavalier

The unique, sprawling 110,000-square-foot clubhouse at Medinah Country Club.

New clubs, launched in this century, have been watching the changes made at legacy courses and incorporating lessons learned into the designs of their clubhouses. Recent notable renovations—at Medinah, for example—have scaled back the size of dining areas to create intimate opportunities for members and guests to form social connections rather than a vast formal area where everyone takes supper at the same time. As Sereci says, “bigger isn’t always better.”

When the developers of Martis Camp set out to design a clubhouse from scratch, they wanted to create what they call a “simple, unhurried place to connect with family and friends.” Forgoing a large formal dining room, clubhouse architect John Sather created smaller, more intimate rooms: a dining area that seats 36 with a more casual bar/bistro designed for 36. As Martis Camp chief operating officer Mark Johnson explains, “Even if there are two small parties dining, it never feels
cavernous.” And as for the emerging focus on family environments, the club provides for that in a so-called Family Barn, an 18,000-square-foot facility outfitted with bowling alleys, a soda fountain, movie theater and art loft.

For clubs founded at any time, great clubhouse architecture can be a point of distinction, a reference to history and an emblem of place. But for many members, clubhouses speak to yet another dimension of architecture: as the setting for lived experiences, the backdrop of time with family and friends. “Just because you have an iconic clubhouse doesn’t mean you will build a community of people who want to pay money to join,” Sereci says. “Ultimately, people join these clubs to be part of a community.”

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Appreciating Minimalism

Recognizing golf’s most distinguished clubhouses is a worthy exercise, but if you’re asking us, the basics do just fine. In fact, sometimes simple is better: Come in, maybe spread some peanut butter or cheese on a ginger snap, and get back to the golf. Those that are deliciously modest deserve our recognition for being unique in other ways. And the clubhouses that come to mind aren’t built equally. Consider Shadow Creek’s quaint, low-profile clubhouse in contrast to its golf course, which took nearly $40 million to build in the desert outside Las Vegas. Simplicity is not often associated with opulence. Contrast that with some of golf’s true classic clubhouses, such as Myopia Hunt Club, Cypress Point Club or Palmetto Golf Club, which are studies in minimalism. Palmetto’s clubhouse, designed by Stanford White—of Shinnecock Hills and Madison Square Garden fame—seems like it hasn’t changed since it was finished in 1902. The views from Cypress Point’s clubhouse are some of the best on the property. Take in the panoramas of Lake Michigan from the clubhouse at Shoreacres, and you’ll appreciate why clubs of the past sometimes saved their best piece of land for the clubhouse. Stepping into this elegant yet simple club is to enter an earlier, more refined time. The same could be said while sitting on the unchanged porch overlooking the first tee at North Michigan’s Belvedere Golf Club. When discussing some of golf’s timeless settings, Champions Golf Club comes to mind. You can sit at the bar in the Houston locker room and have a drink in the same spot Jimmy Demaret used to indulge. And you might run into his co-founder, Jackie Burke Jr., who at 96 still holds court at his club. Some things change, some things never change. And we’re OK with that. —Stephen Hennessey

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