By Rick Wolffe
Backing into the hills behind it, and facing the sweep of the courses in front, Baltusrol’s Clubhouse looks much like the British manor house it was intended to emulate. In fact, in 1989 Golf Magazine hailed it as the “second best in the world.” A dubious honor, perhaps, as second best—but Baltusrol was second best only to the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse of St. Andrews, Scotland. Thus, in a sense, our Clubhouse is very much recognized worldwide for being a part of the history and lore of golf.
The story of our Clubhouse is like that of the phoenix, rising from its ashes. In 1895, Louis Keller founded Baltusrol and converted an old farmhouse into our first Clubhouse, located approximately on the site of the present day putting green. It was a rambling and rustic old building, which served our Club well for over a decade. Many of our members loved it dearly, but many also worried that it was a firetrap. They were right to be worried. In the middle of the night on March 27, 1909, it burned to the ground from a spark that ignited a fire in the kitchen. Luckily there were no fatalities, and only one major injury—a ruined marriage.
Baltusrol’s reaction was swift, to say the least. The very next day, Louis Keller, after meeting with the Board of Governors, announced that a new clubhouse would be built for $50,000. Chester H. Kirk, a member of Baltusrol, was retained to design the structure. Kirk was a bit of an enigma—educated in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and with a year of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he was a prolific designer specializing in residential architecture, primarily in the Philadelphia area where he associated with H.G. Kimball and Horace W. Sellers in designing the Pelham and Overbrook neighborhoods. It is not known when he moved to New York, but the record of his activity in Philadelphia ceases in 1903. We presume he was living in the area when he designed Baltusrol’s new Clubhouse, as he was a member of the Club, and a letter in the files of the American Institute of Architects written in 1914 discusses his residency in New York. By 1920, he was living and working in Helena, Montana, and his last known whereabouts was Los Angeles in 1931.
Kirk designed the massive clubhouse and adjacent carriage house in a matter of weeks. By May 19, 1909, Kirk’s plans were approved and contractor Charles L. Bell was engaged to build the new clubhouse in six months. Ground was broken in June, and by December the magnificent building was under roof. The actual cost would come in at $100,000, while the insurance on the old clubhouse was settled at just over $60,000.
The Clubhouse is a richly appointed Tudor revival style and is considered an outstanding example of its genre. As originally designed and constructed, the building is brick with stone trim and decorative stucco and half-timber detailing. The building materials are the same today with the exception of the roofing material, which was wood shingles.
The basic plan was one of four developed for clubhouses in the early twentieth century: the finger plan, with a rectangular core and extended service wings. On the north facade, a porte-cochere connects the main block with the women’s locker room, originally outfitted as squash courts. On the south façade, one-story crenellated flat-roofed ells extend from the main building. The ells were originally open wood porches, which were later replaced by masonry ells. The primary entrance under the porte-cochere opens into a two-storied paneled lobby, with a monumental stair crossing the room with an overlooking landing.
A carved stone fireplace flanked by leaded glass windows dominates the lobby. The second story of the kitchen wing was added in 1914, containing the Governor’s Room and business offices. On the south elevation, the three bays at the east and west ends project forward slightly and feature decorative half-timbered gables, which intersect the primary hipped roof; the west projection has a single gable, and the east a double gable.
In 1927, architect Edward C. Epple (1883–1971) of Newark, NJ was retained to design the Grill Room addition and alterations to the porches. Not much information has come to light regarding Edward Epple, other than he was born in New Jersey to parents who immigrated from Germany. When he signed the contract with Baltusrol, his office was located at 9 Clinton Street in Newark. Work included in the 1928 construction campaign designed by Epple included demolishing the wooden porches at the east and west ends and enclosing them in masonry with crenellated flat roofs, with the west porch becoming the Dining Room.
Further alterations to the 1909 clubhouse were designed in 1929 and 1936 by Clifford Wendehack, the leading country club architect in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Wendehack is best remembered for his design of clubhouses at the Caracas, Venezuela Country Club and, in this country, at Winged Foot, Ridgewood, Bethpage, Park Country Club near Buffalo, NY and the Pennhills Club in Pennsylvania. The 1929 project was the replacement of the original wood shingle roof with slate, and the 1936 design was for an extension of the basement to increase the size of the men’s locker room.
The Clubhouse has five chimneys, one on the west end of the Grill Room, two piercing the south slope of the main roof towards the west end, one on the east end, and one on the south façade. The chimneys on the south and east are stone to the eave line, and brick above; the rest are entirely brick. The south chimney was designed to be a focal point of the façade, with flanking leaded-glass windows; this feature is now partially concealed by the roof over the Terrace.
The ground level locker room bar was extended in the 1950’s, enlarging the Terrace and creating a terrace extension around the south and east sides of the east ell. Today, the overall dimensions of the clubhouse are approximately 175 feet by 275 feet.
The Terrace is covered with a permanent roof, which replaced a semi-permanent structure in the 2005 renovation program, designed by interior design firm Judd Brown and architecture firm JGA. The 2005 program was mindful of restoring several original 1909 features including the hallway arches off of the main lobby. The current master plan for the Clubhouse includes restoring other 1909 features such as re-opening the fireplace in the Dining Room. Like the golf courses, our magnificent Clubhouse is worthy of restoration work that honors its original design. Toward the end of next year, the Clubhouse will celebrate its 100th birthday!
A Faulty Alibi
The story goes that on the night of the fire, a Baltusrol member spent the night with his mistress in New York City. When he returned home the day after, he told his wife that he had been working very late and was too tired to make the trip home, so he stayed overnight at Baltusrol. His wife was not fooled. She confronted him with the daily newspaper, with the burnt ruins of Baltusrol’s clubhouse pictured on the front page. Needless to say, the marriage soon ended in divorce.