John Shearer: Happy 100th Birthday To A Riverview Landmark And Old Friend

Friday, April 10, 2015 - by John Shearer

This Friday marks the 100th birthday of the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club’s clubhouse, a Riverview building that for years has dominated the landscape because of both its commanding location and its Tudor architecture.
Although the structure had a significant facelift and a wing added about 25 years ago to better meet the membership needs, it still mostly resembles the building that opened amid a gala celebration on April 10, 1915.
It still hints of plenty of history, too.
Through the years, such noted golfers as Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer have walked through the clubhouse while playing the course. Comedian and actor Bob Hope did, too.
Also, such other dignitaries as TV personality Art Linkletter, humorist Lewis Grizzard and golfer Tom Watson, among many others, have spoken in the ballroom/meeting areas.
Future U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate Estes Kevauver, meanwhile, lived for a period as a young bachelor lawyer in one of the former third-floor guest rooms, which featured fancy doorknobs engraved with the club’s insignia.
And no telling how many wedding receptions or other special family or business events have been held there over the years, or how much friendly banter has been enjoyed among the members over good or bad rounds of golf.
Although I have never been a member of the club, I worked there off and on from 1979 through about 1986. Even after I began working at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1984, I continued helping at the club some in the late afternoons and on weekends. The club even became the subject of two or three newspaper stories I wrote, including one that was especially meaningful to me in 1986.
But spending much time at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club and its clubhouse was very much an afterthought in my life.
I actually grew up in Valleybrook in Hixson and learned to play golf there. At the time I was a child and teenager in the 1960s and 1970s, Valleybrook was suburbia at its best.
However, I would occasionally play golf at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club, often with friends Kurt Schmissrauter and Don McGonagil. While over there, I realized that the Chattanooga club and Riverview were a whole different world from Valleybrook.
For starters, both the clubhouse and course seemed ancient. I even had an opportunity to play the course before the famed old giant hole in front of No. 17 green was covered. It had dated to before the course’s founding in 1896, when the hole in the ground was part of an old sawmill operation.
My closer connection to the clubhouse began in the summer of 1979. Needing a summer job while home from the University of Georgia, I was able to get on at the Chattanooga club with the help of friend Bob Martin. He had introduced me to greenskeeper Dave Fezer, a congenial former Minnesotan, who hired me to work on the course.
It was hard labor, but I learned how to drive a tractor and one or two other pieces of landscaping equipment. I also learned quite a bit about life, as there were about 10 of us guys of varying ages and backgrounds working there, including contemporary college students John Cross and current Chattanooga banker Ryan Murphy.
The next summer, again with Bob’s help, I got a job at the club. But this time it was around the clubhouse, helping put up golf carts and cleaning clubs after taking the members’ golf bags up some steep steps.
My boss was golf pro Billy Buchanan, a natural businessman and salesman who was always on the move. In charge of the golf carts and club storage room was the late Charles Wilcox, whose humorous manner made working there fun and turned him into kind of a club legend.
I would also occasionally have to wait on the members in the pro shop when the regular staff was in another part of the clubhouse, and I realized then that I was not very good at selling merchandise. As a result, I shied away from a career in sales.
But the work experience had many positives, including expanding my horizons by getting to work with a number of black employees, who worked in some of the other areas of the club. I had also gained an opportunity to be around those different from me while living in the athletic dorm at the University of Georgia for a couple of years as a walk-on football player during that same time.
While I had felt detached from the members working on the course the summer before, beginning in 1980 I had much more interaction with them.
Having to serve the members was initially a little tough for me with my own life ambitions that were above menial work. But I eventually became used to it, and I began to enjoy friendly conversation with many of the golfing regulars.
Several of them – like attorney John Morgan and businessman and developer Pete Austin Jr. – had very amicable and easily approachable personalities.
And after having gone to Bright and Baylor schools, I was very familiar with many of the families, who were generally more established or more prominent among Chattanooga society than most of the also-accomplished Valleybrook members.
Also by working at the clubhouse beginning in the summer of 1980, I became much more familiar with the building. And I fell in love with it. In the process, my longtime interest in historic preservation was born.
I simply enjoyed being in a place that looked very much like it did when people in the 1910s or 1920s walked through it.
And for a nine-month period after I finished at the University of Georgia in the summer of 1983, the clubhouse became a refuge of sorts, as Billy Buchanan let me work there fulltime while I frustratingly tried to find a real-world job.
I had enjoyed some writing experiences in college, and decided I wanted to be a writer. But after graduating, I seemed to have trouble finding work in an area that had become my passion.
However, Lee Anderson kindly hired me at the News-Free Press in May 1984, and it was a big relief, as I no longer had to wonder if I was going to be putting up golf carts at the club for the rest of my life.
Often while working in the pro shop on Monday afternoons and early evenings during that stretch and during other years, I would be the only one in the entire club. It was kind of a neat feeling.
But it was also a little scary being alone in an old building that was nearly 70 years old then. I would have to close up the locker rooms, so I would walk over there from the pro shop and stick my head in the men’s locker room right as dark was approaching. I would also yell to see if anyone was there and say that I was locking up. Thankfully, no ghosts of old members or employees yelled back.
One aspect about the clubhouse operation I did not like was that employees of the bag storage room could not eat until after 1:30 p.m. That was to let the members eat and because a lot of golfing groups, or dogfights, would be teeing off before then and we would need to load their clubs on carts.
I remember many a day watching the clock in the upstairs bag storage room above No. 1 tee slowly move as my hunger pains increased swiftly. As a result, to this day, I like to eat lunch at noon whenever I am in charge of my lunch plans.
In the late spring of 1986, after taking off a few months the year before, I went back to work at the club and enjoyed being back in the clubhouse after the brief hiatus. By then, though, I had already been at the paper for a couple of years and knew my days of trying to also work a little at the club were probably numbered.
But I continued to enjoy the work and by that time had become quite enamored with the history of the club and even the surrounding Riverview area. I had also written an article a couple of years before on the fact that the club was old, but that it had two very young managers in head manager Bob Doak and assistant Billy Weathers.
But in 1986, I kept hearing that a move was afoot among some of the members to tear down the old clubhouse and build a new one. That bothered me a little, even though I obviously did not have a stake in the debate as a lowly part-time employee.
However, since I was a newspaper writer, I figured I could subtly write a story about the history of the structure and maybe try to change some minds. I did not mention in the story anything about the discussions taking place, but just pointed out in an objective way some historical and architectural information about the building. I simply let the facts speak for themselves over the building’s value.
I wrote it in connection with the U.S. Open taking place at Shinnecock Hills Country Club in New York for the first time since 1896 to give my story some relevance, since Shinnecock Hills also had a nice and historic clubhouse.
I pointed out that the clubhouse had opened on that April Saturday of 1915 amid a dinner dance, and that it had been designed by noted Atlanta architect W.T. Downing to replace a smaller clubhouse that had burned to the ground on Jan. 3, 1914.
George Becking was the general contractor for the new structure, I wrote, and I also mentioned that the stone in the structure came from the quarry by the clubhouse and that the wooden beams on the outside were milled on the course.
The opening day’s celebration, of course, was highlighted by some golf, and that likely served as the official kickoff to the peak months of the golf season at the club that year.
The golf course, which was already the oldest at its original site in Tennessee, had opened in 1896 and initially used as its clubhouse an old theater building above what is now No. 2 tee. That was at the end of the old Riverview trolley line that went across the Walnut Street Bridge, which also had stone piers that came from the same quarry.
After I wrote that story in the summer of 1986, I remember working at the club the Sunday it ran and driving on a golf cart by No. 10 green near where friendly club member Jack Hargraves lived. He was sitting out on his porch, and yelled to me that he enjoyed the story. He went on to say that there was no way the club could think about tearing down the old clubhouse after the story was published.
I also remember that another member, who I believe was for new construction, walked past me without speaking, perhaps as a polite way of telling me that he was not happy with the story because it likely did not support his cause.
That was still in the days when a story in the Sunday printed paper was seen by about everyone, or they at least became aware of it.  
Of course, the club members could figure out for themselves the building’s significance and worthiness. They did about that time by rejecting a proposal for a completely new clubhouse by a 61 percent vote, according to Susan Sawyer in the 1996 club history book, “At the End of the Trolley.”
McMahon Club Planners of St. Louis was then hired, and an expanded and greatly remodeled clubhouse was completed in 1990, with Derthick, Henley and Wilkerson serving as architect and J&J Construction Co. as the general contractor. The new wing was built in the old grassy courtyard area, where a putting green had been at one time.
In recent years, as work has been done on the shore of the Tennessee River in that area, the river side of the clubhouse has been more nicely landscaped.
Especially from that vantage point, the original Chattanooga Golf and Country Club clubhouse designed by architect Mr. Downing still looks very much intact.
And as someone who has admittedly become lost walking through the newer part of the clubhouse during rare visits of recent years, I am appreciative of that.
Happy 100th birthday my old friend! I am glad you are still a part of Chattanooga. Parts of your original sections may now be hidden a little, but your contributions to the social history of the city are still quite evident.              

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