In recent years, the clubhouses of several old New York City golf courses have been thoughtfully restored, renovated, and remodeled, at terrific expense. The responsible parties are American Golf Corporation, which holds twenty-year operating licenses for a number of the city’s courses, and Page Ayres Cowley, an architect with extensive experience in the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic structures.
Cowley’s first golf project was LaTourette Golf Course, on Staten Island. The course and the large wooded park surrounding it are laid out on what was once the farm of John J. Crocheron, a French Huguenot who fought in the war of 1812. In the 1830s, Crocheron gave the property to his daughter, Ann, and her husband, David LaTourette, and moved to Alabama. Crocheron’s gift included a large Federal-style brick mansion with panoramic views of Lower New York Bay. The mansion was occupied until 1910 by a succession of LaTourettes, a number of whom came to unfortunate ends: several died in childhood, one was shot accidentally by a neighbor while wandering in delirium, one died while fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and one is rumored to have committed suicide by hanging himself in the attic. The farm is thought to be one of the last in New York City to employ oxen as draft animals. In 1928, the city bought it, for $1.14 million, and turned it into a public park, now part of the Staten Island Greenbelt. John Van Kleek designed the golf course. The mansion became the clubhouse in 1936, was designated an individual New York City landmark in 1968, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
One of the best things that ever happened to the old LaTourette mansion occurred in 2001: it caught on fire. The fire started in a wastebasket in an office on the ground floor and did extensive damage, inside and out. American Golf, which was responsible for the building’s reconstruction, awarded the project to Cowley. She told me, “When we started, it was a typical insurance claim. The adjustor said, O. K., the floor is burned, replace the floor; the plaster’s missing, put up Sheetrock; the windows are blown out, replace them with something prefab. But as we went through this, I thought, Why just put it back the way it was?”
Cowley’s firm had recently completed an award-winning five-year restoration of Walt Whitman’s final residence, in Camden, New Jersey—a modest frame house that was the poet’s home for the last eight years of his life and was the only house he ever owned. At the Library of Congress, Cowley and her associates found old glass negatives showing interior details that had been cropped from published photographs. “Walt Whitman lived in a mess,” she told me. “There were crumpled papers everywhere, and there were dishes stacked on the window sills. The photographs we studied were taken by the artist Thomas Eakins, a good friend of his, and they helped us understand the life of a working man who lived at the poverty line and survived at the grace and favor of his publisher and his patrons. He was a brilliant poet, and he was a cheapskate. The furniture belonged to his housekeeper, who lived in the back of the house. It didn’t matter to him if the wallpaper matched—just stick it on the wall. At one point, we told the state, which operates the house as a museum, ‘If it doesn’t match, we know it’s right.’”
Old photographs were important in the LaTourette project, too. Cowley persuaded the insurance company to pay for architectural details it hadn’t felt were necessary, such as mahogany sashes for the windows, and to allow her, instead of replacing unused features (the showers on the second floor, for instance), to recreate elements (such as an unobstructed central hallway on the ground floor) that had been obliterated long before the fire. She also persuaded American Golf to spend nearly two million dollars of its own money. The result is terrific—not a museum, by any means, but a living landmark that gives the city’s golfers a powerful sense of what it must have been like to visit the home of a wealthy nineteenth-century Staten Island landowner.