An Anthropologist in Brooklyn: Dyker Beach Golf Course

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s. Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s. At the right edge of the image is the old starter’s booth, near the first tee.

Dyker Beach Golf Course, where my friends and I played on New Year’s Day, was designed in the late 1890s by Thomas Bendelow and reworked in 1935 by John Van Kleek. Van Kleek was a prominent golf architect who fell on hard times after the Crash and was hired by Robert Moses to oversee a major citywide golf project, which was eventually funded by the Works Progress Administration. (Van Kleek is responsible for the three best courses inside the city limits: La Tourette, in Staten Island; Split Rock, in the Bronx; and Dyker. He also redesigned Split Rock’s sister course, Pelham Bay, in 1934.) The photo above shows Dyker’s clubhouse under construction, in the 1930s; the photo below shows it completed, not long afterward.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

Clubhouse, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 1930s.

The green you see in the photo above is the second. The photo below shows what the same green and the clubhouse look like from a somewhat similar angle today. The tee on the right is the third:

Dyker Beach Clubhouse

Clubhouse, second green, and third tee, Dyker Beach Golf Course, 2013. The red-brick wing on the far right-hand side of the clubhouse, visible through the trees, was added a few years ago, during a major renovation. The slates on the main roof are mostly original.

On a crisp but snow-less Sunday morning in February, 2005, Hacker (real name) and I drove to Brooklyn for a bonus round at Dyker. We stopped in Westchester to buy gas and doughnuts, and as I was filling my tank I noticed a guy at another pump who was wearing golf shoes: a brother. Traffic was light, and we arrived long before our tee time. We drank coffee in Dyker’s clubhouse, most of which hadn’t been renovated since the 1930s, and ran into Terry Byrne, who was the president of the Shore View Golf Club, a group of a hundred and forty men who play most of their golf at Dyker. The club is six years older than the clubhouse. Its members include carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course. (Byrne, whose parents were born in Ireland, was—and may still be—a plumbing supervisor for the New York City Housing Authority.) Shore View used to have a dark, dank, semi-secret meeting-and-card room in a back corner of the clubhouse, but it disappeared during the renovation.

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as "a French-inspired gentleman's house."

Another view of the Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Page Ayres Cowley, the architect who designed the renovation and expansion of the building, described it to me, accurately, as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house.”

Just before nine o’clock, the starter put Hacker and me with a Manhattan structural engineer who had moved to this country from Italy twenty years before and took up golf in 2004, and a grumbling Brooklyn guy. There are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Kalahari Desert region whose members are known as the click-speaking people of southern Africa, and there are linguistically distinct ancient tribes in the Brooklyn region whose members could be known as the fuck-speaking people of New York—and this guy was one of those. “Where the fuck is my ball? I don’t mind losing a ball if I hit it in the fuckin’ woods, but that drive was right up the fuckin’ middle of the fuckin’ fairway. What the fuck!” We got along great, however. And two days later, Hacker and I played two more rounds in the city, at Van Cortlandt Golf Course, in the Bronx, and Clearview Park Golf Course, in Queens.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s again. today, there's a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

The Dyker clubhouse in the 1930s. Today, there’s a little dog park not far from the spot where the photographer was standing.

More Old NYC Golf Photos

LaTourette clubhouse long ago

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.

LaTourette clubhouse not quite so long ago

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.

LaTourette clubhouse today