The Muny Life: Hidden Art Treasures of New York City Golf

Hacker, Pelham Bay, Bronx, New York, March 1, 2013.

honestly Hacker, Pelham Bay Golf Course, Bronx, New York, March 1, 2013.

Hacker (real name), Rick, and I played in Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, on Friday. There are two golf courses, both owned by the City of New York—Pelham Bay and Split Rock—and they share a clubhouse, which you can see in the background in the photo above. It was built in 1936, and it has a cobblestoned driveway and front courtyard, and it has neoclassical columns made of white Tuckahoe marble. Here’s what the building looked like when it was under construction (beyond the sign):

Pelham Bay, 1936.

Pelham Bay clubhouse, under construction, 1936.

And here’s what it looked like when it was finished:

Pelham clubhouse, 1936.

Pelham Bay clubhouse, 1930s.

The first time my friends and I played Pelham and Split Rock, in 2004, the clubhouse was a mess. Glass was missing from many windows, and the front door had a hole that was big enough for rats to walk through on their hind legs. The Parks Department had bolted cheap outdoor floodlights to a pair of hemispherical hammered-bronze light fixtures in the Club Room, and it had installed an institutional drinking fountain in front of one of two basalt-and-marble fireplaces. The building was no longer heated, if it ever had been, and on one frosty winter morning we saw piles of construction debris burning in both fireplaces—Irish guys in front of one, Korean guys in front of the other. Here’s what the Club Room looked like in the 1930s:

Club Room, 1930s. The Parks Department later bolted flood lights to the Art Deco light fixture at the top of the picture, and installed a drinking fountain in front of the fireplace.

Club Room, 1930s. The Parks Department later bolted flood lights to the Art Deco light fixture at the top of the picture, and installed a drinking fountain in front of the fireplace.

A year or two after we first played there, American Golf, which operates both courses on a twenty-year lease from the city, spent millions to restore the clubhouse. The architect was Page Ayres Cowley, and she and her colleagues did an extraordinary job. Here’s what the Club Room looked like on Friday:

Club Room, 2013.

Club Room, 2013. The floodlights have been removed from the hammered-bronze light fixtures. Why don’t you quit fooling around, and rent the clubhouse for your daughter’s wedding reception?

When the Pelham clubhouse was built, the artist Allen Saalburg created a Surrealist mural for the wall above each mantle. (Saalburg was a friend of Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, and other early New Yorker contributors.)  His murals—one of which is visible in the 1930s Club Room photograph—were still there when my friends and I first played the courses, but today the spaces they occupied are filled by a pair of hokey recent paintings, which depict what are supposed to be period scenes. The murals, Cowley told me, haven’t been destroyed, unlike similar ones that Saalburg painted, at around the same time, for the restaurant Tavern on the Green. But they need significant restoration work before they can go back up. Here is one of Saalburg’s sketches for the murals:

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There’s not a lot of golf iconography in there, at least as far as I can see, but I hope somebody rich steps up and pays for their restoration. (Hey, Donald Trump!) And here’s how Saalburg visualized the fireplace wall you can see in the photos above:

P artist rendition2

The round windows, and their wavy muntins, are still there—and they have glass in them now. Cowley told me she thinks some of the original bunkers on the course may have been designed to echo the shape of the windows, or vice versa. Here’s one of them, from the 1930s:

Pelham-neg23624.1

Maybe so. Anyway, Hacker, Rick, and I arrived at 10:30, and teed off almost immediately. (My greens fee was $39, walking; theirs, because they’re seniors, was $20.) There were pretty many other golfers, although we weren’t held up too seriously. We played skins and Ball Marker Stymies, and we finished in less than four hours. These guys were teeing off on the first hole as we putted out on the ninth:

IMG_0386The big rusty thing you see in the woods beyond them is part of a commuter rail line, which separates the two courses. And the grass you see through the trees is the eighteenth hole at Split Rock, which was closed—probably because it has more trees and takes longer to dry out than Pelham Bay does. I got home at 4:30 and took the dog for a nice long walk.

Some moron re-contoured several greens at Pelham by driving an R.V. over them.  This one didn't  look too bad.

Some moron re-contoured several greens at Pelham by driving an R.V. over them. This one didn’t look too bad.

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.