The original vision for a 40-year-old clubhouse is recaptured- and with a distinctive look, and better fit with today’s club scene, emerges.
Frank Lloyd Wright is known as the greatest American architect (a title officially conferred on him in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects) not only because of his innovative designs, but also because his concepts were applied so successfully to a wide range of buildings—including colleges, churches, museums, high-rise office towers and even gas stations, as well as private residences.
Country clubs also figured prominently in Wright’s prolific body of work (which totaled over 1,000 projects designed and more than 500 completed buildings). He designed several golf, yacht and tennis clubs in Illinois, and one of his designs, originally commissioned as a house in Connecticut for Marilyn Monroe and playwright Arthur Miller, was eventually used as the basis for the clubhouse of an exclusive golf club in Hawaii.
Today, 50 years after Wright’s death, country clubs have emerged as one of the best potential environments for continuing to apply his timeless concepts. Wright’s trademark emphasis on clean lines and open, comfortable and functional space is proving to be a perfect fit with the drive of many clubs to update their facilities and make them speak more invitingly as casual, family-friendly locations.
Club: Raritan Valley Country Club
A New Life at 50
One of the most striking examples of how a Wright-inspired design can be in step with this new emphasis can be found in Bridgewater, N.J., where the members of Raritan Valley Country Club are now enjoying an expanded clubhouse building that was reopened this past June after extensive renovations to both its exterior and interior.
Coincidentally, the Raritan Valley CC clubhouse had first been built in 1959, the year of Wright’s death. And it is clear that its original design—featuring low rooflines, cantilevered support columns and an emphasis on horizontal sightlines and natural light—drew strong inspiration from Wright’s architectural influence in that period.
But in subsequent years, much of that connection—and distinction—was lost, especially after a remodeling in 1989. The replacement of original materials and furnishings over time was not carried out in a fashion that was consistent with, or true to, the original, Wright-inspired look and functionality of the building.
As the clubhouse neared its 50th year and the club (founded in 1911) approached its 100th, “everything looked dated and out-of-style, inside and out,” reports Alexander Mueller, the club’s General Manager. It was clear, Mueller adds, that “[the club] needed a fresher, more contemporary and friendlier look.”
To accomplish that goal, while also expanding the clubhouse from 25,000 to 32,000 sq. ft. to create needed space both for regular dining and special events, Raritan Valley CC turned to Judd Brown Designs of Pawtucket, R.I. and its sister firm, Jefferson Group Architects.
|The renovation expanded the capacity of Raritan Valley CC’s casual dining and bar areas, to help adapt to trends that have emerged as the club’s average member age has been lowered.|
After taking a look at what was under the hood of the existing building, it became clear to the project’s design team, led by Senior Designer Kevin O’Brien and Senior Project Manager Mark Palazio, that it still had powerful potential, and that many of the answers lay in going back to what inspired the original clubhouse design.
“The architecture of the existing building necessitated a complete overhaul and return to the design elements that were architecturally more consistent with the shapes, volumes and forms of the building’s shell,” a project summary explains. “The multi-level facade, with its low, horizontal forms, prominent roofline and deep eaves, required a departure from the faux-Colonial motifs that had been implemented over the years.”
In what almost sounds like a séance that was held to raise the spirit of the architectural giant, the summary then describes how the project team “summoned an architectural language inspired by the design lexicon of Frank Lloyd Wright, and graced the building with modernized, Craftsman-style details that truly distinguish it from an expected country club style.
“On an interior level,” the summary continues, “the designers decided the space should reflect a floor plan and level of finish that was consistent with a contemporary, resort hotel setting. The gracious lobby, handsomely appointed corridors, banquet spaces, three distinct dining venues and enhanced golf retail space [were all designed to] provide a level of flexibility that reflects dominant trends in the club industry and the changing expectations of country club membership.”
Exterior enhancements made to both the entrance and back of the building have also helped to bring the special characteristics of the original design back to life.
“Members’ and visiting guests’ first impression of the entrance and porte cochère is now gracious and refined,” says the summary. “And the view of the clubhouse from the 18th fairway, once fairly drab and unimpressive, is now a source of pride for the membership, with its handsome, stacked-stone-and-wood facade [and] expansive outdoor dining terrace.”
A Whole New Scene in Between
While leading a tour through the rooms of the renovated building, Mueller reports that Raritan Valley’s members (260 proprietary, plus another 70 house members) have been expressing many favorable impressions as well about what now exists between the clubhouse entrance and the outdoor terrace.
“Over and over, I hear people say—and show by their [increased] presence—that they now want to use the club more often,” reports Mueller. “It’s clear they now think that overall, it’s a nicer, more inviting place to come to eat or to entertain. The number of meals we’re serving has nearly doubled since we’ve reopened, and many members now say they’re considering having a party or wedding here, but wouldn’t have before.
“Getting rid of the heavy drapes and the older feel they created, and going to a more contemporary, open look, has made a huge difference,” Mueller adds. “We’re also getting good response—and use—of new private dining and meeting rooms that we created as part of the expansion. The businessmen [among the membership] really see those as positive new features, because they now have a special, quiet place to entertain and impress clients. [The private rooms] have also been a good addition for the wine cellaring program we started a few years ago, because we can now also use them for wine dinners.”
|The views from every end of the expanded and renovated Raritan Valley CC clubhouse are now much more pleasing—and populated.|
Operationally, Mueller, who has been the club’s General Manager for the past two years after previously serving as its Clubhouse Manager, appreciates the added flexibility that was built into the renovation plan, because it helps his staff respond to how members now want to use the club.
“We’ve easily doubled the capacity of our Valley Club Room grill and bar areas, and that’s been vital in helping us keep up with the trend [to more casual dining], as our average member age has become lower,” Mueller notes. “Our Players Pub bar can be set up so we can have two different groups use it at one time if needed, with a buffet in the middle.”
The expanded patio area off the ballroom (which was renovated first, as Phase One of the project) has also put the club in better position to handle larger events—“an especially important consideration as it looks ahead to the anticipated schedule for its 100th anniversary celebration in 2011.
“And now the people attending the functions in the ballroom and out on the patio are able to come in and out without disturbing those in the main dining room or other rooms of the clubhouse,” Mueller notes, citing the improved flow created by the new layout.
“Overall, [the renovated building] really lends itself to versatility and is much more functional,” he says.
Behind the scenes, Mueller says the Raritan Valley CC staff has also benefited from the creation of extra “cavities,” as part of the expanded space, that are now being used for more on-site, in-clubhouse storage—and in the process, creating new back-of-the-house efficiencies.
“We used to have two storage trailers on the property and have been able to get rid of one,” he reports. “We have a better setup for deliveries and better organization of supplies, with things like a dedicated soda room and defined cubbies for paper goods, maintenance products, and all of our china and glass.”
Getting the Go-Ahead
When the Raritan Valley CC membership was asked in 2007 to approve the renovation plan, the economy was starting to show signs of shakiness—especially within the financial sector that is so closely tied to the fortunes of northern New Jersey. And the approval would not come without a price for the club’s individual members, who would be asked to shoulder a three-year assessment to help cover the costs.
Still, the plan passed with 87% approval—in part, Mueller says, because the assessment was made more palatable by a stipulation that it would be applied to members’ bonds. But the strong mandate was due as well to a pervasive belief that the expansion and upgrade were vital to ensuring the club’s long-term success well beyond its pending 100th anniversary.
Still, as the renovation proceeded, Raritan Valley did not prove immune to the membership and operating pressures that hit all private clubs as the economy continued to head south.
“We had 40 members take a leave of absence [during the renovation period], and we also closed for an additional month this past winter beyond our normal offseason,” Mueller says. “But already, because of how our facilities have been refreshed, we know that half [of those taking a leave] plan to return.
“At the same time, the buzz about what we’ve done here has created a lot of interest from prospective new members,” he adds. “Many of them, after seeing the new building, decided to become part of a new provisional program that allows them to try out the club [before committing].
“And based on how they’ve reacted as they’ve used it, we feel confident that we’re going to see many of them become new members next year, too.”