In less than a year after a roof fire sparked building-wide flooding, immediate response by an effective partnership fully restored the clubhouse at historic Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. and made important improvements for the future.
IT WASN’T EVEN NOON YET on the morning of July 16, 2019, but the temperature was fast approaching 100 degrees, and Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. was active with members trying to get in a golf round or some practice or an early lunch before the heat became too oppressive. Adding to the busy scene, workers were on site making some repairs to the slate roof of Baltusrol’s historic, 110-year-old clubhouse.
But when a grinder that was being used on the slate sparked a fire in the attic below the workers, a busy scene suddenly became an urgent one—and one that would change how Baltusrol looked, and operated, for several months to come. Thanks, however, to the advance preparedness and immediate response marshalled by the Baltusrol staff and membership and their partners from insurance, design and construction businesses, it didn’t change the club forever.
Less than a year later, in fact, the clubhouse’s classic Tudor look was still intact and preserved after it had been made fully operational again—this time with a sleek new infrastructure and other aesthetic and functional enhancements that promised to have the building remain a source of distinction and member pride well into its second century of existence.
BEHIND THE WALLS
From the outside, it actually didn’t seem all that chaotic or disastrous after the fire started. Several local fire companies responded to the call quickly and soon quelled the flames and smoke. Only one firefighter suffered a minor injury and all members and staff who were on site escaped harm. The scene seemed enough under control, in fact, that many members continued to check in at the starter booth or stroked putts on the practice green while firemen were still climbing on the building.
Inside, however, it was a much different story. Just below the attic where the roof fire had been touched off were third-floor overnight rooms and guest suites that had recently been renovated. The good news was that the renovation of those rooms had included the installation of new pipes and top-of-the-line sprinklers that quickly activated to stop the flames from spreading. The not-so-good news was that the new sprinkler system was so effective, in combination with what the firefighters used to douse the flames, that torrents of water were sent cascading through the building, generating enough power to collapse floors and thoroughly soak over half of the member space in the 80,000-sq. ft. structure, all the way down to lower-floor locker rooms.
While all of that water spared the building from the fate of 126-year-old Baltusrol’s original clubhouse, which was completely destroyed in a 1909 fire, that was only small consolation for what General Manager/COO Kevin Vitale and his staff faced as they began to set a response in motion, even before firefighters had left the scene.
That response included activation of the club’s crisis-management plan, which had only been used previously to deal with damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and immediate calls to insurance partners and Studio JBD & Jefferson Group Architecture, the Rhode Island-based firm that had been involved with many different interior projects at Baltusrol over the course of nearly 20 years, including the most recent project for the makeover of the third-floor guest rooms.
In total, Vitale quickly identified and organized a group made up of nearly 30 members, staff and suppliers with expertise in construction, engineering and other specialties, to help lead the recovery effort.
Two days were then spent assessing the full extent of damage, amid 100-degree temperatures in a building that no longer had working air conditioning. The water damage, combined with the heat, was already leading to mold issues and even the appearance of some mushrooms in the lower locker rooms.
All told, it was determined that the member space that would need to be completely reconstructed included 16 guest rooms, the main entrance and lobby, and over half of the men’s locker room, including the bar. Of particular concern was the damage to the first-floor Trophy Room and its contents, which included displays of memorabilia from the 17 major championships that Baltusrol has hosted, including seven U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships (the club has also been awarded the 2029 PGA Championship and is scheduled to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2023).
Beyond the member spaces, the damage that was discovered behind the scenes was even more alarming. Ductwork, electrical wiring and HVAC units were all seriously compromised, and the repair work in many of the rooms would have to involve completely gutting them and ripping them down to the studs.
Adding further complexity was the fact that Baltusrol achieved National Historic Landmark status in 2014 and is also on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. “That came into play with regard to some requirements for how we could rebuild, while still preserving the clubhouse’s historical integrity,” says Vitale.
As if all of those factors weren’t enough on their own, another unforeseen obstacle arose eight months into the recovery and restoration process: the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictions that it placed on not only how the club and the construction project could operate, but also on the availability of needed equipment, labor, materials and supplies. “There were over 3,000 items of [furniture, fixtures and equipment] that needed to be procured,” notes Vitale. “And the availability of many of those items was affected by the embargo imposed on products from China.”
At the same time, the emergence of golf after the pandemic took hold as one of the few approved and available recreational options brought more member activity to the club, during a time when a major restoration project on Baltusrol’s Lower Course was also being completed. “We had almost the same amount of rounds played [in 2020] as we did on two courses the year before,” said Vitale. “Our tee sheets [for the Upper Course] were full from sunrise to sunset.”
As a key early step in the recovery process, Baltusrol drew on its experience gained from hosting major tournament events to erect a temporary chalet-style pavilion on a patio area adjacent to the clubhouse. This helped to provide some additional food-and-beverage service to members away from the construction (the clubhouse’s main kitchen, fortunately, was one of the few areas that had escaped damage). Temporary furniture was also procured to be used in spaces that were still safe and habitable in the clubhouse, so some modified events and service could still be provided for members during the holiday season (the furniture was eventually redeployed for use in Baltusrol’s on-site employee housing).
The club’s staff also acted quickly to isolate and protect the trophy collection and arrange for the refurbishment of pieces, with some needing to be shipped to England for specialized expert care.
With those steps taken, attention could be paid to addressing the clubhouse areas that had been devastated. And while Baltusrol had completed a steady succession of upgrades to individual rooms and sections of the building over the previous 20 years, the recovery from the fire was seen as an opportunity to take a more sweeping approach that could give the entire clubhouse an updated look and make needed infrastructure improvements, while still retaining its sense of tradition and historic appeal.
“As bad as the situation was, it was a blessing that the update of the guest suites and the upgrade of the sprinklers on that level had just been made, because otherwise the whole building would have been gone,” says Judd Brown, Principal of Studio JBD. “And the silver lining was that the restoration [from the water damage] offered a chance to make some other refreshments while really putting a new building in place, around a classic architectural core and shell, that the club can now go forward with for another hundred years.”
Interior-design touches that were part of that refreshing, Brown notes, included fresher colors, new wainscoting and upgraded finishes that are “still true to the Tudor tradition.” At the same time, he adds, the infrastructure work provided the opportunity to address “compromised spaces” and gain height and area to help comply with updated codes as mechanical and electrical systems were restored. A completely new IT infrastructure was also installed through the project.
Two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the fire, on July 2, 2020, Baltusrol marked the finish of the reconstruction project and reopened a fully operational clubhouse to its membership. Specific improvements that had been completed included new carpets, wallpaper and furniture in the second- and third-floor guest rooms; new flooring and light fixtures in the corridors and main entrance; new furniture in the men’s locker room bar and new lockers throughout that space; and new flooring, furniture and display cases to house the refurbished trophies in the Trophy Room.
All told, the rebuilding had a total cost of $15 million. The out-of-pocket cost to the club, however, was minor, with insurance covering the marjority of expenses. Vitale notes, however, that the claim has led to higher premiums for future coverage, and also set off a ripple effect for the club industry, by shining a light on undervalued appraisals of classic buildings like Baltusrol’s. “I’ve received a lot of phone calls from other club managers who have realized they need to look more closely at the policies and protections they have in place,” he says.
And even if he did in effect get a new building for minimal cost, Vitale is quick to also add that “I wouldn’t want to ever go through it all again.”
“The entire front of our building was a construction site and we couldn’t get in the front door for almost a year,” he says. “Really, with the [Lower Course] restoration and the pandemic on top of the fire, we haven’t had normal operations in two years.
“But our membership and Board leadership and our supplier partners have been fantastic through it all,” he adds. “There really has been no negativity throughout the entire process, despite all the noise and disruption.
“We’ve learned some things from this that will cause us to go back and update our crisis-management plan and tweak some things, just like we did after [Superstorm Sandy],” Vitale adds. “That’s really something we’ve learned that we need to do, even when you haven’t had situations where you’ve had to put the plan into action. You need to revisit it on a regular basis and try to envision all of the scenarios where it might be needed and how you should be prepared to respond. The pandemic and some of the violent demonstrations that were seen [in 2020] are new examples of some other types of situations that clubs should have models for, to help them prepare and be ready for how to respond.”
Putting the plan into effective and immediate action certainly helped to avoid total disaster in the case of the Baltusrol fire, adding the latest chapter to how the club has sustained its longstanding reputation for excellence and leadership among private clubs. “Throughout our history, the membership has responded to challenges by coming together,” Vitale wrote in the club newsletter as the recovery project neared completion. “I’m thrilled with the results, and cannot wait for you to enjoy these new spaces for many years to come.” C+RB