NOSTALGIA IS IN the air at Fort Douglas-Hidden Valley Country Club, nestled under the block "U" on Salt Lake City's northeast hillside. That's because this exceptional facility, so honored for its appealing character, is about to close its doors after almost 70 years.
Many of the people who have frequented the club are already feeling a social and cultural void. Although none of them are activists planning to do anything to keep the club open, they are nonetheless sad to see it go.Tony Smith, a member for 35 years, fondly remembers numerous events and says the decision to close "is really too bad. We've had some fine facilities there, but we just got so we couldn't fill them any more."
Mary Lynn Juhlin's ties are especially sentimental. After all, she and her husband held their wedding reception at the Club 35 years ago. Not only that, but two of their children have followed suit. "It's really been fun," she says.
Originally named the Fort Douglas Club, it was incorporated as a member-owned, nonprofit club on Valentine's Day, 1928. The first members were civilian golf and polo members of the Officers Club of Fort Douglas, and they considered it a golf, polo, tennis and social club.
The club was principally created to improve public relations between the military administrators at Fort Douglas and the local civilian population.
One source of the poor relationship was concern regarding the actions of some prisoners of war and conscientious objectors, who were housed in prison barracks surrounded by two barbed wire fences 15 feet apart. At one time, there were as many as 700 such occupants, including 331 German sailors who made numerous attempts to escape by bombing, tunneling and wire cutting.
Brigadier Gen. U.G. McAlexander, who was commander of the famous "Rock of the Marne" infantry during World War I, was the commandant at Fort Douglas Military Post. When he developed friendships with many of his neighbors, he proposed a plan to improve the local military image.
He agreed to provide labor, horses and equipment if the civilians would raise funds for seed, pipe, sprinklers and hose, so that a golf course could be built on the Fort Douglas reservation. The membership would include post officers and civilians.
By selling memberships at $100 each, the general collected a fund of $10,000. In 1923, an 18-hole golf course was laid out, and the ground plowed and harrowed by horse-drawn equipment. Gradually, the course took shape, culminating in a small clubhouse, built of lumber saved from the demolition of war buildings.
Over the years, that clubhouse was expanded so often that it became a showplace, today known for its attractive rock work, diverse and beautiful rooms and an amazing view of the valley.
When water from Red Butte Creek proved to be inadequate for the growing facility, U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah shepherded a bill through Congress allowing a $370,000 dam to be built in Red Butte Canyon. The problem was solved.
Things slowed down in the Depression-ridden 1930s. In the early 1940s, a few women members were accepted, and by the end of the decade, women and their guests had become an integral part of the club's activities.
The original golf course - the remnants of which are now the University of Utah course - was the site of the Western Open in 1947, which attracted golf great Ben Hogan.
In 1957, the club acquired the Hidden Valley property in Draper, and the new golf course there opened for play on May 1, 1959. The membership's objection to driving 12-15 miles to play golf soon disappeared as the course became recognized as one of the most outstanding in the state. Since that time, the club has operated as Utah's only dual-facility country club.
Unfortunately, demographics change. The economic reality of operating two facilities dictated a sale of the original Fort Douglas Club to the James L. White Jewish Community Center earlier this year.
According to Rick Libby, general manager, "It was probably inevitable that this would eventually happen. The draw for our membership has gone to the Sandy-Draper line. Our membership is just moving farther south every year. You can't get there from here."
Libby, a native of Maine whose accent has softened, uses the standard Maine phrase comfortably, punching the key words, "they-uh" and "he-uh" for emphasis. "Our equity members, the board and officers will now be able to concentrate their efforts and resources into enhancing the amenities related to our highly touted 27-hole golf course" in Draper.
The people who have worked at the east bench facility fondly remember many great events, including the performances of such top-notch musicians as Chubby Checker and the Kingston Trio.
Libby says they also lived through occasional low periods, such as a brief "prohibition era" in the late '80s. Although it happened before his tenure, his staffers remember an employee walk-out just before a major function started. In the confusion that followed, an underage employee had an alcoholic drink, resulting in the club's liquor license being suspended for 90 days.
Pat Hanks, manager of the dining room, who first came to work in the 1960s, thinks of the club as an exceptional, classy institution, "maybe not like the Statue of Liberty, because it caters to a different class of people, but to me it's a landmark." She is proud of the traditions continued by third and fourth generations.
According to Libby, even the swim program now has second- and third-generation members. "It's not so much the building itself that we value, but the people who have been involved in it. Nothing is living until you put real people in it."
Despite the loss of a great chunk of Salt Lake's cultural tradition, Libby says there is "more sadness than anger" on the part of most people associated with the club. They realize the time has come to move on.
Loretta Falvo, a longtime member, says she's sad about the closing and considers the Fort Douglas club "one of the most charming places in the city." She has many warm memories of the members and the staff but thinks it will be in good hands with the Jewish Community Center.
Mary Lynn Juhlin's family still lives close to the club, where members of her family has engaged in "Thursday night bingo" and a host of other activities. Her children, she says, are very disappointed. Even though they also belong to the Hidden Valley Club, they feel they are losing half of their lives.
Even though he regrets the necessity for the closing, Tony Smith, a past club president, thinks of it as a straightforward economic decision. Smith remembers when he and his wife would recognize eight or 10 couples around the fireplace any time they frequented the clubhouse, but that just doesn't happen any more.
In early September, the Jewish Community Center will take possession of the complex, and a new era will begin. According to Barbara Bank, JCC director, the center will make some adjustments to blend with the needs of a different organization, but many revered traditions will continue.
"We will still have swimming and tennis programs," says Bank, "and some club members are joining the JCC so they can keep up their swimming and tennis. Currently, our membership is 50-50 Jewish and non-Jewish. But this will be a working building with all kinds of programs every day. We do want to share the space with the community for weddings and other events. We don't decorate for Christmas, for instance, but people who do decorate can come in and do so for their events. They will just have to be members."
Bank is thrilled with the acquisition and hopes it will not be too long before the early childhood programs are transferred to Fort Douglas in a proposed early childhood wing. In the meantime, the JCC will continue to operate the original center at 2416 E. 1700 South.
As the transition continues, which Bank says has been remarkably smooth so far, she strolls around the club complex and marvels that the group will be able to utilize such a beautiful place.
"I walk around here, and I turn a corner, and I say, `How can this BE?' " Bank can't wait to see all the regular events of the JCC unfold in the illustrious space of the social room, the dining room and the ballroom of the monumental Fort Douglas Club.
It's the beginning of a new era, but the unmistakable, distinctive ambience will apparently remain.