clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

100 swank years for Country Club

In the beginning it was pretty much just a pasture with some holes in it. But over the years it became something else: the closest Utah comes to having high society.

Don't try to find it in the phone book under "Salt Lake Country Club." That's the name everybody calls it, but the official name is, simply, The Country Club. 'The' as in the first. But also, more subtly, 'The,'as in the one that really counts. At $109,000 and up for an equity membership, plus $230 a month in dues, it's the priciest membership in town, a ticket to hang with Salt Lake City's well-heeled movers and shakers.This weekend, The Country Club celebrates its 100th anniversary, making it one of the oldest country clubs in the United States. It has survived three moves, the Great Depression, the radical '60s and the freeway. And, like country clubs everywhere, it has even survived the dressing down of America.

Sure you can still find foursomes of bridge dressed in linen dresses and pearls on a summer afternoon, but The Country Club is no longer the swank place it was 30 or 40 years ago.

For those of us whose image of country clubs comes from movies about depressed rich people in Connecticut, a place of debutantes and dinner dances, we may be disappointed to learn that hardly anyone dines under The Country Club's chandeliers anymore. These days, members eat in The Mixed Grill, and, except for weddings and private parties, The Country Club is rarely formal anymore. "Less stuffiness," is the way member Stephen Swindle puts it. Not so much an "old guys club." More family-oriented. Jacket and tie not required.

"People are much more casual now," says general manager Amedee Moran. "They don't want to get dressed up, and they don't really want to dance." These days, even for members, The Country Club is not necessarily the focal point of their social calendar.

Raye Ringholz has written a book chronicling The Country Club's first 100 years, from its humble beginnings in a pasture in Gilmer Park. In 1898, when the club was founded by three Yale graduates and a few of their friends, golfers molded their own tees out of sand and water.

The Country Club later moved from Gilmer Park to Forest Dale on 900 East. In the early 1920s the course and the club moved to a vast expanse of meadowland near the mouth of Parley's Canyon.

"One of the big controversies in those days was that it was too far away," says Harold Lamb, a retired Salt Lake physician whose father helped design the club's golf course. Photos from those days show treeless fairways at the edge of terra incognita.

The club survived the Great Depression by giving memberships away. In debt in the 1940s, it relied on slot machines to bring in needed revenue. When the state cracked down on slots and all-night poker games, though, the club still had luck on its side: Someone invented electric golf carts, and the club discovered it could rent them to members.

In the 1960s, the club also survived I-80, originally designed to cut a concrete swath right through the middle of the 18th hole. In the 1990s the club easily deflected the threat of a lawsuit from attorney Brian Barnard, who accused it of discriminating against its women members. Even into this decade, the club had been reserving its Saturday morning golf times for men; now it allows "equity members only" on Saturdays, which effectively still reserves the course for men (a married couple can have only one equity member and that member is generally the husband).

General Manager Moran describes his club as "old style." In other words, he says, "Everything is about golf and anything that gets in the way of that is beside the point." The membership eventually added a swimming pool, but there is still no tennis court.

In the club's early days, Presidents Taft and Harding dropped by. In 1942, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby played a round of golf there. And while it may not be the only game in town anymore, its membership still includes the biggest of names: former Gov. Calvin Rampton, University of Utah president Bernard Machen, banker Spence Eccles, developer Roger Boyer.

Potential members must meet the approval of the club's board. No one is rejected because of race or religion, says former club president Swindle. But occasionally someone is turned down based on "ethics or morals," he says. Usually it's a matter of the person's business ethics, says Swindle. "As opposed to 'Is he like us?' "

Still, at the turn of this millennium, country clubs are often viewed by their members as comfort zones, says Jim Singerling of the Club Managers Association of America. In an era of car alarms and house alarms and any number of alarming situations "where everywhere they go there's something to be afraid of," says Singerling, country clubs offer "predictable environments."

But they're not just for the rich anymore, he says. "The industry has evolved into something for everyone. You can choose a Hyundai or a Maserati, depending on how much you want to pay."

The Salt Lake Country Club's one-time equity membership cost (near the top of membership prices in the United States) puts it in the Maserati range, but the club's style is more Lincoln Continental: roomy and deluxe in a sedate sort of way. Some parts of the decor still scream "Fifties!" perhaps because the average age of its equity members is early 60s.

But the club is attracting younger members, too, says Moran. Average age of new members (this includes "social members" who pay $5,000 to use the pool and clubhouse but not the golf course) is mid-40s.

"I know people who will pay their monthly dues even if they can hardly put food on the table," says a nearby resident. "It's the place to be seen. The Who's Who of Whoville."