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Wendehack’s Winged Foot Clubhouse a Roaring 20s Masterpiece

September 13, 2020 Mamaroneck, N.Y. By Bradley S. Klein
Clifford Wendehack collaborated with course architect A.W. Tillinghast when he designed Winged Foot's iconic clubhouse in the early 1920s. (Winged Foot))

It was designed to look as if it were rising out of the ground. The idea was to make Winged Foot’s clubhouse part of the essential backdrop to the greens closest to the famed building. Golfers approaching on the ninth and 18 holes of the West Course, as well as those hitting into the 10th and 18th greens on the East Course, get a view of the famed stone structure that makes it seem integral to the holes they are playing.

That’s exactly what architect Clifford Charles Wendehack (1885-1948) had in mind when he collaborated with golf course designer A.W. Tillinghast on Winged Foot Golf Club in the early 1920s. The two architects achieved this by careful site selection and alignment of the building. So closely did they work together on sight lines and design that when Wendehack published his now-legendary masterpiece on clubhouse design, “Golf & Country Clubs” (1929), he sent a copy to “Tilly” with this note: “To the distinguished course architect – A.W. Tillinghast. From his most humble co-worker. C.C. Wendehack April 5, 1930.”

In a way that has never been fully appreciated by the golf design world, the two architects led parallel lives, achieving creative heights during the 1920s with work that was particularly prominent in the New York City Metropolitan area. Both wrote extensively for golf publications and design magazines, using their literary output to publicize their craft and to generate work. Both faded into obscurity in the mid-1930s, though Wendehack’s denouement was not as sad and as broken as Tillinghast’s. If Tillinghast’s story is now well known, Wendehack’s is not. But understanding him and his work helps a visitor to Winged Foot appreciate the iconic nature of the clubhouse as a landmark in American architecture.

A New York native, Wendehack apprenticed for nine years in Manhattan under a master of the elaborate Beaux Arts style of architecture that celebrity architects such as Stanford White had parlayed into the dominant Met-area style. A trip to France, Italy and England exposed Wendehack to more traditional styling, and by the time he set up shop with offices in Montclair, N.J., and Manhattan, he was a chief proponent of a less embellished, more structurally integrated style derived from Tudor Revival.

This watercolor image was created by Clifford Wendehack himself in 1925 and faces No. 18 on the East Course. (Winged Foot)

Most of Wendehack’s design work focused on residences. Among the many owners of Wendehack-designed houses in New Jersey was renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., who bought a 4,100-square-foot Tudor house in 1959 in Montclair, N.J., that had been designed in 1928. Jones maintained his residence and an office there for four decades.

The most distinctive examples of Wendehack’s clubhouse design in the strict English Scholastic style of Winged Foot are at Mountain Ridge Country Club, in West Caldwell, N.J.; Ridgewood Country Club, in Paramus, N.J.; The Park Country Club of Buffalo, in Williamsville, N.Y.; and North Jersey Country Club, in Wayne, N.J. He also did more relaxed versions in a countrified manor house style at Forsgate Country Club (Monroe Township, N.J.), Hackensack Golf Club (Oradell, N.J.), North Hempstead Country Club (Port Washington, N.Y.), Douglaston Park Golf Course (Queens, N.Y.) and Bethpage State Park (Farmingdale, N.Y.).

For all the books focusing on golf architecture from the interwar period known as the Golden Age of Course Design, Wendehack’s “Golf & Country Clubs” is the only one devoted to clubhouses. Indeed, it remains not only an essential volume but the only book focusing on the special character and schematic structure of these buildings.

Other Notable Clifford Wendehack Clubhouse Designs

Mountain Ridge Country Club West Caldwell, N.J.
The Park Country Club Williamsville, N.Y.
North Jersey Country Club Wayne, N.J.
Forsgate Country Club Monroe Township, N.J.
Hackensack Golf Club Oradell, N.J.
North Hempstead Country Club Port Washington, N.Y.
Douglaston Park Golf Course Queens, N.Y.
Bethpage State Park Farmingdale, N.Y.

The premise of the study is Wendehack’s observation that there are only two genres of building architecture unique to the U.S.: skyscrapers and clubhouses. What Wendehack does not say is that latter provides comfort and relaxation from the rigors encountered in the former.  With golf booming in the 1920s and the need to get away from business concerns mounting daily, it helps to understand how clubhouses were designed to provide leisure and repose while remaining economically viable.

The writing suggests someone intimately familiar with the mental rhythms of a determined golfer. How skilled or avid he was as a player is unknown. But Wendehack certainly understood the psychology and politics of the country club. In clubhouse design, unlike golf, for example, there is no option of recovery from a wayward shot or possibility of a mulligan: “if the ball of judgment slices out of bounds, the drive is shot and the ball is made of stone and mortar, materials and forms that will not permit of changing.” (p. 18)

You had to get it right the first time. That meant listening to professionals, not amateurs or members. It also meant creating a building anew rather than retrofitting existing smaller buildings. The goals were sound structure and the distinct functional needs of a comfortable building at a scale that could accommodate both large dinners and small parties, as well as a locker room that was accessible to the first and last holes of the golf course. Solidity of form entailed endurance of structure and identity. He surely had Winged Foot in mind when he wrote that “stone foundations are always to be recommended where labor costs are not too high.” (p. 10)

No project he ever did sat closer than Winged Foot to its material underpinnings. The clubhouse arose from the ground there in both a structural and an aesthetic sense. Wendehack created that effect by building the foundation out of rock quarried on-site during course construction. The underlying Fordham gneiss and Manhattan schist – the same geological firmament that anchored skyscrapers in Manhattan – proved ideal for the clubhouse base. Golf course construction laborers hammered away at the stuff; the back nine of the West Course has exposed schist everywhere.

The back nine of the West Course still has remnants of the Manhattan schist rock used to construct the clubhouse. (Bradley S. Klein)

The cornerstone for the clubhouse was laid on April 14, 1923. Two years later the doors to the building officially opened. Wendehack’s design followed perfectly the principles later laid out in his book. The locker room featured full-length lockers, set on corridors that veered off a central aisle, along with pedestal sinks, Carrera marble and shower heads the size of lawn sprinklers. Wendehack meticulously spelled out relevant details in his book: “Soap dishes in shower compartments should be placed four feet from the floor.” (p. 38)

Befitting what he considered the ideal clubhouse,  Winged Foot’s two-story men’s locker room was set in close proximity to the golf shop via a covered loggia and offered easy access to the golf course. The main grille, the club’s focal point socially, occupies the core of the building on the other side of the locker room, providing quick service access to the kitchen, with the main dining room on the other side, more accessible to the public entrance.

The building, 296 feet long and 56 feet high, was made to look taller thanks to a construction trick involving the Vermont slate roof; the tiles got smaller as they went up. This gave the illusion of a much steeper, higher roofline, effectively stretching the building upward. Cost of the building and furnishings was considerable for its day: $450,000.

Wendehack’s attention to aesthetics, craftsmanship and detail has made it something of an adventure to restore. The process at times feels like a cross between “CSI: Westchester” and “Antiques Roadshow.” In order to recapture the feel of the over-fired bricks used on the exterior, for example, club general manager Colin Burns had to hire someone he called a “forensic mason” to study the materials.

Good thing Wendehack knew what materials would endure the particular demands of clubhouse life. He warned, for example, about the wear and tear of golf spikes. “Hobnailed shoes have destroyed the appearance of many fine club buildings, and floors should be chosen to withstand this kind of wear.” (p. 11). His preference was for Welsh quarry tile – precisely what is found in Winged Foot’s most heavily trafficked areas.   

The club has been working the last few years with the Connecticut-based firm of Rogers McCagg Architects on clubhouse restoration, the equivalent of hiring Gil Hanse when it comes to recapturing classical structures. What makes the process so demanding and so interesting is tracing the fixtures and ornamentation to original suppliers, some of whom are still in business – for example, the brass window cranks in the Grille Room stamped with the manufacturer’s name “HOPE’S.”

The English Scholastic structure is imposing, yet allows for comfortable accommodations within. The scale of rooms accommodates group gatherings, yet does not feel overwhelming and provides for nooks of privacy.

Ninety-five years after opening, Winged Foot’s clubhouse continues to welcome visitors and makes members feel like they have a second home.

Bradley S. Klein is a Connecticut-based freelancer who specializes in golf course architecture and history.