Jamestown Historical Society Feature
Golf became popular in the United States about the same time that Jamestown became a fashionable summer resort. The country’s first golf clubs – and because of the cost of setting up and maintaining a golf course, golf almost always involved a committed membership that paid the basic expenses – were organized in the late 1880s.
Jamestown had more than its share of golf enthusiasts, especially among the summer visitors. The first golf course, the nine-hole Conanicut Golf Club, was started in 1895 at Blueberry Lane and Walcott Avenue. As traffic on Walcott became heavier, the course was reduced to six holes on the south side of Blueberry and then closed in 1904.
From 1926 to 1944, the Beavertail Country Club operated an 18-hole course with nine holes on the East Passage and nine on West Passage.
Today, the Jamestown Golf Course, which was incorporated on July 26, 1901, is the only surviving course. The incorporating officers were Dr. David Bell Birney, a Philadelphia physician with an active summer practice in Jamestown; Albert Lawrence Wetherill, another Philadelphian and a cousin of Alexander Macomb Wetherill for whom Fort Wetherill is named; Thomas Chester Wallbridge, a banker from Germantown, Penn.; John L. Davis, a Shoreby Hill resident from St. Louis; and Henry H. Luther, a Newport dentist and son of one of Jamestown’s first realtors.
The club officially opened on Aug. 3, 1901. According to the Newport Journal, the event was celebrated with a tea and reception. Cottagers and hotel guests chatted and strolled on the lawn and listened to the music of Howard’s Orchestra. An open golf match for ladies and gentlemen was played on a temporary nine-hole course. The following year, Alexander H. Findlay, one the earliest acknowledged golf course architects, designed the permanent course.
The course was laid out on the leased Littlefield farm, and originally the “clubhouse” was two rooms in the Littlefield farmhouse. A committee was formed at the end of the summer to determine what to do to give the club mem- bers more space. Should the club take over the entire farmhouse, or would it be better to have a building designed to the club members’ needs?
A new structure was decided on, and Andrews and Withers, a Newport architectural firm, was hired to design it. The one-story building was 50 feet by 27.5 feet. A 12-foot-wide veranda, roofed by extensions of the building’s gables, circled the structure on three sides, making its actual footprint about 74 feet by 40 feet. Inside were men’s and ladies’ locker rooms, dressing rooms and showers, and a good-sized pantry.
The building was constructed on the south side of the golf course, at Standish and Whittier roads, by Louis Wayland Anthony, a Jamestown builder and architect who was active on the island well into the 1930s. The Andrews and Withers design blended well with the Shoreby Hill homes around it.
The clubhouse served not just the golfers, but those who used the tennis courts that now belong to the Conanicut Yacht Club, the bowling green to the south of the building, and the croquet lawn. A porch membership was also available – for $3, one could enjoy the clubhouse porches, without participating in any of the sports offered.
During the first 50 years, the clubhouse saw few changes. Almost immediately after the building was completed, the veranda on the side of the building that faced Whittier Road was glassed in, and ping-pong and pool tables were installed. Everything else remained the same. Then, in 1946, Frederick H. Clarke, who had acquired the Littlefield farm through a mortgage default, sold the property to the Lyons family. The Lyons in turn sold the tennis courts to the Conanicut Yacht Club and moved the clubhouse to Conanicus Avenue in 1951. At the time of the move, a rubble foundation with a concrete cap was built to support the moved structure.
Two years after the clubhouse was moved, Francis and Lily Costa bought it along with the 75-acre course. They upgraded the course and, over the years, made significant changes to the aging building. The verandas were enclosed. An addition on the north created a 130-seat restaurant, and part of the original building was converted to a 100-seat bar and lounge. Kitchen and storage facilities were added on the west side.
When the Costas decided to sell the course in 1986, the town bought it – paying for the purchase in part by selling the development rights, thus ensuring that the land would remain open space. Under municipal ownership, the building’s uses changed. The Recreation Department sponsored yoga, Pilates and tai chi classes, and the Jamestown Community Theatre rehearsed for their biannual productions. During the building of the new Town Hall, the clubhouse served as the temporary center of town government.
The original building and its verandas were built before the days of building codes, and a recent structural report on the building’s condition pointed out many problems with continuing to use it for public gatherings. The distance between supports under the joists holding up the floor is too long. The roof over most sections of the building does not meet current code for snow load. Over time, the area beneath the original building, which is accessible from the west, has been enlarged and deepened to make room for storage, weakening the structural underpinnings of the building.
Suggestions on replacing the 112-year-old clubhouse and its mid-20th century additions with a more modern and safer structure were presented to the Town Council in October and are now being discussed.