Overbrook Golf Club
|Overbrook Golf Club|
799 Godfrey Road
Villanova, PA 19085
Architect: J.B. McGovern & X.G Hassenplug
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During the final decade of the 19th century, golf clubs were springing up all over America. In 1899 alone, 152 clubs came into existence, in 35 of the then 45 states and the Arizona Territory). By 1900, there were some 1,000 golf and/or country clubs in the United States.
It is entirely possible that the first American golf club to be formed in the 1900s was Overbrook Golf Club. For it was on Jan. 4, 1900, that a group of members of the Overbrook Club (located at Woodbine Avenue and Upland Way, where tennis, cricket, quoits, and croquet were played) met at the Orpheus Club, 1522 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia, to found the Overbrook Golf Club.
The original Overbrook clubhouse, 1900, on the site occupied by Lankenau Hospital today
At this organizational meeting, the 23 charter members on hand authorized the officers of the club—Joseph B. Townsend, Jr., was elected president, a post he would hold for 13 years—to lease a tract of approximately 80 acres on the south side of Lancaster Avenue just west of City Line Avenue (the site today of Lankenau Hospital and the Green Hill Farms condominiums) from the Wistar Morris estate. The first year’s rent would be $500. Each year the rent was to increase by $100 till it reached $1,000. The lease forbade the sale of intoxicating liquors on the premises and the playing of golf or any other game on Sundays. Such restrictions, which confronted a number of new golf clubs, seem quaintly puritanical by today’s standards, but this was a time when there was actually serious debate over the morality of permitting trains to run on Sunday!
In order to fund the construction of both course and clubhouse, the founding members each subscribed $100. Construction of a nine-hole course was begun in the spring, and in early summer—after an outlay of $2,773.43— the course opened for play. Golf memberships were limited to 150 men, 100 women. Annual dues were set at $25 for men, $15 for women, and $10 for women whose husbands were members.
A June 1900, financial report reveals that there was already a total membership of 182, that the construction of the clubhouse had cost $6,885.68, that $750 had been appropriated to furnish it, that $500 was earmarked to build a caddie house, and that a man and his wife were hired to run the clubhouse at a combined salary not to exceed $45 a month.
By the beginning of the second year, there were 275 members. Late in 1903, the board authorized an increase in membership to 325, and by 1906 there was a short waiting list. In 1907, with a view to extending the golf course to 18 holes by leasing additional ground, the club opened negotiations with its neighbor on the opposite side of Lancaster Avenue, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. The archbishop was in favor of Overbrook’s proposal, but the seminary’s board of trustees was not.
Membership declined somewhat in the next couple of years—the economy suffered a mild slump—but by 1910 it was on the upswing again. Still, the club’s bank balance in October 1910, was just $177.53—and only because the treasurer had personally advanced $300.
It was in 1907 that the club competed for the first time in the Suburban League matches. Overbrook’s outstanding player during the first decade of the new century was J.A. McCurly, chairman of the green committee, who conquered the great Walter Travis at Huntingdon Valley in an early playing of the Lynnewood Hall Cup.
The club’s long-term lease was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 1941, and several developers had evinced an interest in purchasing the property. The club had three options: negotiate a new lease, find another site, or disband. In July, the landlord advised Overbrook of a potential venture that would require the club to give up the 1st and 2nd holes. This spurred a desperate search for a new location. One very attractive possibility surfaced, and on Oct. 20, 1941, Delbert Gray, the club’s president, reported to the board on "negotiations with J. Howard Pew concerning the purchase of Merion West Golf Course for the sum of $1 subject to a mortgage of $200,000." The board approved the continuation of the negotiations with certain provisos, including that "the large Carstairs residence on the course be secured for clubhouse purposes" and that "the members of Overbrook Golf Club have the privilege of the Merion West course for a week commencing October 27th." (The latter was a notable example of "kicking the tires"!)
The Merion talks were broken off when it soon became apparent that a large number of Overbrook members wanted to stay put if a way could be found to buy the Lancaster Avenue and City Line property from the Wistar Morris Estate. A rather complicated purchase agreement was put together, the complexity stemming from the fact that in addition to the Wistar Morris Estate, with its parcel of some 80 acres, there were such other interested parties as the Baptist Theological Seminary (owner of the 2.4 acres on which the clubhouse itself stood!); one Miss Fritchmouth (recent purchaser of land which included part of the 1st hole); Mrs. W. Logan McCoy (parts of the 17th and 18th holes were on her property); and the owner of the 14-plus acres next to Friends Central School. Somehow, the deal was cobbled together—Miss Fritchmouth granted a right-of-way on the 1st hole after the club agreed to let her house guests play the course free of charge—and now Overbrook, at long last master of its domain, could face up to the exigencies of World War II.
Membership again began to plummet. A recruiting drive was launched early in 1943. The recruiters made phone calls and house calls. The tenants of two nearby apartment houses were invited to join, and courtesy cards were issued to the residents of the neighboring Green Hill Farms Hotel, encouraging them to use the club dining room.
With its financial condition now perilous, the club resigned from the various associations (GAP, WGAP, USGA). Members were now being assessed a corkage charge on whiskey and wine. Bingo parties were staged on Saturday nights to attract candidates for membership. In an attempt to avoid restaurant losses, the club sometimes operated it on what was, in effect, a "concession basis," collecting the receipts, keeping 10 percent, and giving the operator/chef the balance.
In 1943, the club championship was accompanied by a "Calcutta Pool," with the club taking 25 percent of the money raised by bids on individual contestants. A golf fee of 25¢ per round was instituted. Applicable to all members over the age of 21, it triggered a near mutiny and was rescinded within three weeks.
Withal, however, the club made its facilities available to service personnel stationed in the Philadelphia area. It also created a special military class of membership that entailed very modest annual dues. Overbrook women entertained wounded soldiers and sailors at the Valley Forge General Hospital and at the U.S. Naval Hospital in South Philadelphia. And the club was given a formal citation by the Navy Department commending it for its efforts on behalf of disabled Navy veterans.