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The Clubhouse Reimagined

Courtesy of Arch Photo Clubhouse ReImagined

Photo: Courtesy of Arch Photo

"The clubhouse is the personality of the golf facility or country club," wrote McKinney in his 1997 book, The Clubhouse: A Brief History of the Golf Clubhouse with Accompanying Notes on Design Issues. "It must be well thought out and designed…[It must be] harmonious with the sedate atmospheres of the golf course and its grounds and complement the expectations of a membership for its clubhouse as an extension of their homes." So for better or worse, we continue to see locally traditional designs, whether it’s the high-columned stone plantation building at Atlanta Country Club (Chapman Coyle Chapman, 2003), the shingled, Hamptons-style classic at Long Island’s Atlantic Golf Club (Hart/Howerton, 1993) or the rustic cabins at Red Sky Ranch & Golf Club in Colorado (Hart/Howerton, 2002).

But what if "local" means within eyesight of downtown Manhattan?That was the question Dan Fireman, who owns Liberty National Golf Club with his father, Reebok founder Paul Fireman, asked himself when building the club on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor. "Because of its urban setting and the idea that even though we’re in Jersey City we’re a part of New York City because of our membership," he said, "we wanted to have a clubhouse with architecture that people expect in New York." Construction of the sweeping glass building, which was drawn up by New York–based Lindsay Newman Architecture and Design, began a year ago and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2008. Said project director Joel Brenner: "When you go to a golf club, the architecture is usually pretty far in, in a private setting. You don’t see it right away, and it is supposed to be comforting and residential-like. But here we are exposed to New York City: metropolitan, sleek and chic. So we’re going to make the structure light and airy, a nautical feel, an open feel. It wants to be bright; it wants to be exposed. We are essentially a golf club in the middle of New York City. A traditional approach would not be appropriate."

Located on the waterfront (six minutes by ferry from lower Manhattan), the clubhouse will indeed be on full public display, with a 360-degree view that takes in the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and, of course, the New York City skyline. Behind the clubhouse will be three high-end residential towers, varying from thirty-seven to fifty stories in height, part of Liberty National’s integrated public and private development. Although the golf club will be private—with memberships costing upward of $450,000—the shops and restaurants on the property will not.

Liberty National and the Bridge may be breaking the architectural mold for golf clubhouses, but will others follow suit?Probably not. "You can’t apply conventional logic and opinions to these two clubhouses, because they are so unique. They are unto themselves," said Robert McKinney. True, especially when one considers the owners of these clubs. The person behind the Bridge clubhouse is not Roger Ferris but the man who hired him: Robert Rubin, a fifty-three-year-old Wall Street tycoon who has sunk $37 million of his own money into the club and certainly doesn’t need members’ approval on his design plans for the clubhouse. He was an amateur racecar driver who bought the land in the eighties. He ran it as a track until 1997, when it was no longer feasible because of increasing town limits on operating hours and noise levels. He also didn’t play golf—at all—when he began the Bridge project. He hadn’t been to all the world’s great golf clubs; he had no preconceived notions of what a clubhouse should be.

Despite his vast personal wealth, Rubin has little in common with another, more famous New York mogul turned golf course developer. In fact, Rubin is the anti-Trump. His hair is messy. He relishes the fact that he is not maximizing the value of his property (he chose to build just eighteen holes and twenty houses on 370 acres in Southampton—adjacent to another 150 acres of protected woodlands—that could easily handle two courses and hundreds of homesites). He wants the Bridge to be a family club rather than a stuffy one. On the morning I met him, he was unshaved and wore weathered khakis and an equally worn-in bucket hat. Only his golf shoes were bespoke, one of the pairs he had made as gifts for each charter member of the Bridge (they feature a strip of the club’s tartan, if you will: a checkered-flag pattern).

This is Bob Rubin: self-made multimillionaire, nontraditional to the core. Hanging in the temporary locker room at the Bridge when I visited were framed photos of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara playing golf—something you probably wouldn’t find at the old-guard clubs nearby. In addition to having a sense of humor, Rubin is also a Ph.D. candidate in architectural theory and history at Columbia University, so he didn’t simply hire Ferris and turn over the keys.

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