James M. Mayo. The American Country Club, Its Origins and Development. New Brunswick, N.J and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998. 243 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-2485-6.
Reviewed by Eugenie L. Birch (University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-Urban (September, 1999)
In his intriguing account of the American country club, James M. Mayo has filled a vacuum in social, urban and architectural history. His integrative approach promotes an understanding of the evolution of this phenomenon as an institution and as a physical artifact. The narrative demonstrates how the flow of U.S. metropolitan growth with its related economic and demographic changes shaped the organization, nature and design of leisure and recreational spaces for the country's elite.
Keeping a clear focus on its theme, Mayo's history starts with the colonial period and moves to the late twentieth century. The author creates a typology of the locations, functions, and forms of clubs over time, clearly demonstrating their ability to adapt to the social and economic needs of their supporters. In addition, he illustrates the rise and fall of discriminatory practices and different financing and management formulae. Finally, he successfully surveys their architectural arrangements and shows how they embody the members' values.
According to Mayo, the country club has two roots: city-based associations and rural or suburban sports refuges. In the first, the colonial eating clubs where merchants dined together in a tavern or restaurant at a scheduled time became the gentlemen's city club. This well-located, finely appointed dedicated building incorporated not only dining rooms but also bedrooms, a ballroom, game rooms, library and, perhaps, an athletic facility. As part of this transformation, the club adopted formal membership rules, regulated behavior and broadened activities to include art and literary functions, balls and other festive events. Concurrently, belonging to specific clubs conferred social status on the participants who until the early twentieth century were predominantly male.
As city life burgeoned, club-supporting elites escaped to the country for recreation. They created private reserves to accommodate their sports which centered on horses, boats or little white balls -- golf, cricket, or tennis. These places had a distinct architecture. For example, clubhouse designers Stanford White, Cass Gilbert and Frank Lloyd Wright, created dramatically-sited, expansive, but simply decorated structures to accommodate men's and ladies' locker rooms, casual and formal eating and bedrooms. In addition, country clubs presented a new spatial concept: ample acreage isolated or protected members from the world outside. Finally, in some places like Tuxedo Park and Kansas City's Country Club district the linkage of clubs with real estate deals also emerged. (Originally, clubs offered sites to their members, later developers created club-like amenities to attract buyers.)
Country clubs grew in popularity in the first third of the twentieth century but later declined. They adapted to postwar conditions. They numbered 1,000 in 1901, grew to 5,500 (with 2.3 million members) by 1927 and shrunk to 4,700 (with 593,000 members) in 1939. The Depression, World War Two and the Civil Rights Movement affected the ranks and practices. Restrictive membership rules and tax deductibility of dues came under attack. The clubs responded in various ways.
The narrative, supplemented by more than forty black and white photographs and building plans, is strongest in its documentation of the earlier history. Tracking the evolution of city to suburban facilities, monitoring membership rules and protocols, explaining financing devices including management techniques, and illustrating building forms all solidly fulfill Professor Mayo's articulated goal of providing a "consolidated history" of his subject (p.3).
Mayo's coverage of the postwar period is less successful. Although he mentions the modern phenomenon of using clubs to sell real estate, he lacks a chapter on this subject. The "new" country club of the eighties has flourished in large scale residential developments in the South and West. These settlements often include not one but several club facilities that bear physical similarities to their forebears. Their designs, financing arrangements, and membership conditions, as well as their place in American society warrant further investigation. An exploration of these kinds of clubs within the context of metropolitan growth, social and economic segregation of cities and suburbs, the rise of gated communities, and the aging of the American population would have been a useful addition. Further, the author should have updated his statistics on the number of country clubs and membership levels so that the reader could judge their contemporary impact.
Despite these drawbacks, The American Country Club, Its Origins and Development provides insights into a little-studied subject. It is useful for the social and architectural historian. It would also be interesting for the intelligent lay reader. The research is impeccable and the writing clear.
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Eugenie L. Birch. Review of Mayo, James M., The American Country Club, Its Origins and Development.
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