Established in 1887, the Denver Country Club is one of the oldest, most exclusive private social clubs in the West. The 1904 clubhouse and its surrounding 142 acres of landscaping are significant features in the city of Denver, situated along Cherry Creek between the Country Club, Cherry Creek, Washington Park, and Speer neighborhoods. In addition, the club has been a prominent force socially and athletically; some of the most influential figures in Colorado history were members. Today, the club boasts the title of the oldest country club west of the Mississippi River.
The Denver Country Club was formally incorporated in 1887 as the Overland Park Club. The club bought a horse track known as Jewell Park and renamed the site Overland Park. Activities at the club included horse and automobile racing as well as golf, and a clubhouse featured billiards, dining, a library, and a ballroom for social events. Thirteen men held stock in the club and acted as board members at the time of its founding. Some were heavily involved in the mining industry and lost their fortunes in the Silver Crash of 1893. At that time, Henry Wolcott—a Denver businessman, former bookkeeper for Colorado mining magnate Nathaniel P. Hill, and manager of Hill’s Boston and Colorado Smelting Company—acquired most of the shares in the club. He then served as the club’s president from 1894 to 1901.
After a failed gubernatorial bid in 1898, Wolcott decided to sell his shares in the club in 1901 and leave the state. He told club members that they must either purchase the property outright or enter a new lease agreement by April 1902; otherwise, Wolcott would shut down Overland Park. But club members thought Wolcott’s prices—a lease of $4,800 per year, or $150,000 to buy the club outright—were too high. They agreed to a two-year lease (1901–3), and in the meantime five members decided to start a new club and seek new grounds at the end of the lease.
The five members who organized a new club, known as the Denver Country Club, were H. H. Lee, Chester S. Morey, Walter A. Jayne, Crawford Hill, and H. J. O’Bryan. Their goals were to promote tennis and golf and foster a sense of community among members. Membership was limited to 400. By 1902 the roster included 267 resident members (living within ten miles), 34 nonresident members, and 178 associate members, including the wives and children of full members. While the club remained at Overland Park until 1904, several members began a search for land where they could build not only an eighteen-hole golf course and clubhouse but a Country Club neighborhood as well.
With the assistance of Robert Speer, about ten members were able to purchase land known as the Reithmann Estate in the Cherry Creek area by Arlington Park (used as a picnic ground by early Denver residents). John Jacob Reithmann was an early Colorado immigrant who developed several businesses but lost a great deal of his fortune in the Silver Crash of 1893. His estate was subsequently put up for sale.
After buying the land, the club men incorporated as the Fourth Avenue Realty Company and offered 120 acres to the Denver Country Club at a price of $300 per acre. In 1902 the club officially agreed to the purchase and began laying out an eighteen-hole golf course on the land, while the realty company began to develop the land to the north into the Country Club neighborhood.
Developing the Grounds
Golf had been part of the Overland Park Club since 1895, and both men and women enjoyed playing. At the club’s new grounds, the course was designed by James Foulis, a champion golfer and golf-course architect from Chicago. He followed a classic Scottish approach to his design, with many bunkers, water ditches, and intimidating greens. The only surviving green from this original design is the ninth hole.
Golf was not the only sport played at the Denver Country Club. Clay tennis courts along Cherry Creek were built in 1904. Four additional courts were located by the clubhouse, and two more courts were added when the club started hosting the Colorado State Open in 1907. A polo field opened in 1905 and remained in place until 1924.
The clubhouse informally opened on January 1, 1905. Prominent Denver architect Theodore Davis Boal, himself a club member, used a pseudonym to win the design competition. Boal’s winning design called for a simple, T-shaped clubhouse. The building included a large front porch, lobby, reception room, dining room, sunroom, men’s and ladies’ lounges, men’s locker room, check room, kitchen, men’s grille, and office.
Sports and Society
From its inception, the Denver Country Club was a place for wealthy and well-connected Denverites. Club members were prominent in business and politics, including Horace Tabor, Robert Speer, Lawrence Phipps, John Campion, John K. Mullen, Thomas Walsh, William Cooke Daniels, Bulkeley Wells, J. J. and Margaret Brown, President Dwight Eisenhower, Charles Boettcher, Claude and Edna Boettcher, Walter Cheesman, Helen Bonfils, William Gray Evans, and others. Perhaps most important for early Denver society, 1901 cofounder Crawford Hill and his wife, society leader Louise Sneed Hill, were active members. Hill’s elite society, the Sacred 36, was intertwined with the club as membership overlapped and many Sacred 36 events were celebrated within club walls.
The club held large balls beginning in the 1890s, and the animal-dance craze of the 1910s and 1920s swept through its halls as well. Although banned in multiple cities and denounced by President Woodrow Wilson, the turkey trot and other dances were introduced at club functions. A Fourth of July fireworks display began in 1910 and continues to this day. The winter season at the club was always filled with elaborate functions and dances. The Denver Symphony Ball was once the symphony’s major fundraiser; now known as the Debutantes’ Ball and held at the Brown Palace, it remains a tradition for Denver Country Club members today.
Club members have always been well known for their success in golf, tennis, swimming, and ice hockey. The club has been home to numerous city, state, and even national competitions in golf, tennis, and swimming. In the early 1900s, the club hosted the Colorado Amateur Golf Championships. The Men’s Trans-Mississippi Golf Tournament was held at the club in 1910, 1923, 1946, and 1980. The club also hosted the Women’s Trans-Mississippi in 1929. Many club members won these events, including Fred McCartney, Walter Fairbanks, and Frank Woodward. The Colorado State Open tennis tournament was held at the club from 1907 to 1968. Since 1934 the club has had successful swim teams, and top hockey players who came up through the club include Tom Weiss, the first player from Colorado to receive a full scholarship at the University of Denver.
In 1925 the clubhouse underwent a major renovation. Architects and club members William and Arthur Fisher completely changed the architectural style of the building. The Fisher brothers redid the building in the Colonial Revival style, added a new wing on the west side, shifted the entrance of the building to the north side (the new entryway boasted a triple staircase), and added a women’s locker room. They also redecorated the overnight rooms.
In 1945 the club redesigned the dining rooms, installed a new kitchen, expanded the men’s grille, and added a cocktail lounge and circular terrace. Further improvements came in the 1950s and 1960s, most notably a two-story addition to the men’s locker room in 1968. In 2007 the clubhouse received another large addition.
In 1912 Cherry Creek flooded and severely damaged the club’s golf course. Six greens and many fairways were washed away. After the flood, the club began a renovation of the golf course. In 1916 it hired Donald Ross—a famed golf-course designer responsible for about 400 courses, including the Broadmoor and Lakewood Country Club—to redesign the course. Ross’s plans were implemented from 1916 to 1923; his designs for the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth greens are still in place today.
After Ross, several other architects were brought in to finish the course redesign, including longtime member Fred McCartney, who focused on new plantings rather than substantial course changes. Course redesigns continued periodically from the 1950s through the 1990s. Most recently, the course was modified by Gil Hanse starting in 2009.
In 1916 the club built three concrete tennis courts that doubled as an ice rink in the winter. The club built a dedicated outdoor ice rink in 1950. A large skating house with a sound system was added later that decade. In 1957 two more concrete tennis courts were added, followed by indoor tennis facilities in the 1960s. A tennis pro shop was added to the west side of the building in 1977.
A swimming pool designed by Temple Buell was built on the grounds in 1934. It was replaced by newer pools built in 1959 and 1982. A pool house was added in 1983.
Today the Denver Country Club continues to fulfill the social and sporting functions originally envisioned by the men who established the Overland Park Club in 1887. Nevertheless, the club’s role within Denver’s social landscape changed over the course of the twentieth century. Especially after World War II, when social elites no longer reigned supreme and celebrities effectively took over their role in American culture, things began to change. Club events that had once been locally or regionally significant became more private affairs.
A long-standing pillar of the community and one of the oldest country clubs in the West, the Denver Country Club stands as a reminder of the city’s architectural and social history. The western part of the adjoining Country Club neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The country club grounds were added to the listing in 1985, and in 1990 the entire Country Club area was recognized as a Denver historic district. Today the Country Club Historic District remains one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Denver.