The Allure of Buffalo Country Clubs
By Rachel Slaughter

An overlook of the famous 18th hole at the Country Club of Buffalo.
“The sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside [refused] to share the very texture of life with those of us outside...”

In his novella, “Goodbye, Columbus,” about a Newark boy who falls for a wealthy Short Hills girl, Philip Roth—however inadvertently—captures the allure of country clubs, and the culture that crops up around them. As a one time only guest at the Green Lane Country Club, Roth’s protagonist notices a girl and decides to ask her on a date. “But when I called, Brenda Patimkin wasn’t home. She’s having dinner at the club, a woman’s voice told me. Will she be home after (my voice was two octaves higher than a choirboy’s)? I don’t know, the voice said, she may go driving golf balls. Who is this?” The last question, whether it’s prompted by curiosity or insolence, is the clincher. Presumably, a club member would never be asked to identify himself, he would be recognized.

Don Newman, the president of the Country Club of Buffalo, the oldest club in the area, formed in 1889, says, “Everybody knows your name here. We don’t need claim checks for valet parking because the kids all know whose car is whose.” The club has approximately 500 members.

The Country Club of Buffalo, who accepts members by invitation only and whose unspoken policy regarding dues is that you, similarly, should not have to ask, preoccupies itself with knowing the likes and dislikes of its members. The taste that predominates is the style of old guard establishment. The monogramed linen, the Austrian china, the silver, the abundance of art work, trophies, animal heads, and fireplaces situate the members in an historical and social milieu that feels indomitable. If one peers closely enough into a glass case in the front hall, he can find a photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald taken during a childhood dance.

When one strolls across the grounds, the neat tennis courts, the sprawling golf course, the tidy pool, and into the various distinctive rooms of the clubhouse: the pink room (decorated in pale pink couches, a pink rope wallpaper, and pink oriental rugs), the pine room, and the smoking room, he can’t help but feel a sense of calm. For dinner, a member can make reservations, take drinks in the pink room, and hear the entrees verbally from the captain before he chooses the time he would like to dine. The longevity of the staff—one staff member has worked at the club for 55 years—ensures a familiarity with names and faces.

The Westwood Country Club, formal dining room.
There are no prices on the menu, or hints of cost anywhere. The hush in the elegant guest bedrooms on the second floor testifies to the importance of privacy at the club. As he climbs down a back stairway, Bill Nitschke, the general manager, tells me, “if some well known person was staying here, no one would know.”

Judging from Mr. Nitschke’s poise and polish, no one would also know how complex maintaining the club has become. Mr. Nitschke tells me that “whereas in the 1930s the general manager of the club would go to the market in the morning to choose fresh produce, today we’re busy making sure we’re using the proper chemicals on our golf course.”

There is less importance placed on formality at the club these days. Parents are no longer concerned that their children sit in their chairs like tin soldiers, and not breathe. Though dress codes at all the clubs are still intact and there are still older members who, even at the Country Club of Buffalo’s Fourth of July barbecue, still wear a jacket and tie despite the fact that the club no longer requires it, and despite the blistering heat.

Club stereotypes have become less rigid than they once were at the Park Country Club. While the clubhouse retains the trappings of old-school wealth and class, the members are decidedly more modern. Tom Merrick, the general manager, tells me, “The people make the club.” In addition to club dues, the members pay for the events they attend. Among the activities offered by the club in the past year are a disco pool party for kids, a seminar on breast cancer for adults, and swing dancing lessons. “We offer hospitality, and we want our families to feel that the club is an extension of their home.”

When Mr. Merrick points me to club scrapbooks from the 1950s, he is just as delighted with the people pictured as he is with the “characters” now. He shows me a picture of “good old Ganson Depew” from the 1934 PGA National Championships held at the club. There’s also a photograph of a smiling mother with her children, all bedecked in leopard bathing suits. The headline reads: “Wanted: Leopard swim trunks for F. Wayne Eaton, of North Forest Road, Williamsville, so he can get into the family’s leopard act around their own private swimming pool.” Another clipping boasts: “Park Country Club Members Preparing for Summer Dinner Dance.” For the occasion, “Mrs. Hahn will wear a seafoam green lace strapless gown.”

This nostalgia is felt at other clubs as well. The grounds of the Brookfield Country Club recall the days when, in its founding as Meadowbrook, it required as part of the entrance fee the purchase of a home or lot on the surrounds of the club. The intention was to build a home and community of sophisticated people, with the club at the center. Today, there is a sense that Brookfield’s proud reputation in golf—being consistently ranked in the top three courses in WNY, serving as the host to the 1948 Western Open, and the 1985 Boys Junior Championship—is only enhanced by memories of the 1930s when the highlight of golf came at the end of the game. Then the winning team sat at one long table in the grill eating steak dinners while the losing team sat at another table and ate beans.

Park Country Club clubhouse, exterior view.
Flipping through the Park Country Club scrapbook, I note the simple pleasures documented so importantly. A strawberry sundae is featured prominently among the highpoints of a Fourth of July celebration in 1937. Today, Barry Singer, a member of the Westwood Country Club, tells me about their award-winning chef, Ruth De Lillo. “Anyone who comes to the club has to try her hot fudge sundae.” “Why?” I ask, wondering what makes it special. “Because it’s so good!” he says as a matter of course.

Mr Singer also mentions that at the Westwood, unlike in a restaurant, the chef will prepare dishes by request that are not found on the menu. “If you want the chicken cajun style,” he says, “you can have it.”

Allan Lipman, the president of the Westwood, tells me, “When I leave the Westwood and return to my law practice I often say to myself, ‘Time to return to the real world.’”

Indeed, when I trespass into the clubhouses and hear the low tones of people talking, the tink of glasses, and catch a glimpse of a woman swishing down the stairs in her blue dress, I am enthralled. Where is she going?

It is as Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”


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