Clubhouse Classics: Shinnecock Hills

The creation of a great American clubhouse and the strange fate of its designer


If you poll American golfers about their favorite clubhouses, certain ones will come up often: Newport, National Golf Links, Augusta National, Chicago, and Seminole. These iconic structures are recognizable to many people who have never seen them in person, as they often stand out in the background of the golf photos we’ve all seen on Twitter and Instagram. But even though these clubhouses are familiar by sight, they are not well understood as works of architecture. So today, I will take a closer look at the famous Shinnecock Hills clubhouse, which, like the course it overlooks, has a simple and functional design that has proven enormously influential.

First, let’s review what golf clubhouses were like in the late 1800s. Almost all of them were merely adequate structures that served a few basic purposes. You could change your clothes there, find shelter from the elements, and maybe get a snack or drink. The golf was equally rudimentary, as many courses were laid out on pastures or leased land. Rarely was there capital available to make substantial changes to the soil or topography. The same was true in building clubhouses: people did not want to invest huge amounts of money into this unproven sport, so they looked for places they could adapt to their needs. As a result, the first clubhouses were pre-existing farm structures: barns, stables, shacks, and the like. In fact, it’s possible that the 1892 clubhouse at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club—the same one you can walk around today—was the first American building designed expressly to suit the needs of golfers.

Origins of the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse

The clubhouse opened in April 1892, when the course had only 12 holes. According to Henry Nichols, a former manager at Shinnecock Hills, the structure functioned as an advertisement. A railroad ran nearby, and at the time, the clubhouse would have been the only building in the vicinity that train passengers could see that wasn’t a barn, farmhouse, or windmill. But its location on a hill wasn’t just for publicity: in the days before air conditioning, such a site allowed cooling breezes to air out the building in the summer. (Remarkably, Shinnecock still does not have any AC.) The front door faced the ocean to the south, and the interior was understated, designed for comfort.

The original design of the Shinnecock clubhouse, taken during construction, ca. 1892. The clubhouse would be expanded significantly over the next 20 years.

What’s so significant about all of this? Well, the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse is thought to be the first American structure built with golfers in mind. According to Clifford Wendehack’s landmark study Golf and Country Clubs (1929), pre-Shinnecock clubhouses were characterized by “locker rooms cramped and uncomfortable with insufficient shower accommodations and intolerable ventilation; lounges and dining rooms badly furnished, poorly lighted and generally ill-equipped.” These buildings were not intended to serve as club quarters, so they didn’t do that job particularly well. As Louis Sullivan famously said of architecture, “Form ever follows function.” And that’s where the Shinnecock clubhouse’s architect, a contemporary of Sullivan’s, makes his entrance.

Stanford White—of the preeminent Beaux Arts architecture firm McKim, Mead & White—designed the building. He brought light and air into its social interiors and provided enough space for dozens of people to move freely about in private areas as they changed clothes, took showers, and relaxed. White’s guiding notion, though somewhat untested, proved true: a newly constructed clubhouse, built with the golfer in mind, could add enormous value to a golf club. Rather than just a waystation, it could be a gathering place for members. In this sense, Shinnecock Hills may have been the birthplace of “the hang.”

No doubt White’s American Renaissance-style design is stately, but it’s also relatively modest. Compare it to another McKim, Mead & White design from the same era: the Vanderbilt mansion named Woodlea, which later became the clubhouse for Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Whereas Woodlea was designed for the needs of a wealthy socialite and only later adapted to the uses of a club, the Shinnecock clubhouse has no ballroom, no servants’ quarters, no elaborate gardens. It’s a functional building made for golfers.

The clubhouse was even more modest initially: the 44 founding members raised about $8,000 to build it (roughly the equivalent of $225,000 today). But as golf took off in the 1890s, they decided to expand the facilities before hosting the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1896. The renovations effectively doubled the size of the clubhouse. The 12-hole layout soon grew to 18 holes (known as the White course, for men), and a nine-hole course was added for women (the Red course). After second and third expansions in 1903 and 1913, the approximately 24,000-square-foot clubhouse took the form it retains to this day.

A postcard from the early 1900s, published by the Long Island News Company

The life and death of a great American architect

Stanford White had a golden touch, an uncanny knack for dreaming up buildings that would stand the test of time. Based in Manhattan, White designed many famous structures around the turn of the 20th century, including the Boston Public Library, the Washington Square Arch, and the Rosecliff mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. A hands-on architect, he was noted for incorporating interior design into his services. He was also a colorful figure, to say the least—a tall, ginger socialite described by newspapers as “burly yet boyish,” he lived flamboyantly and enjoyed a fairly open sex life with many partners.

When the Shinnecock clubhouse opened, White was just over 40, and his name and firm were on the rise. He went on to oversee the first two clubhouse expansions as well. But only a few years later, White was murdered.

On a June night in 1906, White was killed by Henry Thaw, the millionaire husband of Evelyn Nesbit, a model-actress with whom White had an affair. Thaw approached White on the roof of Madison Square Garden—the old one, which White had designed—during a theatrical performance. Eyewitness accounts claimed that Thaw said to White, “You’ve ruined my wife,” before shooting him three times at point-blank range. Although part of White’s face was blown away, many in the audience initially thought it was part of the performance. Such pranks were common at the time. When the playgoers realized that White had in fact been murdered, they went into hysterics.

Newspapers referred to the trial as “The Trial of the Century. (To be fair, the century was only six years old at that point.) Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to an insane asylum.

The eccentric architect Stanford White. This photo was taken in 1892, soon after White designed the Shinnecock clubhouse. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The legacy of the Shinnecock Hills clubhouse

When he died at the age of 52, Stanford White’s significance in the history of architecture was already established. His work at Shinnecock Hills is just one example of his impact. White’s clubhouse demonstrated the benefits of new, purpose-built construction for golf clubs. As the sport continued to gain ground among the well-heeled classes, so did the demand for buildings that suited the particular needs of golfers, and that contributed to the overall feel and cohesiveness of a club and its course. In other words, White helped start a new architectural genre: the American golf clubhouse.

Shinnecock also influenced the style of new homes in the Hamptons. While there were some shingle-style private homes on the tip of Long Island before 1892, this clubhouse was high on a hill, permanently on display to train passengers. Its exterior features—wide verandas, fluted columns, palladium windows, gables, and weathered shingles—became the essence of elegant architecture in the area. In fact, McKim, Mead & White replicated the style for residential country homes so often that similar buildings are often misattributed to the firm.

A view of the clubhouse from the left rough of the 9th hole. The 9th green sits about 80 feet from the clubhouse. Photo credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

The Shinnecock Hills clubhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, and it underwent a major restoration by the firm Rogers McCagg in 2016. A kitchen, bar, pantry, basement, and women’s locker room (which USGA executive director Mike Davis used as his office during the 2018 U.S. Open) were added. In many ways, the history of the clubhouse mirrors that of the golf course: four expansions in the early days as the game and the club grew, followed by decades of sustained character. Finally, in the past few years, both have undergone careful restorations and expansions. These twin stories of design demonstrate how a club can honor its past while outfitting itself for the future.

Jim Sitar is a writer, editor, and teacher. He runs the Instagram accounts @golfclubhouses and @golfjunkdrawer.

The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series presents golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.

Banner photo credit: Rogers McCagg Architects