2005: Raiders of a lost art

By Bradley S. Klein and Michael A. Boslet

North Hills, Pa.

At LuLu Country Club, two members of the committee that coordinated the restoration of the 1918 Donald Ross design proudly show a visitor some reclaimed bunkers. They point to an oddly shaped sand hazard short and left of the seventh green and heap praise upon architect Ron Forse and contractor Jim Deemer for the meticulous care they took in reviving the long-lost bunkers. When the visitor questions the odd, elbow-shaped bend in a corner of a bunker, one of the members, Steve Sayers, says, “Well, that’s the way it was on the aerial, so they went with it.”

Sayers and fellow committee member John Filmyer, the green chairman at LuLu, clearly love their golf course. They are proud it has been restored nearly to its original look, thanks to tree management, bunker reclamation and the restoration of fairway widths and shapes of putting surfaces.

All of that work, not just that quirky bunker at the seventh hole, was made possible because the club had access to rare photographic records that showed club members exactly how the course looked soon after it opened. One result of all of their research is a bound booklet they created with old newspaper articles, aerials taken from the mid-1920s to the late ’30s, and Forse’s hole-by-hole restoration plans.

“Historic photography,” says Forse, “is indispensable. It’s the No. 1 tool for restoration, even more important than the architect’s original drawings.”

That’s a pretty strong statement from the normally understated course architect based in Hopwood, Pa. But with 18 years in the business and a resume that includes more than 70 restorations, including many courses designed by Ross, William S. Flynn, A.W. Tillinghast and William Langford, Forse is an expert on using historical records to recapture the old-style ways. Forse also is experienced in restoration, having worked on such Golfweek top-100 Classic courses as Salem (Mass.) Country Club (No. 42); Newport (R.I.) Country Club (No. 48); Lawsonia’s Links Course (No. 61) in Green Lake, Wis.; Philadelphia Country Club (No. 72); Lehigh Country Club (No. 77) in Allentown, Pa.; Manufacturers Golf & Country Club (No. 88) in Oreland, Pa., and Rolling Green Country Club (No. 93) in Springfield, Pa.

It helps to have original design plans, but, as Forse points out, “plans on paper didn’t always translate into how the course was actually built.” At LuLu, the lack of documents was offset by an unusually rich mine of aerial imagery that showed how the course looked in its early years.

For the archive of photographed flyovers, Forse and others involved in LuLu’s restoration were grateful to an obscure aerial photographer named J. Victor Dallin. His images of 135 golf courses are cataloged in a research library in Wilmington, Del., and they are quickly becoming valuable references to skilled restorationists like Forse. To bring back the past, it’s best to know what it looked like.

Dallin, a pioneer aviator and an avid golfer, provided a historical link to golf course architecture. Born in 1897 in England, he flew for the Royal Air Force during World War I. After the war, he settled in Philadelphia, where from 1924 to 1941 he ran Dallin Aerial Surveys Co. He later became manager of the Philadelphia Airport, then was director of aeronautics for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He retired, appropriately enough, to the Pinehurst, N.C., area, where he died in 1991.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Philadelphia-based golf course architect Flynn occasionally accompanied Dallin on flights. With a dozen courses in the area, Flynn had personal interest in viewing his routings from above. Dallin’s normal vantage point of 1,000 to 4,000 feet above the ground provided a unique perspective from which to see terrain, routing, bunker patterns, trees and angles of play. Dallin’s work took him up and down the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

Today, the Victor Dallin Aerial Survey Collection consists of 13,600 images and is housed at the privately funded Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington.

The Dallin collection is not the only repository of old aerials of classic layouts. On the other side of the United States is an aerial archive that is to the West what Dallin’s work is to the East.

While Paul J. Ramina was superintendent at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. (No. 24, Classic list) from 1998 to 2002, he found high-quality historic aerial photography of his course at the Fairchild Aerial Photography Collection at Whittier (Calif.) College. The 500,000 images at the Fairchild were taken from 1927 to 1965 by Fairchild Aerial Surveys Inc. They focus on Southern California and the Southwest, and include something from every state except Delaware and Hawaii. According to Stephanie Breaux, director of the collection, most users of the collection are geologists, engineers and environmentalists. But since 2000, she says, the collection has been visited with growing frequency by golf course researchers.

Ramina, now superintendent of Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, N.J., says the images he found of Riviera date to 1928 and complemented the ground photography his club had.

“They had some really high-up photos showing the whole property,” he says of Fairchild, “then others that were closer.”

Armed with photos at a scale of 1 inch being equal to 400 feet, the club put together composites, or mosaics, to show greater detail of old bunkers and split fairways.

Eye in the sky

Not all aerials of classic layouts are cataloged away in a collection, conveniently awaiting discovery. Finding old aerials often takes the skill of a professional snoop.

As a hobby, retired National Security Agency cryptanalyst (code word for code breaker) Craig Disher searches for images of classic layouts that were unintentionally photographed by aerial photographers working for the U.S. government. Disher, who worked for the NSA in Fort Meade, Md., for 31 years, has discovered dozens of images containing golf courses built during the Golden Age of design (1920s to 1930s).

At the Cartographic and Architectural Records section in the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration in College Park, Md., Disher scans microfilm reels of images taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the War Department (the predecessor of the Department of Defense). The images, taken between the mid-1930s and the early 1950s, show only plots of land. Disher says the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service provides the best aerial collection, indexed by county and state, for tracking down classic golf courses. After copying archived images with a digital camera, Disher consults an atlas and Web-based MapQuest to confirm the identity of a course.

Among Disher’s finds are images from 1945 of The Misquamicut Club in Westerly, R.I. The original plans for Misquamicut, a coastline course built by Ross in 1923, showed only the routing and relative positions of tees, fairways and greens, with no bunkers or green shapes indicated. Misquamicut superintendent Bill Morton, CGCS, says the photo “was very helpful” during the planning of irrigation work and other long-term projects. Morton adds that the photo “gave the green chairman and the green committee all kinds of things to talk about, such as the shape of putting surfaces and migration or disappearance of bunkers.”

Disher says he has worked on about 20 requests for old photos of courses. But it was curiosity that led to his greatest discovery – an aerial of the original Lido Club in Lido Beach, N.Y.

Built in 1914 by Charles Blair Macdonald, the Lido was an engineering marvel of its time, with 2 million cubic yards of earth moved. The course was closed in 1939. “Nobody has ever seen it before from the air,” Disher says. “I just went through reels and reels” looking for an aerial of the course. “It took several days.”

The National Archive and the Fairchild Collection consist of direct vertical look-down photography, much of it in high resolution. In some cases, Disher has juxtaposed side-by-side images shot in the same sequence to obtain a three-dimensional perspective, thereby ascertaining vertical relief, depth and slope.

Dallin’s aerial imagery was at lower altitudes, on an oblique angle. That can distort the relative size and slope of features, but it also can provide a more realistic perspective from a single image that helps observers grasp the extent of architectural detail. In the case of LuLu, Dallin’s series of photographs provided multiple perspectives on old bunkers and fairway corridors that had been lost or overgrown by trees.

Finding the imagery is no simple matter. Much time is needed to dig through collections. Architects and superintendents serious about investing that kind of time, however, believe the research can make a difference when trying to persuade boards or members to restore features that once were part of their courses.

Mark Fine, a golf course design consultant based in Allentown, Pa., says the many hours needed to dig up archival photography prove worthwhile when he presents restoration plans to clubs.

“It’s a powerful tool,” he says of aerial records. “Much more powerful than the memory of the oldest member, who has been there for 40 years at his 80-year-old club.”

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