Grosse Pointe Club History

  • 1923 - 1990
    • On land adjacent to what was then the Country Club of Detroit, the present site of Rose Terrace, was a church fronting Jefferson Avenue - the predecessor of Memorial Church. Arranged in a semi-circle behind the church were summer cottages and a road leading down to the lake. In the early 1920's, Mr. Cooper Wood and other occupants of these cottages were displeased to learn that the Country Club intended to relocate inland next to their newly purchased golf course and believed that there was a need to maintain a club with access to the water. Moreover, when the Albert Kahn designed Country Club opened in 1923 (before burning to the ground in 1925) the clubhouse cost $497,000. So it was in contrast to the "big" Country Club and its golf course that the founding members proceeded to plan their "Little Club".
       
      The Grosse Pointe Club was fanned in 1923 with temporary headquarters in the "Dayton Cottage" - one of several on the property. The Club's bylaws envisioned 150 regular or voting members (who held stock in the affiliated land company), and 100 associate or non-voting members. The stock was capitalized at $300,000 and by September 1923, about $62,300 had been paid in.
       
      From its inception, the Club was designed to provide boating, athletic, and socia1 activities for the membership. The minutes of the Board of Governors indicate that tennis courts were in use by the summer of 1925 and that more than 1600 visits to the swimming pool had been recorded; a pool originally attached to the Hackett cottage. The year 1926 was to see work completed on a permanent dock and on April 23, Mr. Henry Ploennis was hired as the first Club manager. In June, the Club burgee was chosen from among several designs submitted and by October the Club boasted a membership of 142 regular and 68 associate members.
       
      The present clubhouse was the result of an architectural competition arranged by the firm of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in December 1925. The Board requested that construction costs not exceed $225,000 and selected Mr. Robert O. Derrick, a prominent residential architect and designer of the Henry Ford Museum. The relationship between architect and Club must have been a happy one because Mr. Derrick later served on the Club's board for several years in the 1930's. Work progressed rapidly as bids were promised by May, 1926 and the opening of the new clubhouse was set for February 1, 1927.
       
      It is the harbor which gives the Club its distinction and beginning in 1927 the first delivery of what would become a fleet of 15 individually owned Canadian C Class sloops arrived. Club member Mr. Dexter Ferry described how the first shipment of 8 boats reached Windsor by steamship and each was hoisted over the side of the vessel about 2:00 a.m. one summer evening and attached to a tow line. The cleat of the small cruiser pulling the little flotilla broke as they moved up the Detroit River and there was a mad scramble to grab the low line to avert complete disaster. Once safely in home port several of the new owners were not experienced sailors and a seven-page operations manual was distributed to prevent emergency rescues. Club races were soon organized and these boats often participated in competitions sponsored by the Detroit River Yachting Association. Dockmaster Mr. George Ostergard began teaching a handful of members' sons to sail.
       
      Music was a common theme in the Club's early days and in April 1927, the House Committee voted to employ an orchestra on successive Saturdays - an idea which had to be postponed for a month because of the opening of the rehabilitated Country Club. The London String Quartet visited the Club that year and the next year musicians from the DSO were present.
       
      By 1929, the squash courts were heavily used, pool and tennis courts were reported to be very popular and a "games room" was furnished. The first assessment of $100 "payable in equal monthly installments of $25" was levied in April for protection of the yacht basin, creation of additional slips, and clubhouse improvements. A fund of $40,000 had been set up for decorating the clubhouse, supplemental to the construction account. Mrs. Edwin H. Brown, wife of a founding member, took charge of design and furnishings. Most of the existing fine furniture and the installation of the French wallpaper in the Governors' Room must date from this period. The wallpaper was made by Jean Zuber in 1834 and is identical to that hung in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House during the Kennedy administration. We wish more was known of the social calendar but one firm event was the scheduled "movie pictures on the lake" and fireworks set for July 4.
       

  • The Depression & War Years
    • The depression hit hard. Pre-war membership peaked in the summer of 1930 when the Club attained 154 regular and 108 associate members. But seventeen members resigned in 1931 and by 1933 there were another 25 resignations and four deaths against one new member joining. Twenty-one employees including the manager were requested to take pay cut of 15-20%. Several members pledged their stock in the Club against payment of dues.
       
      For a time in 1933, Mr. Ploennis operated the Club on a concession basis­ paying for supplies, heat, lights, and water on his own and making collections from members as he was able. During this period, what is now the Club manager's apartment was occupied by the David Whitney family consisting of mother, son Charles, his governess, and all tended daily by the family chauffeur. In I 934, the subscribed stock in the Club was recapitalized from $350,000 down to $87,500 since the "sales value of the property would be little more than the principal amount of the mortgage". Other clubs had it worse. During the winter of 1932-33, the Country Club closed because of high operating expenses and moved all social activities to the financially struggling Hunt Club.
       
      The Grosse Pointe Club responded to these events as best it could. Initiation fees and dues were halved and former members could use the dock, pool and courts for a seasonal fee of $25 plus a per hour or per diem charge for courts and pool. In fact, for a similar fee in 1934 and 1935 former members could gain reinstatement. And the band played on. In November of 1932, symphony concerts were reported every other Thursday evening and earlier that year the orchestra of the Cranbrook Boys' School provided an entertainment.
       
      Waterfront activity built up in the 1930s. The Walker trophy was transferred from the Country Club since their dock was never constructed. This award was a gift of Mr. Hiram Walker to promote interest in yachting among members. In 1935, Commodore Dr. Alpheus F. Jennings proposed a Yachting Committee in part because the Club's name had been omitted from Lloyd's Registry of American Yachts due to a failure to furnish a list of flag officers. He and his father, Dr. C. G. Jennings, were primary leaders of our sailing activities in the first few years. In 1937, the Yachting Committee accepted the idea of holding a DRYA regatta scheduled for September 4, 5 and 6. Perhaps most significant to the future of sailing was the impending arrival of 9 Vineyard Haven sailboats, as reported by Commodore John B. Stroh in May 1939. The boats were 21 feet in length, with a beam of 5'9" and were described as having a small, watertight, self-boating cockpit, although some had an open cockpit. Moreover, the owners stipulated that these boats may be used by "youthful members of the Club members' households ...in order to promote interest in sailing". By the 1940 season, Commodore John B. Ford, Jr., could report that 38 members were boat owners and maintained boats at the Club, that 65 members were users of boats belonging to the Club, and that 46 children had been instructed in sailing.
       
      A glimpse of Club life in the late 1930's is provided by the appointment of Mrs. Charles A. Dean, Jr., as chairman of a rejuvenated Entertainment Committee. Her program for the fall of 1938 called for weekly Thursday dances, weekly bridge lessons, and regular maintenance of the skating rink. She continued a tradition of hiring dancing structures in the fall and asked that Friday night dances be instituted with an annual "feather party" in November. A less formal activity to draw the attention of the board was a complaint that members paying for the orchestra to prolong dances past 1:30 a.m. did not compensate the Club for utilities or service. And in 1939, the swimming pool attendant was given authority to suspend swimming privileges when sons of members and sons of guests were reported throwing furniture and other objects into the pool. Ah, the timeless enthusiasm of youth.
       
      The Club entered the war years in better financial shape with solid revenues, a refinanced mortgage, and with dues back to a level where they had started. Overnight guests could be accommodated in three separate cottages until 1940 when two were razed - the third remained available for another ten years with a permanent tenant and two apartments. For a time during this period, the apartment in the Clubhouse was leased by Hiram H. Walker. In January, 1942, the Club manager was instructed to reduce operating expenses by 20%. The Board later noted the difficulties "encountered due to rationing and constant changes in personnel". Members of the armed services were able to join without initiation fees and annual dues of $60. Preparing for a long war, the Chairman of the House Committee recommended increasing the liquor inventory by $3,000. Otherwise, the work of the Club went forward with paddle tennis courts proposed in 1942 and tennis and swimming instructors hired for the 1943 season.
        
      The return to peace brought attention to need for rehabilitating Club facilities. A pamphlet dated March 11, 1946 requested a vote from each member and outlined the extensive work needed for the dock, kitchen, terrace, Clubhouse, and pool. With the exception of the Olympic sized pool proposed to be constructed between the Clubhouse and the lake, the other improvements were agreed upon by a margin of 132 in favor to 28 "no's" and with eight responses unclear. To pay for all this, assessments were levied to all members and attached to initiation fees as well. In 1947, an architect was hired to submit plans for enclosing the porch of the Club and the project was completed the next year.
       

  • Middle Age: The 1950s & 1960s
    • Social life at the Club in the 1950s responded to the American "baby boom" and expanded the incorporation of family activities. The Chairman of the Entertainment Committee proposed a summer children's party for July 2, 1949; apparently the root of our present program. In 1953 a dancing party for young people was approved every other Friday for 14 weeks. And in 1958 a teenage Christmas party was planned for December 21 to which Country Club Juniors would be invited as well. Of course, the spirit of youth was not to be embraced uncritically. A cryptic reference in the Board minutes of June 14, 1954, states, "The Entertainment Committee reported a request that the Club have a 'Jam Session' (sic). After a discussion revealing the nature of this form of activity, it was determined not to be an entertainment suitable for Club sponsorship."
       
      Yachting activities included sponsorship of the annual Regatta, the annual meeting, and beginning in 1959, the presentation of the John Buel Warren, Jr., Memorial Trophy to the outstanding Junior Sailor. Of the original 11 Vineyard Haven boats, only seven remained in commission by 1951. These were gradually superseded by 9 Luders L-16 plywood sloops. In 1955, these boats were used in the Mallory Trophy Series competition. The Mallory Cup inaugurated in 1952 is regarded by many as the greatest sailing event in the United States. Commodore Ledyard Mitchell, Jr., advocated that a sailing master be hired for promoting sailing particularly among the children of members and by 1957, 33 children were enrolled in the Junior program. That year the boys' team placed 2nd in the Interlake class, the girls' team placed 2nd in the Vineyard Haven class, and the DRYA awarded the Club the Sutton Trophy.
       
      New changing rooms and the pool house were constructed in 1954 -the latter in part to answer a parent's complaint that "the young eat too expensively". Throughout the decade the Board was preoccupied with improvements to the dock and harbor, membership, finances, and labor - reluctantly voting to close the Club on Tuesdays as well as Mondays beginning in July, 1957. Trap and skeet shooting in winter off the dock was successfully launched in the mid-1950s but did not last. More enduring was the use of the Country Club facilities in March when the GPC closed, a tradition dating from 1950. Use of the Little Club in February was not reciprocated until 1971 as the Country Club attempted to remain open year-round.
       
      Club life in the early 1960s remained proprietary to the outside world, as a national magazine found out when its request to obtain photographs of the Club and its activities was denied. But to those within, it was full of activity. Regular membership stood at 265 in 1962, having been raised from 250 to 275 places in 1953. Beginning in 1960, Mr. Lloyd R. Marentette's revived Activities Committee fleshed out an exhaustive calendar of events including a Tennis Ball in May, a special July lawn dance with two orchestras (guests consuming 274 steaks in 1961), followed by dances with orchestra in August, September (2), October (2), November, and December. The Christmas party for children featured Santa, in the person of Mr. John B. Ford III, arriving by helicopter. The "Hidden Harbor" activities date from 1963 and were scheduled every Friday night from the first week of July to mid-September with attendance averaging 80 persons each. Revenues of the Club were bolstered by private functions such as debutante dances. Addressing this point in 1968, the Board requested that "any private party inconveniencing the members more than a few days" must obtain Board approval.
       
      The facilities received special attention during the decade. Air conditioning to the Clubhouse and a terrazzo top to the outside dance floor was added in 1961. The paddle tennis courts were torn down in the spring of 1964 and were reconstructed later on the same site. In the fall of 1966, the Board agreed to install a new swimming pool to meet new state regulations on water filtration and Health Department requirements. The pool with dimensions of 75' by 35' lasted through the 1989 season. And of course, renovations were made to the interior of the Clubhouse with improvements to the main entrance and extensively to the infrastructure of water pumping, septic and sewage systems.
       
      On the waterfront, Commodore Ayers Morison in 1962 recommended the construction of new boat wells as the Club maintained 60 slips of which only 36 could be considered adequate. He estimated that in the next season there would be 64 boats owned by members. This issue was resolved when boat owners paid 3-year fees in advance. In 1968, the Yachting Committee elected to install separate electric meters for the three yachts in which ship personnel were living aboard. That same August the Club sponsored the Mallory Cup Regatta.
       
      The decade closed with a solid membership base of 243 regular members, another 44 in the new category of "intermediate" created in 1962, and a total in all categories of 405. It would appear from this healthy number and its extensive activities that the Club had been spared- the turmoil affecting the larger society. This tranquility was not to last into the 1970s. The resignation of Mrs. Nell LePla Zalut as Club Manager in May, 1969 seems an appropriate end to this chapter of the Club's history. She had taken over two years before on the death of her husband, Mr. W. F. LePla, who had managed the Club since 1953.

       
  • Modern Times: The 1970s & 1980s
    • Club usage was notably curtailed as the 1970s opened. The Club manager's report for 1969 indicated a perceptible decline for that year in comparison with the preceding three years for both private parties and Club membership activities. The pattern was repeated in 1970 with reservations for private parties "way below" the previous year. The Governors Ball recorded successively lower turnouts and in 1971 it was canceled altogether because of lack of interest. The two Hidden harbor parties in November 1970 attracted only 55 and 60 when 95 were needed to break even.
       
      The Club's Board tracked this trend carefully, noting in 1972 that the number of meals served had declined by 13% and that labor costs had zoomed up to represent 53% of total expense. By 1976, total membership was down to 315 representing a 22% drop from 1969 and a substantial loss in revenue.
      Prudent decisions were made and the Club was kept on a sound financial footing. Club activities were adjusted, but the Thursday and Sunday night buffets were maintained until 1980. In 1974, the Governors' Ball attracted 104 participants, a "Mid-East" party was enjoyed by 50, the Christmas dinner dance was judged "a success" and the Mike Carney orchestra was contracted for the following year. In October of 1975, a monthly calendar was sent out in lieu of individual notices of activities.
       
      It must have occurred to many on the Board in this period that social styles and demographics of Club life had changed drastically. Gone were the frequent dances that had brightened each season. In 1978, the Board indicated that the Governors' Ball had shown consistent losses since 1973 and voted to discontinue this tradition. With the passing of charity balls and debutante presentations, outside sources of revenue withered. Ultimately, the revenue stream dictated available options.
       
      Just as the late 1970s brought Americans to recognize energy vulnerability and the limits to growth, Club programs began to emphasize a "small is beautiful" theme. The success of the Sports Grill dates from this period. In November and December of 1978, Mr. Gordon Ford, as Chairman of the Activities Committee, initiated a series of fireside buffets which were very well received and continued through the Spring. A review of attendance figures in 1979 indicates a blend of tradition and innovation with 97 dinners served at the Memorial Day Dance, a fireside buffet in early June, and a less well attended Firecracker Dinner Dance on June 30, followed by a Lakeside Cookout on July 1. The shore dinner drew 156 persons that year, but the Splash Party and Alfresco Dinner only 28 and 53 respectively. A Steak Roast attracted 144 diners and the traditional Children's Christmas Party and Christmas Ball did very well. The Christmas Eve Fathers and Sons brunch languished at 61 participants, at least in contrast to I987s turnout of 197.
       
      Membership had stabilized in a range of 300 to 340, or always about 30 members less than Mr. Robert Semple or any of the other membership Chairmen could feel very comfortable with. This issue refocused attention on the Club's finances. The not too happy resolution to the revenue shortfall was to increase dues, as in 1978, '81, and '82, and to levy assessments, as in 1977, '78, '79, and '81. These measures, in combination with the general business recession, had dropped membership to 306 by 1983.
       
      Capital improvements were constrained throughout this period but several projects were undertaken. In 1970, an assessment was levied for a sewer system to drain the entire Club site. The next year the air conditioning was replaced and the Clubhouse redecorated. Lights had been installed in the parking lot in cooperation with the Memorial Church. The upper deck of the pool house was upgraded in 1974. New lighted paddle tennis courts were approved by the Board in 1977, and the existing structure was replaced. The new flagpole was dedicated in May of that year - a gift of Mr. William P. Bonbright.
       
      The Yachting Committee remained active. In 1975, Commodore Ledyard Mitchell, Jr., reported on superseding the Interlake class with Flying Juniors and by early 1977, the fourth Flying Junior was added to the fleet. The regattas continued on an annual basis. In 1976 the Committee recommended that the summer camp become a sailing camp, although the summer day camp was maintained as such and is last mentioned in the minutes of the Board in 1978. Meanwhile, the junior sailing program continued, beginning the 1970's with a sailing instructor and an assistant.
       
      As the Club ended the 1980's, its membership once again had been the beneficiary of changing attitudes and revived interest. Membership numbers stood at 374 - the highest figure in two decades. An extensive facilities improvement program was initiated in 1987 with interior redecorations and renovations of the Clubhouse infrastructure, parts of which had aged badly in the preceding decades. Outside, the wooden deck was reconstructed and strengthened, the paddle tennis courts were rebuilt in 1988 and the swimming pool completely renovated for the 1990 season. The Club calendar indicated that the Activities Committee sponsored twelve seasonal programs to appeal to members and their children. The Junior Sailing program remained active and a Summer Day Camp was revived in 1989. In June of that year, the annual sailing Regatta witnessed a record turnout of vessels while on the moonlit lawn that evening 267 sailors and guests were hosted at dinner. We close this chapter by finding the Club in good order but with the question open on whether it would be prepared for the challenges of the decade ahead.
       

  • The 1990s
    • If a member from the 1930's caught in a time warp wandered back into the Club in 1999, which elements of Club life would be familiar and which have changed? Well, of course the view IS the same; the harbor, swimming, and tennis activities would be recognizable, and the upstairs dining room with its splendid furnishings, formality and burnished wooden floor remain much as they did then. Our visitor would also find comfort at the Club bar, where solitude is respected but a congenial atmosphere invites conversation. However, as we shall see, much has changed in order to preserve the unique Club spirit and yet remain attractive to new members.
       
      Maintaining a country house atmosphere depends on being able to enjoy a mea1, a round of paddle tennis, or a hand of bridge with friends and a family in the assurance that these pleasures will not be interrupted. The Club is in this context a sanctuary, which shields its members from the pressures of routine duties and business concerns. The combination of well-maintained plantings, lake air, colorful harbor, and traditional architecture and furnishings are ingredients creating a sense of separation from the commerce of everyday life. And the attraction and loyalty to the Club from many members is the feeling that it performs this function better than anywhere else.
       
      Our time traveler would acknowledge these qualities without of course knowing the enormous effort which has gone into their enhancement. For in the early and mid-1990's, successive Boards of Governors were required to make choices to see how best to retain the cherished values of Club life as it is known and appreciated and at the same time to appeal to both new and veteran members through an imaginative program and improved services.
      In the early years of the decade, a drop-off in formal dining was noted which was the product of changing demographics and lifestyle. In the past, declining usage was attributed to a recessionary environment but here the number of members, particularly Regular members, had decreased 12% by 1995 from five years before. A consultant was contracted to advise the Board.
       
      Recommendations included the rearrangement of the physical inventory to elicit more member participation and the attraction of younger members who would prove critical to the future of the Club. Dedicated members set to work to implement changes. Most visible was the creation of the screened-in dining porch with canopy and a Lake Level patio, along with a reconfiguration of the Lake Room to serve as the primary dining area for the Marine Bar. Also appealing to younger families was the renovation of what had been the Junior Sailing team room into a children's room with video capabilities. This combination provided yet another venue to attract family and informal dining.
       
      At a less observable level, the process of food delivery was simplified through modifications to the kitchen and its expansion into what had been the Governor's Room. A common menu for formal and informal dining was implemented and the Sports Grill hours and days of operations were increased. The cost issues of meal preparation and expanded participation received attention with worthwhile results.
       
      To support the facilities changes, the program of activities was broadened far beyond what had been primarily a holiday and seasonal calendar. For the millennium year, it has grown to include the reintroduction of summer Harbor Lights cocktail parties, two family bingo events, two ladies' luncheons, the annual visit of Mike Carney, and a number of dances and candlelight dinners to keep every member involved. To maintain this level of frequency requires imagination, leadership, coordination, and follow through.
       
      An added bonus for Club members is the growing list of guest privileges at other Clubs. For many years, the Little Club has enjoyed usage arrangements with local country clubs, notably The Country Club of Detroit, Bayview, and The Grosse Pointe Yacht Club (for a full list, see page titled, "Reciprocal Clubs"). More recently, this outreach has been extended to include reciprocal privileges with the Wianno Club on Cape Cod, the St. Francis Yacht Club on San Francisco Bay, and the Key Largo Anglers Club in the Florida Keys. These Clubs, situated in the country's most prominent vacation destinations, offer a marvelous opportunity to participate in the mainstream of regionally prized institutions.
       
      It should be evident that the endearing qualities of life at the Little Club have been preserved and enriched. Through the attention of members and a willingness of the Board to commit time and capital in venturing forth beyond the safe and the known, the Club has broadened its scope and improved services. In combination, these efforts have multiplied the traditional events of the Christmas and boating seasons, the tennis group now enjoys a series of midweek matches and suppers, and a passenger elevator is in the bid stage. Of crucial importance, new members have been attracted to bring the roster back to levels of the previous decade.
       
      To return to our member of the 1930's, who was last seen leaning against the upstairs bar, a walk down to the shore would reveal a much expanded harbor with slips for 76 boats - many craft much larger than before. The Junior Sailing program now flourishes with the enrollment of 31 students for the 1998 season, and with new purchases of Flying Juniors and Optimist Class boats. The Club received national attention with the sponsorship of the Optimist Dinghy Championship Races in 1990, the High School Championship Race in 1994 and The Grosse Pointe Club Junior Sailing Program itself received the Jack Sutton Trophy for DRYA Program of the Year in 1998. The fall cruise to The Old Club has joined the DRYA Regatta in becoming an annual tradition.
       
      We think our visitor from the past would be pleased with the stewardship observed retaining the right mix of conviviality and formality, tradition and progress. The spirit of the Club might be best articulated by a member's son, age three, who referred to the Club continually as "summer" despite the season. The reference relates to the sporting vigor of the members, the relaxing atmosphere, and the event-like quality of visiting the Clubhouse. We hope from this sketch the reader will comprehend the devotion members have to this small island of tranquility - the special place we call the Little Club.

      History was written, updated and edited by Mr. Douglas Marshall.