The view from the South Shore Country Club was like that of Janus, the Roman god with two faces. It depended upon which way members looked.
Hugging the shoreline at 71st Street, the 58-acre club offered stunning views of Lake Michigan, unchanged since the days when Native Americans hunted and trapped there. On the land side, it faced a residential neighborhood that borrowed the club's name, two decades after the club's1906 founding.
The South Shore neighborhood was, like much of Chicago, a place where ethnic groups came and went. Yet above the club's porte-cochere, its arched entrance way, was a sign proclaiming that the South Shore Country Club was: "For Members Only."
Until it closed in 1974, the club was, in the coded language of the time, "restricted."
"Remember that this was a private club in its time and if you were black or Jewish, forget about it," a Chicago Park District official told the Tribune in 1984, when the club was renovated, prior to reopening as the South Shore Cultural Center. "People who have never been here before will walk in and realize they are in the Taj Mahal."
The club was worthy of such hyperbole. The main clubhouse, built in the then-tony Mediterranean Revival style, featured a cavernous main dining room and grand ballroom joined by a "passaggio," a broad and towering corridor. It was so long that three orchestras could play in different parts of the clubhouse without interfering with each other.
At its closing, the Tribune recalled Everett Brown, the club's president in 1916, describing a New Year's Eve gala: "Filled with nearly 3,000 of the most exquisitely gowned women and their escorts all in evening dress, each one wearing an attractive carnival headdress in celebration of the occasion." Brown estimated that partygoers wore finery and jewelry collectively worth $2 million ($49 million in today's dollars).
The South Shore Country Club was the brainchild of Lawrence Heyworth, a banker and president of the Chicago Athletic Club. Recalling his inspiration, Heyworth said that he envisioned the country club as a place where members could "enjoy dining and wining in a beautiful place out in the country instead of having to resort to dives and saloons, which at that time were about the only suburban places."
At first, Heyworth had trouble convincing others of his logic. Chicago's movers and shakers were confirmed urbanities. The upper levels of the upper crust lived on Prairie Avenue, a mansion-lined street 8 miles from Heyworth's club. But he got the presidents of 17 Loop banks to back his purchase of the club's site, which he knew from having taken his children fishing there. Then he convened a meeting of well-heeled South Shore residents who wanted to cash in on the real-estate development the club would spark.
If they didn't join his project, he warned them, they wouldn't get loans for their building projects from the banker-members of his club.
That worked: Membership grew so steadily that the club's original clubhouse had to be replaced by a larger one in 1916. Its facilities came to include a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, a trap-shooting range, lawn-bowling courts and stables, bridle paths and a dressage ring for equestrian members. The club's Horse Show was the high point of Chicago's social season.
Its social register members were held to rules governing decorum and courtesy. In a 1918 issue of the club's magazine, women were reminded to adjust their fur wraps before their chauffeur stopped at the clubhouse entrance. Otherwise, the resulting backup of cars would consign other members to unconscionable waiting times.
Yet good taste, as we now know it, didn't impede the cast and director of the members' annual Minstrel Follies. In 1945, the Tribune noted that the show would include, presumably by popular demand, a revival of "Skull Orchard, a blackface skit."
In 1920, the club added a band shell to its music venues. On summer evenings, members would gather on the great lawn to hear celebrated bands of the day. Also listening would be residents of tall apartment buildings that had been erected just across South Shore Drive from the club.
Among the orchestras that played for cotillions and dress balls was one led by Paul Whiteman, who blended jazz and symphonic music, bridging black and white musical forms.
Other name performers stayed in the club's luxurious guest rooms while playing Chicago area theaters and ballrooms. Bing Crosby brought his family there during an appearance at the Drury Lane theater. Hollywood's Dick Powell and Joan Blondell honeymooned at the South Shore Country Club. Jean Harlow, a superstar of the silent film era, was a guest, as were the cowboy philosopher Will Rogers and Amelia Earhart, a pioneering aviator.
A fading age of European royalty was represented by King Peter of Yugoslavia and Queen Marie of Romania. Homegrown notables included former President (and future Supreme Court Chief Justice) William Howard Taft.
The club reached its high point of a little more than 2,000 members in 1953. By then its composition had changed: The Yankee-stock founders had died off and were being replaced by Irish-Americans, forcing remaining old-timers to forgo their qualms about socializing with Catholics.
Pat O'Brien, Hollywood's perennial Irishman, in town for a 1967 Irish Fellowship dinner, was interviewed in his country club suite by Tribune columnist David Condon. Condon later wrote the club's obituary.
"South Shore Country Club was where it was at," Condon observed in 1974. "Particularly after weddings, after funerals. There you shared your happiness and your sadness."
By then, the neighborhood's demographics had changed again. Blacks moved in and whites moved on. Crime increased, and grates appeared on shop windows. Residents who could afford a club membership were the quickest to go. Membership had declined to 800 when Condon wrote.
"More of the regulars wintered in Florida," Condon observed. "Some evenings you couldn't find a monsignor in the house."
Yet the club declined its potential salvation: opening the club to Jews and blacks. In 1969, its president informed the board that there were no plans "to lower the bars and relax the qualifications for membership."
In 1975, the club sold its property to the Chicago Park District. Years of squabbling followed over what to do with the site. Park District officials weren't eager to spend money on the clubhouse and athletic facilities. Maintenance had been neglected as the club's revenues shrank.
"Ironically, blacks — many of whom are now fighting to preserve the structures — were barred from the grounds except to work," the Tribune's Editorial Board observed.
In the end, the neighborhood won. The buildings and grounds were renovated and now house the South Shore Cultural Center, which hosts jazz festivals, art exhibitions and lectures. Michelle and Barack Obama held their 1992 wedding reception there.
More recently, a daughter of mine was married on the property's great lawn under a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy. Black families picnicking nearby were transfixed. Offering congratulations, they said they'd never seen such a ceremony.
All in all, victory in the fight over the country club's remains went to a neighborhood resident who confronted a park official at a community meeting. According to the Tribune's report, the bureaucrat was pushing for downsizing the fairways.
"This community doesn't want a par-three golf course," the man said. "What was good enough for the millionaires is good enough for us."