The founding and the future of Denver’s City Park Golf Course
The story of City Park Golf Course begins with a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Bendelow. Hired as a typesetter at the New York Herald in 1892, he soon quit to pursue an entrepreneurial dream.
An excellent golfer with a flair for innovation, he joined a fledgling industry that hoped to serve America’s growing thirst for leisure activities. He’s often cited as being the nation’s first golf-course architect, the inventor of the tee time and a pioneer in golf instruction.
Working for A.G. Spalding & Brothers and others, Bendelow would design more than 600 golf courses and become known as the Johnny Appleseed of American golf.
In 1913, the budget-minded Bendelow walked the 136-acre site of a former dairy and laid out the City Park Golf Course
with an economical design that took advantage of mountain views. It is a style that respected the natural landscape, reflecting the philosophy of Frederick Law Olmstead, America’s great park designer.
City Park’s small, steeply angled greens, long par three holes and consecutive par fives to begin the back nine are the signatures of a Bendelow design.
Undervalued for decades as links grew more elaborate, Bendelow golf courses and their old-school features are gaining new respect in the 21st century. In their 2011 book “Golf in Denver,” authors Rob Mohr and Leslie Mohr Krupa wrote that “his work is being reviewed more favorably in light of his minimalist philosophy.”
Bendelow’s reputation is rising just as Denver is poised to disrupt the course and its landscape. A proposed stormwater drainage project will trigger closing and rebuilding of the course, a plan that’s the subject of a lawsuit that survived its first legal test on Nov. 21. Denver officials repeatedly have stated that City Park will be “a better course” when the proposed project is completed. Whether the Bendelow design will survive remains unknown.
At a “Cabinet in the Communi- ty” meeting at Cole High School on Nov. 19, Mayor Michael Hancock asked attendees for a few extra minutes to talk about how the city would defy any overreach by administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Forward surged a group of 20 protesters, holding petitions with 2,500 signatures against the closing of City Park Golf Course. Hancock accepted the petition but rejected the petitioners’ request for an open discussion. The irony of the situation was that a mayor was fending off a citizen groundswell while trying to fend off the consequences of a stunning election reversal.
Later, Hancock engaged the protesters one-on-on, in defense of his plan to reconstruct City Park and create a stormwater retention area, part of a megaproject that would bury a portion of Intestate 70, cover it and redevelop the National Western Stock Show complex. The city’s position, he repeated, is straightforward. The golf course will remain a golf course. The engineers say this is the only way forward. We need to protect against a 100-year flood.
Hanging on the walls of the club house at City Park is a clip from a 1960s edition of The Denver Post. It states that Denver District Court Judge James C. Flanigan was barred from playing in a Denver golf championship because the East Denver Golf Club, where he was a member, was not recognized by the Colorado Golf Association.
Flanigan was black and the East Denver Golf Club, whose home course was City Park, was a black golfing organization that had been denied membership in the CGA. After The Post’s story appeared, the CGA had a change of heart. Flanigan played the next year.
We know about the East Denver Golf Club, in large part, because Tom Woodard, a PGA professional and former director of golf for Denver, preserved the club’s materials when a longtime member who collected them became gravely ill. Woodard, a graduate of Manual High School and the University of Colorado, was the first black golfer to be named an NCAA All-American.
The 20th century history of City Park is closely entwined with The Great Migration, when some 6 million African-Americans moved to the North and West in search of a better life. The photos on the walls of the clubhouse demonstrate how the East Denver Golf Club played an important role in the post-World War II era.
Some plans have called for demolishing City Park’s clubhouse, just 14 years old, and moving it to the center of the course. What happens to the archived materials about the East Denver Golf Club remains another open question.
Woodard is now director of golf for the Foothills Parks and Recreation Department, and when I talked to him over the phone he said the story of the East Denver Golf Club must be part of City Park’s future. “The historical material is critical, critical,” he said.
Central to the debate about City Park Golf Course is the Park to Park Hill project, a stormwater diversion that’s being required to meet storm draining needs for the mega-project to bury a portion of I-70 and expand the National Western complex.
This means managing the flow of water north and west from Park Hill to the Platte River and protecting the buried highway from a potential 100-year flood.
The estimated $200 million cost will be paid by Denver property owners who’ve been paying fees based on water runoff surface area; skeptics call this a “rain tax.”
In his legal challenge to the plan to tap the rain tax millions, former Colorado Attorney General John D. MacFarlane argued that using the golf course for purposes other than parkland isn’t allowed under the city charter and that the public could be damaged by closing and rebuilding the course.
On Nov. 21, Denver District Court Judge Michael J. Vallejos rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case. He wrote that MacFarlane’s “allegations in the complaint are sufficient” to proceed to trial.
Meanwhile, the city is soliciting proposals for the City Park redesign, with closure set for 2018-19. One innovative solution that may or may not be considered is leaving the historically important surface of City Park intact and creating reservoirs underground. Another option might be for the city to acquire Park Hill Golf Course and use it for stormwater retention.
The Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation noted the threat to City Park Golf Course in a recent article in its publication Landslide. Author Jacqueline Lansing wrote that the biggest beneficiaries would not be park users but the highway expansion and related projects.
Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum said in a phone interview that Denver pioneered the idea of a multiple-property nomination when it entered City Park and its golf course in an application for historic designation in 1986. Other cities, including Indianapolis, have followed.
He acknowledged the stormwater plan is complex, but said including City Park Golf Course raises an important civic issue. “When you start to chip away at a larger cultural narrative, where do you draw the line?” he asked.
The city is gearing up for a legal fight, moving ahead with plans and getting bulldozers ready. But the groundswell of protest is real and the fate of a city landmark hangs in the balance.
Golfer Dane Jessen of Denver follows his shot after teeing off of Hole 8 at City Park Golf Course. Golfer Dane Jessen of Denver follows his shot after teeing off of Hole 8 at City Park Golf Course. Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post file