The found­ing and the fu­ture of Den­ver’s City Park Golf Course

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Henry Dubroff

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.

He­len H. Richard­son, Den­ver Post file

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

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