How a quick, cost-efficient and effective renovation has put this New Jersey club in much better position to take on “The Donald.”
Tradition and Donald Trump are not usually part of the same thought process. But the deepening shadow of “The Donald” had a direct influence on a recent renovation at Fairmount Country Club in Chatham, N.J. that restored a more traditional look and atmosphere, while at the same time greatly enhancing functionality in step with current and future needs.
The fortunes of Chatham–and Fairmount–have always been tied to New York City, located just 20 or so miles to the east. But where residential and club life in this part of Northern New Jersey once stood in quieter contrast to the high-powered scene across the Hudson River, the two worlds have crashed together in recent years.
“Chatham is in transition,” reports Jim Hoppensteadt, Fairmount’s General Manager. “It’s gone from upper middle class to ‘upper upper’ class. Housing prices, which were already high, have doubled and tripled. It’s become much more of a suburb for the wealthy who work in Manhattan but want to live out of the city.”
To move in on this trend, developers like Trump have expanded their reach into North Jersey, not only for residential and commercial projects, but also to build new clubs. Trump’s new course–a Tom Fazio-designed addition to the Trump National Golf Club portfolio, being built with 15 ‘super-mansions’ at Lamington Farm in Bedminster, N.J.–has combined with others that are being built even farther west of New York City than Chatham to “really change the club landscape in this area,” says Hoppensteadt.
The New Look of Leadership
That change is not confined to new construction, however. The invasion of developers like Trump, along with the area’s soaring property values, has also prompted many established clubs in Northern New Jersey, like Fairmount, to take a hard look at every aspect of their operations.
“[The new competition and transition in demographics] prompted our club’s leaders to think about what we needed to do to keep [Fairmount] positioned as a leading facility in this area, and at the same time make us better able to attract and serve [membership] from among the new class of affluence that is starting to live here,” says Hoppensteadt.
At Fairmount, this self-inspection led to a decision, as 2003 began, to literally give the club an inside-and-out makeover. Internally, the club’s Board made the decision to clean house. A virtually complete turnover of management staff was initiated that culminated (over a year later) with the hiring of Hoppensteadt, who had been with a club in Westchester County, N.Y., an upscale, long-established suburban area north of Manhattan that portended what Chatham and North Jersey were becoming.
At the same time, Fairmount’s Board decided the club needed to be renovated in a fashion that would not only restore a more traditional look and feel to both its exterior and interior, but also expand its ability to serve more members, and their guests, in more ways.
Working “Around” The Issues
The members of Fairmount’s Board didn’t have any difficulty identifying what stood at the “center” of the renovation’s challenge, both outside and in. When it was originally built in the 1960s, the club featured many contemporary design touches that were in vogue at the time–in particular, circular rooms for its central dining and function area
Like many houses, schools, and other single-level structural concepts that became popular during the construction boom of that period, Fairmount also featured a single, extended “carport”-style entrance; a structure on top of its ballroom, reminiscent of the “revolving restaurant” craze of the time, that offered a 360-degree view of the property; and a general reliance on bland, “natural-color” construction materials.
The circular theme was also dominant inside the club, with the ceiling of the main dining room featuring a “half-wagon wheel” formation of dark, heavy wooden beams.
Called in by the Fairmount Board to assess and prescribe remedies for what everyone now acknowledged to be a dated look throughout the club, Peter Behrle, President of the Behrle Group, Verona, N.J., quickly recognized the cause of the symptoms.
“Really good contemporary design can last forever,” says Behrle, whose company offers planning and design services through Behrle Club Consultants. “Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to achieve and probably only happens 10% of the time. When it doesn’t last, it can quickly and easily grow to look out of place, especially in very traditional areas. And believe me, [northern New Jersey] is very traditional.”
Just Needs Some Fresh Paint
Behrle’s company was given the charge of restoring a more traditional look to Fairmount while expanding its functional capacities and also getting it in step with the trend toward separate entrances and facilities for member and guest functions. But the Fairmount Board also set a firm budget (final restoration costs came in under $4 million) and a tight timetable (18 months), ruling out a complete knockdown. This led to an emphasis on finding and executing subtle but effective and resourceful solutions, both inside and out.
For example, when considering how to update the “wagon wheel ceiling” in the club’s main dining room, Gina Behrle, Peter’s wife and Behrle Club Consultants’ Design Director, first thought about trying to remove the wooden beams, but quickly determined that would be cost-prohibitive.
Other options were also considered but in the end it was decided to just extend the room’s existing drop ceiling and paint everything, including the beams, bright white. While the unfinished beams thirstily soaked up several coats of high-gloss paint, this solution was accomplished at a fraction of the cost of other alternatives. And the effect was remarkable. “Everything just kind of blended away and disappeared,” Gina Behrle says.
Similar cost-effective touches were executed elsewhere around and inside Fairmount’s main clubhouse building. The “carport” was replaced with a much more solid and traditional main entrance, primarily by adding more substantial stone and brick pillars and enhancing the front and peak of the entranceway roof. One of the circular rooms was converted into a rectangular ballroom with double the capacity (Fairmount can now accommodate 250 people in the ballroom when the dance floor is in place, and 300 without the floor).
The “roundhouse” roof of the old ballroom was replaced with a much more traditional look, featuring white balcony fencing and stone turrets with green tile roofs. The new shape of the ballroom also greatly improved the functionality of its bar, which had been noticeably inefficient in the circular version. And a separate function entrance was added to the back of the new room, which was finished, along with the rest of the building’s exterior, in a more pleasing color scheme (tan with white trim) that blended well with existing stonework that was retained.
A Complete Circle
In the main dining room, because it would have been cost-prohibitive to remove the beams that formed the wagon-wheel ceiling of the regular member dining room (as well as an existing skylight that was desirable to keep), the circular shape was retained. But this part of the building was also made to look much more traditional, by softening and enhancing the exterior through a number of finish and trim upgrades, and completing remodeling its interior.
More importantly, the capacity and functionality of this room was greatly improved, especially on the lower level, which had previously housed only a small men’s grill. The size of that grill was doubled, and a new bar was added. And at the front of the lower level, a wine cellar was added with an adjacent
meeting room that includes a drop-down projection screen and can comfortably seat 24 people (at four round tables of six).
From the moment it was opened after the renovation was completed last fall, this new room has proved to be a “great new asset” for the club, Hoppensteadt reports. Fairmount members are finding it to be an ideal setting for small corporate retreats or other business meetings. When it’s not booked, the club also finds it a great place to hold Board, committee or internal staff meetings, away from the hubbub of general club activity.
Effective Trump Cards
Facilities like the wine room, plus the added capabilities of other rooms expanded through the renovation, are critical to meeting Fairmount’s goal of enhancing its appeal to both existing and potential new members, Hoppensteadt feels.
“Whenever you close completely for a renovation [Fairmount shut down its clubhouse from December of 2003 through late September of last year], it takes a while to recover from being out of the booking cycle, especially now that lead times for functions are becoming so much shorter,” says Hoppensteadt, who also went through a $6 million renovation at his previous club. “People don’t always book their functions a year or 18 months out anymore; 60, 45 or even 30 days is more the norm now, and I’ve even had two-day meetings booked in the same month they are held.”
But it’s this very trend that makes the time, cost and disruption involved with a renovation worthwhile, Hoppenstead adds, as long as the end result is the ability to first offer more to members, and then to be in a better position to respond to their needs.
“Every [club] is going after more member usage at a much more aggressive pace,” says Hoppensteadt. “To get and keep your share, you need more versatility with your facilities, and you have to be top-of-mind when members are thinking of where to hold a meeting or host a dinner,” he adds. “Now that we have these new facilities to offer, I’m rebuilding our Web site and becoming more aggressive about sending e-mails to remind members about what we can do.”
The Behrles, in fact, give much credit to Hoppensteadt–who didn’t come on board as Fairmount’s new GM until five months into the renovation–for immediately plunging in and fighting, as the inevitable midstream discussions of possible budget cuts arose, to retain the value of new features like the downstairs wine room.
“[GMs] have to be the linchpins for projects, especially when there are tight timetables and budgets,” says Gina Behrle. “As designers, we always stress, even when we start out dealing only with Board members, that it’s essential to pull [the GMs] into the process right away. We want them front and center and not excluded from any discussions. They know how it all works–including the politics. Projects won’t be successful, and a lot of good work will be wasted, if the GM isn’t properly involved.” C&RB