Opinion

Wright's Nakoma design shines—but in California

Golf course clubhouse vision troubled but realized

There is a major Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit opening June 12 in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art. It coincides with the 150th anniversary of the great architect’s birth and is called, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive.”

The Wall Street Journal recently used the opening to focus on Wright’s many unrealized projects, in an article titled, “The Unbuilt Visions of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

One failed plan from 1956 involved a 510-story skyscraper in Chicago.

For decades, it seemed likely that an extraordinary Wright design from the 1920s—a golf clubhouse intended for Madison—might find itself in the dust bin of the architect’s unrealized visions. But then, some 75 years after the clubhouse was designed, it was built, only to soon fall into a bankruptcy-fueled disrepair. Most recently, new investors have it back on track.

Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Nakoma clubhouse has quite a history.

The saga begins in Madison, in 1921, when the clubhouse at Maple Bluff Country Club was destroyed by a storm. As Maple Bluff rebuilt, some in Madison began thinking about a golf club for the west side. Among them was Capital Times founder William T. Evjue. Once plans for Nakoma Country Club were formalized in 1923, Evjue talked to his friend Frank Lloyd Wright about designing the clubhouse.

After walking the site, Wright produced a design he intended for the top of the hill where Nakoma’s 12th green now sits.

“Surely the most unusual golf clubhouse ever designed,” wrote Mary Jane Hamilton in the 1990 book “Frank Lloyd Wright and Madison.”

Wright’s Native American-themed design was anchored by a large octagon and included several teepee-like elements and a 50-foot high pyramid roof.

In the end, Nakoma looked elsewhere for a clubhouse designer. It seems likely that cost was an issue, though Wright’s controversial private life and mercurial personality may have contributed. No surprise, Wright wasn’t happy.

At some point, he gave the drawings to Whit Huff, a realtor known as the “Duke of Nakoma” for all the houses he sold in the neighborhood. One day in 1980, with Wright two decades dead, Huff walked into an antique store on Monroe Street owned by Chris Kerwin.

“I’d like to have these appraised,” Huff said. They were the Nakoma clubhouse plans.

“I got chills,” Kerwin said later. She directed Huff to design experts at University of Wisconsin–Madison. The plans eventually ended up at Taliesin West.

That’s where they were in the 1990s when a California couple named Daniel and Peggy Garner decided to build a golf community 50 miles north of Lake Tahoe. The Garners contacted Taliesin West about possibly designing their home on the property. Someone at Taliesin said, “What about a clubhouse?”

“They proposed one of Mr. Wright’s designs,” Peggy Garner told me during an interview in 2001, the year the Garners opened the Dragon Golf Club at Gold Mountain, featuring the Wright-designed clubhouse, which the Garners called “Nakoma.”

There was abundant publicity, including a spread on the stunning clubhouse in Architectural Digest, but the resort never really prospered. The golf course was a brute. Nobody could break par. Then the golf development boom lost ballast nationally. By 2006, the resort was in bankruptcy. The name was changed to the Nakoma Golf Resort, but the golf course closed in fall 2008.

In 2010, the Tucson-based real estate firm The Schomac Group purchased and revitalized what is now called Nakoma Resort.

A resort spokesman, referring to the clubhouse, told me recently the new owners “invested millions to refurbish the truly one-of-a-kind building after years of neglect and deferred maintenance.”

It is visually striking, on par with the story behind it. 

Our Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


 


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