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Rochester's masterworks extend beyond buildings and parks

Rochester Business Journal
April 18, 2014

Rochester has an exceptionally rich architectural legacy that helps to define our community. Most of us are familiar with venerated buildings like Eastman Theatre and City Hall and with prominent public landscapes like Highland Park and Genesee Valley Park. But how often do we think about our golf courses as masterworks?

J. Foster Warner, Claude Bragdon, Frederick Law Olmsted—these are among the names that surface when Rochester’s master builders and landscape architects are discussed. As we consider those who have contributed most to the rich tapestry of architectural design in our region, we should add Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones Sr. to this list. Our six Donald Ross and two Robert Trent Jones designs are “classic courses” that stand the test of time. These two architects are known around the world as masters of their craft.

Over the years, Rochester has become an integral part of the history of golf, not just because of the events that have been contested on its courses but also because of their quality. Last summer Rochester became the center of the international golf world when the PGA Championship was played on Oak Hill Country Club’s famed East Course. This was largely due to our community’s long-demonstrated ability to be great hosts, but it depended upon the superior quality of the Ross-designed golf course.

Even if one does not play the game of golf, the impact of good design makes our community a unique and attractive place to live. Nationally, golf is big business. Its annual impact on the U.S. economy approaches $200 billion. While the local economic impact of the 2013 PGA event was measured at around $150 million, golf’s continuing impact on the quality of life in our region is less quantifiable but no less significant.

Golf course architecture “splits the difference” between landscape design and the design of structures. The scale at which these designers work is vast, yet they are often faced with constraints similar to those of building architects. The design challenges require a unique brand of individual—both artist and builder, working on a giant canvas. The architect must work with a sweeping topography while focusing on a cohesive result based on the setting—one that is invigorating, inspiring and enjoyable.

The history of golf course design has parallels in architecture. Like classical architecture, golf’s formative origins have had a continuous anchoring influence on designers over time. While architecture harkens back to Greece and Rome, golf looks back to Scotland for its foundational principles.

It originated there in the humblest of fashions. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, is often referred to as the “home of golf.” It cost almost nothing to build and was not really the result of a conscious design. Instead, it emerged out of the grass-covered sand dunes through which town folk would stroll to the shore. Over time, favorite corridors—fairways—appeared. In the low spots where early golfers’ balls were most likely to wind up, the accumulated impact of swings over time tore through the grass, exposing the underlying sand and creating natural bunkers.

In the mid-1800s, legendary figures like Old Tom Morris began to design and build greens and bunkers for newly constructed golf courses as the sport’s popularity grew in Scotland. Still, these designs always began by trying to find natural golf holes already lying hidden amidst the dunes.

Around the turn of the last century, golf course design expanded inland, beginning a trend toward designs that incorporated the natural pleasure of both forest and grassland together. This opened what is widely regarded as the golden age of golf architecture. The sturdy principles behind the old Scottish courses were blended with a new sense of creativity.

It was during this period that golf was becoming popular in the United States. Ross, a transplanted Scotsman, helped transform golf architecture into a highly regarded profession. The architects of the time creatively combined quirkiness with “fidelity to place.”

A generation after Ross, Jones began his illustrious career. Like architect Claude Bragdon, Jones is a Rochester favorite son, having grown up in East Rochester.

So what is it that makes a course designed by these masters so great? As with other types of architecture, books are filled with attempts to describe the alchemy involved. For Ross, the defining characteristics include natural placement of plateau-shaped greens, penal bunkers and the strategic integration of land forms into the

layout of golf holes. Jones’ courses are noted for their artistic landscaping, innovative use of bunkers, liberal use of water hazards and deft placement of greens and hazards that encourage a high level of strategy.

In the practice of architecture, modifications or additions are often required. Even great works of architecture are sometimes modified to accommodate the changing times. There are numerous local examples, Chantreuil Jensen Stark’s addition to Gordon and Kaelber’s Eastman Theatre being the most recent. These modifications must be done with great care and sensitivity to the original design.

There are striking parallels in golf course design. Our regional masterworks have periodically undergone carefully considered modifications. While these are sometimes controversial, there is some comfort in knowing that they are in good company. Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament, has been revised by 14 different architects over the years.

Tastes in golf course design have continued to change with time. Even as talented architects bring their creativity to bear on the design of exciting new courses, the appreciation for our regional masterworks endures. So when we think of Rochester and “classic” design, keep the following exceptional landscapes in mind: Monroe Golf Club, Irondequoit Country Club, the Country Club of Rochester, Brook Lea Country Club, Durand Eastman Golf Club, Midvale Country Club, Oak Hill East and Oak Hill West. They represent more than a thousand acres of great architecture and an enduring legacy of quality.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or

4/18/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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