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In Due Course

Opening 75 years ago, Riviera did more than answer L.A. club's desire to match counterparts

June 24, 2002|GEOFF SHACKELFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The invitation furnished simple directions. Head west on newly paved Beverly Boulevard, dubbed "America's finest four-lane highway." When nearing the "countryside," turn left on Capri Drive and proceed one block. Ample parking is available for your Model T coupes and roadsters. Follow signs to the first tee, and please excuse the clubhouse construction.

Seventy-five years ago today, a few prominent Angelenos were invited to christen the Los Angeles Athletic Club's expensive foray into golf, the Riviera Country Club. Much has changed since June 24, 1927, but one thing remains the same.

The drive from downtown still takes 45 minutes, only the four-lane street is now Sunset Boulevard.

Riviera's midday opening was modest by L.A. Athletic Club standards. When Frank Garbutt and William May Garland resurrected the club in 1912 by creating a 12-story downtown facility, 25,000 men and women traveled by horse-drawn carriage or car to a lavish three-day reception. The club grew rapidly, producing national champions in several sports, including Olympic gold medalists Charley Paddock in track and Duke Kahanamoku in swimming.

Combine the sporting accomplishments with a membership roster of celebrities and tycoons, and the L.A. Athletic Club's status soon rivaled that of the famed New York Athletic Club and Olympic Club. However, unlike those clubs and their illustrious 36-hole golf facilities (Winged Foot in New York and Olympic Club Lakeside in San Francisco), Los Angeles Athletic Club members were limited to rooftop play on a nine-hole putting course and driving net. Until June 24, 1927.

Despite excitement over Riviera, founders Garbutt and Garland opted for a private thank you to architect George C. Thomas Jr. Thomas had been reluctant to take on the project at first, but eventually relented and, as was his custom, provided his services for free. Four renowned golfers inaugurated Riviera that day in a relaxed 18-hole better-ball match.

Garland, Garbutt and many of their fellow athletic club friends were transplanted Easterners who led an inner circle of business and civic life in 1920s Los Angeles. Their mission was to develop L.A. into a thriving community greater than anything found in the East. Their vision included grand architecture, support for the burgeoning film business and, most of all, world-class recreational facilities.

Tense beginnings

With the Pacific as a prominent backdrop, Garland, Garbutt and Thomas posed for photographs on the first tee high above the treeless design. Each spoke briefly about the course and expressed hope that Riviera would provide great golfing pleasure for years to come. Thomas then struck a ceremonial tee shot from the spot where every modern golf legend from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods has since teed off.

There had been tension from the start between Garbutt and Thomas, though no remaining differences were evident this beautiful June day. Thomas had passed up repeated offers to design Riviera until the fall of 1925, three years after Garbutt persuaded the LAAC board to release more than $265,000 to fund the land purchase. A former World War I Army Air Corps captain, Thomas surveyed the Santa Monica Canyon terrain from his single-seat plane. When asked by the athletic club what he thought of the site near its Uplifters Ranch retreat in Rustic Canyon, Thomas replied that the course would not amount to much. But, he said, "It would be good enough for the Los Angeles Athletic Club."

Eventually, prominent athletic club members intervened, and Thomas was cajoled into carrying out the design. To make the project worth his while, Thomas expected unlimited resources to transform the coastal sage scrub and rock-strewn site into something special. Thomas insisted that construction engineer and budding architect Billy Bell be hired.

Thomas and Bell were fine solo architects, but when combining their talents, the pair crafted ingenious designs, including Bel-Air Country Club and the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. Billy Bell was a former superintendent-turned-construction guru who commuted from Pasadena daily, crafting the sprawling, baseball glove-shaped bunkers that remain Riviera's trademark.

Thomas was the visionary and design strategist who appeared once or twice a week during construction. He was just as interested in deep sea fishing with Zane Grey off Catalina Island or hybridizing roses on his Beverly Hills estate. Thanks to an inherited family fortune, Thomas took only select projects and never charged for design services. For the Griffith Park courses he designed in 1923, Thomas financed their completion when the city of L.A. ran out of funding.

The proposed Riviera club was part of Garbutt's grand dream to build a chain of clubs stretching from downtown to the sea. An avid boxer, yachtsmen, handball expert and auto racer who designed his own car, Garbutt amassed a fortune through royalties derived from inventing innovative oil drilling tools.

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