A Club of Their Own: Suburban and Woodholme Through the Years, Part 2

Posted on September 27, 2017 by

generations 2004Article by Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations – 2004: Recreation, Sports & Leisure. This particular issue of Generations proved wildly popular and is no longer available for purchase.

Part II: A Rural Retreat

Missed part I? Start at the beginning.

As immigrants poured into the cities and urban life became ever-more industrialized in the late nineteenth century, elites sought to escape to the nearby countryside. While hunting clubs had long provided recreation for the wealthiest segment of American society, new-style country clubs catered to a growing number of city residents who had money and leisure, but did not care to “ride with the hounds.” The clubs gained popularity with the rise of a game recently imported from England featuring a little white ball and acres of gently rolling hills. By 1900, the Baltimore-Washington area boasted several exclusive golf (or “country”) clubs, while the Jewish social elite of New York and Chicago organized clubs of their own. AS a history of the Suburban Club observes, “It was understandable, then, that members of Baltimore’s Phoenix Club on Eutaw Place, learning of these other rural enterprises, talked about having their own country club.”[1]

The men acted quickly. Within a month of organizing, in November 1900, they incorporated as the Suburban Club of Baltimore County, hired an architect, and chose a site for their retreat. All three decisions made perfect sense. The architect, Joseph Evans Sperry, had recently completed work on the handsome new Temple Oheb Shalom on Eutaw Place, where many of the club’s founders worshipped. While no one now recalls how the name “Suburban Club” was chosen, it fit both the new club’s location and the spirit of the times: suburbia, though not a novel concept, was becoming a vital part of the urban scene, as transportation improvements enabled people to reside farther away from their workplaces.[2]

As for the location, the plot of land northwest of Baltimore that overlapped two country estates in the sylvan village of Pikesville offered several advantages: it was suitably remote from the city, yet accessible, since the local trolley company planned to extend its line to Pikesville; it featured a hill that Sperry considered the perfect setting for a clubhouse; and the neighborhood, unlike the northern suburbs east of the Jones Falls, was not barred to Jews. The site would prove so ideal that to this day former Suburban Club president Julius Westheimer asserts that “we’re right exactly where we should be.” Decades after the club opened its location at the intersection of Park Heights and Slade Avenues became a center of Jewish Baltimore. In part, this was because the same residential restrictions that existed when the Suburban Club was built later channeled future generations of upwardly mobile Jews to the northwest suburbs. Also, as other Jewish institutions took root in the vicinity and commercial-residential districts with a Jewish flavor were established, Pikesville naturally attracted people who wanted to participate in Jewish community life.[3]

Suburban Club building, March, 1909. JMM 1985.90.20

Suburban Club building, March, 1909. JMM 1985.90.20

But when the Suburban Club’s grand opening took place in November 1901, the club was still in the countryside. That was the whole point. A cherished belief of the late Victorian era held that the healthful benefits of a rural environment offered physical and spiritual relief form the illness-producing stresses and strains of city life. The countryside was not merely for recreation, it was also for uplift. Suburban Club’s first president, Sam Rosenthal, perfectly reflected this view in his speech at the grand opening:

“Here, far from the madding crowd of the pent-up city, its busy streets, its steaming pavements, the hum of manufacturing industry and the wheels of commerce, we may in this lovely solitude look through nature up to nature’s God. Here, environed by all that is lovely in rural charm, we may forget the cares of business, forget the perplexities of debit and credit…and abandon ourselves in contemplation of those things which take us away from the cares of the bustling world of trade and life us nearer to those things which relate more closely to our sentimental welfare.”[4]

Quite a poetic vision, coming from a man who spent most of his days pursuing business success. Rosenthal’s life story shows that German ancestry enabled worthy young men to reach the heights of Jewish society without coming from a leading family. Born in Baltimore in 1855, he attended public schools and started work at age fourteen as a cashier in his uncle’s dry goods business. He eventually became a partner in Strouse & Bros. clothing manufacturers. In a career marked by all the signs of a classic Victorian overachiever – avid pursuit of business, hobbies, and charitable endeavors – Rosenthal found time to help organize both the Phoenix Club and the Suburban Club.[5]

All the leading families, of course, were present to hear his speech, as hundreds gathered for the “brilliant” reception that opening the club. An “ingenious arrangement” of newfangled “electric incandescent lamps” spelled out the word “Welcome” on the sloping entrance to the clubhouse, perhaps symbolizing to the guests their sense of belonging to an accomplished elite that, even if excluded from gentile society, had just taken a major step forward in prestige. The Suburban Club featured all the accoutrements of the era’s modern country clubs, including a “lavish” clubhouse, a non-hole golf course, tennis courts, and a baseball diamond.[6]

Unlike Rosenthal, not all overachievers were welcome in the Suburban Club. Isador Blum’s 1910 profile of the movers and shakers of Baltimore Jewry features Eastern European immigrants who had already managed to make their mark in the business world. Russian-born Harry Ades, for example, was “owner of one of the largest umbrella manufacturing establishments in the county.” Yet he was not a member of the Suburban Club. There was perhaps only one Eastern European immigrant of that day who could not be denied: Lithuanian-born Jacob Epstein, whose business, civic, and philanthropic leadership made him one of the most prominent members of the city’s Jewish community.[7]

Continue to Part III: A New Club Appears

Notes:

[1] The Suburban Club of Baltimore County: A History from 1900 to the Present (Baltimore: Suburban Club of Baltimore County, 1995), 14. See also James M. Mayo, The American Country Club, Its Origins and Development (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

[2] The Suburban Club, 15-17.

[3] The Suburban Club, 17-18; Arthur and Wheezie Gutman, interview with the author, December 14, 2004; Julius Westheimer, phone interview with author, December 2004; Garrett Power, “The Residential Segregation of Baltimore: Restrictive Covenants or Gentlemen’s Agreement?,” Generations (Fall 1996): 5-7.

[4] “Suburban Club Open,” Baltimore Sun, November 8, 1901.

[5] Isador Blum, The History of the Jews in Baltimore (Baltimore: Historical Review Publishing Company, 1910), 177.

[6] “Suburban Club Open,” The Suburban Club, 73, 79, 93.

[7] Blum, History of the Jews in Baltimore, 77, 87, 269.

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