This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of LINKS.
By David DeSmith
J Perry “Commodore” Stoltz had a dream. The Miami-based hotel magnate, whose face graced the October 1, 1925, front page of the Augusta Chronicle, envisioned an ever-expanding empire of elegant hotels—luxurious resort spots that would draw wealthy winter visitors from the north and treat them to warm, southern temperatures and hospitality to match. Properties in Miami, Chattanooga, and Hendersonville, Tennessee, were slated to position Stoltz’s Fleetwood Hotel chain as the places to be in the burgeoning South.
That October morning, Stoltz dropped a bomb on the peaceful little town of Augusta, Georgia, when the Chronicle reported that he’d announced his intention to build a 14-story hotel on the site of The Manor, former home of the recently deceased Prosper J.A. Berckmans. The hotel, which would be built on approximately 400 acres of what was then a fruit-tree farm and nursery, was to include a golf course.
A few weeks later, Stoltz announced that groundbreaking on the new project would take place by January 1 of the following year. And despite some local skepticism about his plans, Stoltz told the community, in a letter to Thomas Hamilton, then-editor of the Chronicle: “You may be assured that the Augusta hotel will be built as outlined…Providence permitting…”
Unfortunately for Stoltz—but fortunately for golf fans—Providence had other things in mind for the Berckmans property.
To understand the scope of this story, it helps to know something about what life was like in Augusta during the Roaring Twenties. Bathtub gin was in. Flapper girls were out and about. The leisure sports of golf, tennis, and polo had captured the imaginations of the idle rich. But there was a lot more happening in Augusta than just the goings-on reported in the social pages.
Augusta was a center of commerce and manufacturing. Roads and railroads connected it with Atlanta to the west, Charleston to the east, and Savannah to the south, and through those cities to many other markets throughout the Deep South. Indigo and cotton were two of the chief local commodities that helped Augusta become a major player in the manufacture of denim.
Augusta was an agricultural center, too. In fact, one of the leading agricultural journals of the day was the Southern Cultivator, a publication edited by an Augusta resident named Dennis Redmond. One of the reasons Redmond knew so much about agriculture was that, during the mid-1800s, he had purchased two pieces of farming property from a pair of prominent Augustans: James Coleman, who owned a place called Bedford Farm, and Benjamin Warren, who owned an adjacent property that Redmond came to call “Fruitlands.”
Redmond used this prime land to test various theories about agriculture. His crops of fruits and flowering plants often took home prizes from Georgia-area fairs. On this land, Redmond also built what he called a “country house,” a two-story concrete structure with a second-story wraparound porch and a cupola on top. Later, the land and home were sold to Louis Berckmans, who along with his son, the aforementioned Prosper, expanded on Redmond’s success. The Berckmans property became one of the most coveted pieces of land in town.
But it wasn’t the only valuable parcel. In fact, a real estate boom of sorts was happening in Augusta even before Stoltz strolled into town with his grand plans. Fueled in part by the rapid escalation of Florida real estate prices, speculators had descended on Augusta in droves, snapping up land left and right. One such financier was a man named Forrest Adair, whose Forrest Hills Corp. purchased a 600-acre tract of land south of Lake Aumond in January 1925. Adair and his associates (including members of the Ricker family, who’d built a well-known summer resort at Poland Spring, Maine) planned to build their own hotel there—the Forrest Hills-Ricker Hotel—a sumptuous affair complete with its own Donald Ross golf course that would be called Forrest Hills Golf Club. This project, like Stoltz’s, was announced with great fanfare. Augusta was putting itself on the map.
In revealing the plans for that project, an official of the Forrest Hills Corp. said: “It is the intention of our organization to build the greatest golf course in the South. There is no doubt in my mind that this one asset will make Augusta famous as a golf center. Undoubtedly it will bring thousands of new visitors to Augusta and is destined to become known immediately.”
Donald Ross liked the property’s chances, too. In a May 16, 1926, Chronicle article, it was reported that “Ross expressed himself as highly pleased with the progress of the work on the course, which he declared to be without peer in the entire South.”
For Ross, who had already designed the famed No. 2 Course at the Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and a host of other renowned courses—and who would soon be doing extensive renovation work at the nearby Augusta Country Club—this was some major self-praise.
Commodore Stoltz’s subsequent announcement then, that he would also be building a destination resort in Augusta, only served to fuel the development fire in and around the area. Within weeks of word that a Fleetwood Hotel was to be erected along Washington Road on the old Berckmans property, the local real estate boom redoubled. During the months of September and October 1925, $3 million in land was sold on Washington Road and elsewhere in Augusta. The Chronicle called it a “mad race for land” and the area began to bill itself as “the future playground of the country.”
In January 1926, the foundations for the Augusta Fleetwood Hotel were staked out. It was to be a magnificent hotel indeed, and one with “no back.” The design called for all sides of the hotel to appear as its “front,” thus presenting a welcoming façade to guests regardless of the direction from which they approached it. The hotel was to have a rooftop garden and a dining room on the 14th floor, both offering sweeping views of the surrounding area. Stoltz himself had fallen in love with the property, claiming it to be “one of the most beautiful spots in America.”
“It is fairly predicted,” the Chronicle reported, “that a resort hotel erected there would command a magnificent patronage from the start.”
On February 11, 1926, Stoltz broke ground at the site and a month later the initial excavations were complete. The old farmhouse, meanwhile, had been spared from destruction for the moment; it was to be used as an office during construction. Following the February excavation, work was stopped for a period of time so that a railway line might be built to carry steel to the site.
That steel would never come.
The same February, Stoltz had signed a contract to build another Fleetwood Hotel at Daytona Shores, Florida. The Florida hotel project quickly eclipsed its Augusta sibling as a priority for Stoltz. By September, construction had still not commenced in Augusta.
One reason, according to later reports in the Chronicle, was the weather. Not local weather, but hurricanes exacting a deadly toll in Florida and other areas to the south.
The summer of 1926 saw some of the worst hurricane-related catastrophes in recorded history. In July, just a few weeks after Georgia’s favorite son, Bobby Jones, won the U.S. Open at the Scioto Club in Ohio, hurricanes started slamming into Florida and threatening other parts of the southeast with malevolent frequency.
On July 28, 1926, it was reported that scores of ships were in distress at sea. Palm Beach was hit with 80 mph winds, and the Titusville-Jacksonville area was decimated.
On August 25 of that same year, just a few days after the death of film star Rudolph Valentino, it was Louisiana’s turn to bear the brunt of a major storm. A 100 mph hurricane struck the area, causing all manner of death and destruction.
Then, in mid-September, another killer storm rolled into Florida from The Bahamas. In Miami alone, hundreds of people died. Altogether, 1,000 deaths were attributed to this storm. The Miami city docks were completely swept away. Every boat in the harbor was sunk. The entire city of Miami Beach was under three feet of water. Property damage was estimated at more than $100 million—serious change today but even more so in 1926.
Washed away in this great Miami hurricane were hundreds of homes, businesses, and dream—including, apparently, those of Commodore Stoltz. His real estate empire, which was possibly on shaky ground anyway, collapsed soon after.
The Augusta Fleetwood Hotel would never be built.
Despite a Great Depression that was right around the corner, though, the good life roared on in Augusta. The newspaper spoke of many “millionaire golfers coming to town” to visit the Partridge Inn and Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel, two of the area’s other resort spots. A northerner, one John B. Armstrong, christened Augusta “The Rose of the South,” and presciently predicted that it would soon become a premier tourist resort. “In my opinion,” Armstrong said, “Augusta is destined to become the greatest tourist and golf center of the mid-South.”
In January 1927, the Forrest-Hills Ricker Hotel and its golf course opened, bringing even more golfers and visitors to the area. And despite the fact that blue laws forbade the playing of golf on Sunday, the game was growing in popularity in Augusta by the day.
One reason was the continuing success of Bobby Jones. In 1930, Jones captured the “Impregnable Quadrilateral” (known today as the Grand Slam). All of Georgia—indeed, all of America—celebrated his unprecedented exploits on the links. But in Jones’s opinion, the best golf he played that year didn’t happen during any of his Amateur or Open wins, here or abroad. In his mind, his best event was the Southeastern Open, held in Augusta at the recently Ross-redesigned Augusta Country Club. Jones’s victory there endeared him even more to Augusta’s citizenry.
It also endeared Augusta to Jones. On July 14, 1931, he formally announced his intention to create the Augusta National Golf Club on the same hilly tract of land that Stoltz had targeted for his hotel.
Commodore Stoltz’s loss became golf’s gain.
David DeSmith is a New England-based freelance writer.