SCOTCH PLAINS – Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, one of the first Black country clubs in the United States, was recently granted listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.
The listing solidifies the facility at 820 Jerusalem Road as a national landmark. It joins buildings, sites and districts across the nation worthy of preservation because of their significance in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture.
“We couldn’t be more pleased,” Mayor Josh Losardo said. “For a number of years, the volunteers of the Preserve Shady Rest Committee, chaired by Tom Donatelli, have been steadily working towards achieving this important designation. The listing will further ensure that Shady Rest will remain an American landmark for perpetuity, enjoyed for generations, protected from development and a living reminder of a dark era in this nation, when African Americans faced segregation.”
Donatelli said the committee will now aggressively seek government grants for restoration, noting the cost of upkeep had been the sole responsibility of the township, through the Recreation Commission.
“We plan to apply for as much outside funding as we can,” he said. “This national listing is a great opportunity for us to further care for the building, funding the ongoing renovations that will be needed.”
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Sylvia Hicks, a longtime member of the Preserve Shady Rest Committee, said the federal application process was a 2 1/2-year effort, slowed down by the pandemic.
Barton Ross, the architect hired in 2013 to rehabilitate the 282-year-old clubhouse, submitted the application on behalf of the nonprofit committee in July 2020, providing a detailed explanation of Shady Rest’s history, as well as photographs of the clubhouse and golf course , to the US Department of the Interior. The approved application was accepted for listing on both the state register and national register.
Over the past year, there has been a concentrated effort in Scotch Plains to celebrate the history of the local landmark. Last September, the Township Council voted unanimously to revert the name of the golf course back to the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, after township leaders in 1964 renamed it as Scotch Hills Country Club.
That announcement was made exactly 100 years from the day the nine-hole golf course was purchased from the owners of a whites-only country club by the Progressive Realty Co. The first African American-owned golf and country club in the United States was built out of necessity because private clubs continued to deny membership to African Americans and other minority groups.
James Baker, of the Progressive Realty Co., was the first manager from 1922 to 1925 and a founding member. William Willis Sr., also with the Progressive Realty Co., was a founding member who managed the club from 1925 to 1960. He was the driving force in bringing in entertainment and began American Tennis Association tournaments.
During its heyday, Shady Rest was a center of African American recreation and culture, hosting icons like WEB Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald and Althea Gibson. It was also the home of John Shippen from 1931-1964, hailed as America’s first Black professional golfer who competed in a US Open.
Shady Rest offers six tennis courts, a baseball diamond, skeet shooting and horseback riding. Tennis and baseball facilities were removed after Scotch Plains took over the site in 1964.
In recent years, there has been a strong effort to reclaim and celebrate Shady Rest history. The clubhouse underwent a $1.1 million, three-phase rehabilitation in 2015 to restore the building to what it appeared like in 1925, based on historic photos. Aluminum siding and aluminum windows were replaced with wooden windows and historic features of the building were restored.
The 1830s-era chimneys were repointed. In the ballroom, the historic walls were restored, and the fireplace replastered. In the dining room, the exterior north wall of the 1830s house – covered up in the 1960s – was revealed again, showing the clapboard and window sash. The fireplace was restored, and the framing exposed.
Architects located three windows from the 1830s that were refurbished and moved to the lobby. Original wide-plank flooring from the third floor was relocated to the lobby and the original ballroom wood floor from the 1920s was uncovered, re-sanded and restored.
“Placement on the state and national listings underscores the careful, diligent work of the Preserve Shady Rest Committee to unearth the amazing history of this country club,” said Councilman Roc White, who serves on the committee. “This achievement was the work of many residents and countless volunteer hours in recent years, who recognized that Shady Rest is a natural treasure. If the Scotch Plains community does not make its preservation a priority, who would?”