Oakland Hills clubhouse a 'total loss'; rebuild will take at least two years, leader says

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Oakland Hills Country Club continues to have discussions with its insurance provider, but club President Rick Palmer said Monday the membership is operating on the belief that the historic clubhouse is a "total loss" following last week's massive fire.

Palmer said a likely complete rebuild will take at least two golf seasons and the plan is to replicate the white, stately, pillared clubhouse that opened 100 years ago.

Palmer had no estimate on the cost — a renovation in 1999 and 2000 cost more than $16 million, and a complete rebuild would cost much more. But he said the membership believes it was fully insured. The club, which held an emergency board meeting over the weekend, has begun interviewing architects.

"We are confident about our future," Palmer said in a Zoom press conference with local and national reporters Monday morning. He added the club is confident it will "come back stronger than ever."

Firefighters continued to pour water on the historic Oakland Hills Country Club on Friday morning, the day after a devastating fire. The fire wasn't extinguished during the weekend.

A fire started Thursday morning in attic space of the two-story (plus basement) clubhouse and quickly spread throughout much of the 90,000-square-foot facility. Flames several feet high burned for several hours, and firefighters from several area departments battled them well into the weekend.

Bloomfield Township Fire Chief John LeRoy told The Detroit News Monday that the first is not completely out. Some hot spots flared up and were still burning at 8 a.m. Monday, LeRoy said.

A cause still has not been determined, and the investigation remains ongoing. Fire investigators with the Oakland County Sheriff's Office are assisting the Bloomfield Township fire marshal to determine the fire's cause and origin.

About 25 Oakland Hills workers were in the building or on the grounds when the fire broke out, plus a contractor overseeing a veranda construction project, Palmer said.

Nobody was injured. Any injuries would have been a real tragedy, Palmer said.

"What happened at Oakland Hills was very devastating, emotionally," he said. "But tragedies are Oxford schools and COVID-19. We lost things."

Firefighters and club officials were able to save some artifacts and memorabilia before the fire fully raged, including the contents of the prized trophy case that sits just through the clubhouse's front doors — including replica trophies of the club's many major tournaments, including six U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup. Palmer said there's no full inventory of what was salvaged and what wasn't, nor any determination of which of the items that were saved will still have to be restored.

Club officials now are working out of Barton Malow's Southfield offices, and are assessing what temporary structures can be created on-site to get the membership through the next couple seasons.

The United States Golf Association, which recently awarded Oakland Hills the 2031 and 2042 U.S. Women's Open and has Oakland Hills on the short list to soon host another U.S. Open, has offered the club assistance on building temporary structures like it does for its major championships. The tennis facility, which has served as a site for temporary structures during major tournaments, was not damaged in the fire.

Several area country clubs have reached out to Oakland Hills and offered their dining and social facilities, Palmer said, as well as locker space. A fund has been established to help the workers who will be displaced by the clubhouse loss, set up by the ClubsHelp Foundation and National Club Association, and has raised more than $15,000. ClubsHelp is donating $5,000 and will match up to $15,000 in outside donations. During peak golf season, Oakland Hills has about 300 employees; off-season, there are about 25.

Oakland Hills Country Club President Rick Palmer shares on update on the fire that damaged the club during a Monday, Feb. 21, 2022 Zoom press conference.

"I can't single one (club) out because they've all been great," Palmer said.

The club is working with other facilities on moving big events, like banquets and weddings, that won't be able to take place at Oakland Hills for at least the next two years, he said. The golf business won't be significantly interrupted. Golf operations and maintenance facilities weren't damaged, Palmer said.

Oakland Hills is one of the most-storied golf facilities in the country, with two championship courses, including the highly acclaimed South, which recently underwent a $12 million restoration that, among other things, removed dozens of trees to allow for views of the clubhouse from almost any point on the course.

The club has hosted more than a dozen major golf championships, beginning in the 1920s. Most recently, it hosted the 2016 U.S. Amateur, 2008 PGA Championship, 2004 Ryder Cup and 1996 U.S. Open. Its champions include names like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

Nicklaus, who won the 1991 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills, said last week that the Oakland Hills' clubhouse, which was designed and built by C. Howard Crane (Fox Theatre, Orchestra Hall, Detroit Opera House) and modeled after George Washington's Mount Vernon, "is as much a part of the story as the golf itself." 

The renovation of the South Course was ordered and paid for by the affluent membership of about 750 in hopes of landing more major championships. The USGA has made several site visits to the club both during and following the renovation, and awarded the two U.S. Women's Opens in January. Oakland Hills has optimistically hoped for another U.S. Open, perhaps in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

The fire doesn't change those hopes, Palmer said.

"Our partners at the USGA have been incredibly supportive," said Palmer, who heard from USGA officials Thursday. "I don't believe the ongoing discussions on additional championships will be impacted by this. That's the premise we're working on.

"We are convinced we will be as strong as ever."

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Staff Writers Mike Martindale and Jennifer Chambers contributed.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984