Sylvan Hills Country Club Golf Course
SYLVAN HILLS COUNTRY CLUB GOLF COURSE,
The Sylvan Hills Country Club Golf Course is being nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A, with local significance, for its association with entertainment and recreation, through golf, in the subdivision of Sylvan Hills and the City of Sherwood. At the time when the Sylvan Hills Country Club was developing in the middle of the 1920s, the sport of golf was also beginning to develop and become popular with the public. It is also during this time that golf course design was in its “goldern era” which ended in 1931. The history of this golf course also represents a significant contribution to the growth of recreation and entertainment in Sherwood, Arkansas, dating from its construction in 1927.
Prior to 1888, golf was a sport that was talked about throughout the United States but was still not a common recreational activity. It was not even until the middle of the nineteenth century that the game of golf took its current shape with the standardization of a typical round of eighteen holes. “Golf underwent rapid growth in [the] northeastern United States between 1888 and 1900, and then dispersed throughout the country by 1920.” It is during this disbursement of golf throughout the country that the sport entered into the social and recreation avenues for the people of Arkansas. In 1915, the Arkansas State Golf Association was established. The President was Mr. J. E. England of Little Rock and seven Arkansas country clubs with golf courses were present at the first meeting: the Little Rock Country Club, the Pine Bluff Country Club, the Jonesboro Country Club, the Hot Springs Country Club, the Texarkana Country Club, the Ft. Smith Country Club, and the Helena Country Club. It was following this meeting that golf continued to expand into the larger populated and higher income areas bringing with it the mantra of an elitist image.It was during the early years of the 1900s that golf continued to grow in its popularity until the advent of World War I. Consequently, the popularity for the sport waned little during this brief period, as it marked “an unparalleled growth in the sport during the 1920s.”  It was shortly after this meeting that theSylvan Hills Country Club was built and it is among the oldest golf courses in Arkansas.With the construction of the Sylvan Hills Golf Course in 1927, the course fell into one of the busiest times for the construction of golf courses, which fell between 1923 and 1929, when “more than 600 new golf courses were built annually.” It is also unique to the period and style in which the golf course and subdivision grew up around the golf course. It is stated in the article entitled “Evolution of American Golf Facilities that for the last fifteen years, starting roughly in 1970, that there was a rise in a “golf-focused community-the resort and residential development built around newly constructed golf courses.” In the case of Sylvan Hill Country Club, they were ahead of the times with regard to the development of the subdivision around the golf course.
The property’s original development was as “The Sylvan Hills Country Club” using a three-year obligation at 7% with Real Estate Bonds dated January 1, 1927, secured though the Sylvan Hills Improvement Corporation.The Advertisement for Investment in this development described the property as follows:“The club property consists of a 120-acre plot of ground and a magnificent field stone clubhouse and swimming pool, four other buildings, and an 18-hole golf course which has been pronounced one of the finest in the state.”
It was Justin Matthews, a land developer and homebuilder, who truly understood that such an attraction would benefit home development in the North Little Rock area.The Justin Matthews Co. advertisement as a builder of fine homes stated that “in five years nearly seven million dollars have been put into homes, schools, country club and the installation of city conveniences” in Park Hill and Sylvan Hills. Having already platted the area and constructed the clubhouse, golf course and tennis courts, much of the design work had already been completed. It is believed that Justin Mattews was the designer of the golf course since it was his plat map that illustrates both the golf course and residential arrangement.
Justin and Agnes Matthews transferred ownership of the Sylvan Hills property, consisting of land and a clubhouse, to the Sylvan Hills Improvement Corporation for $132,500.This deed was a land transfer transaction and contained no mention of a land restriction for a golf course.The deed survey data contained three exceptions, the commercial lot 224, the Park Hill Addition Block 320 and the north commercial/residential land block.The financial information contained in this deed was interesting because future deed transactions reveal the impact of the 1930’s Depression on this property.The deed transactions consisted of a cash-in-hand down payment of $70,500, a note of $19,800 to be paid at the rate of $150 each month for 11 years beginning January 1, 1928, and ending January 1, 1938. A second note of $12,200 to be paid on or before January 1, 1930, and three notes of $10,000 each payable on or before January 1, 1933.  For the state of Arkansas, often regarded as a slow developing rural state with limited finances, this investment in the future of the property north of the river was truly noteworthy.It is obvious that Justin Matthews believed in this area and considered the golf course property worth the financial risk. One could say that the construction of the course was economically viable in part because of the property value that the course creates for the residential lots. In doing so, the Sylvan Hills Country Club Golf Course became the second oldest golf course in the greater Little Rock area. The oldest golf course is still the Country Club of Little Rock, which was founded in 1902. Other historic golf courses include the Camp Robinson Golf Course (1940) and the Fort Roots Golf Course, known as Emerald Park today which was built in the 1940s. All other golf courses in the area were built after 1960, with the majority of them constructed in the 1990s.
The Club and golf course operated successfully until the effect of the 1930’s Depression resulted in the sale of the property to a group of executives who operated it as a nightclub.It was a rough several years for both private and public golf courses throughout the Untied States. The lack of income brought in by both the general public and the members played heavily into the amount of recreation that a person was willing to do. This was a nationwide problem that effected almost every recreational opportunity, especially golf. However, on January 3, 1935, a fire destroyed the clubhouse building except for the field-stone foundations.Following the fire the United States was consumed with the Depression of the 1930’s and World War II.Older members said they occasionally saw cows grazing on the neglected fairways.The golf course was closed during the years of World War II, 1941- 1945, and Mr. R. J Ratcliff operated the land for quail and bird hunting.
Following the conclusion of World War II much was needed in the rehabilitation of the golf course. It is also at this time, that the City of Sherwood took the next step into becoming an entitiy all to its own, when it became incorperated in 1948. A group of the original members of the Club, returning as war veterans, lead by M.S. McCord, reorganized the Club and made plans to repurchase the land. Life in the U.S. was beginning again for our soldiers and the club—they needed each other for rebuilding of both the club and the golf course. Aspart of the rebuilding that needed to take place, a new one story club house building was constructed on the original stone foundation that was left following the fire in 1935.The golf course was rehabilitated due to the years of neglect that had all but destroyed the greens and fairways.The original golf course of 1927 was listed at 7,400 yards and the re-designed course of 1946 was shortened to 6,400 yards in length. Again, citizens of the area of North Little Rock/Sherwood demonstrated their belief in the value of this property. Though the property values of the lots sold for residential development never became a tried and true investment for the club, it helped gather patrons which would continue to fight to keep the club open in the following years.
Though the time period directly following World War II was slow in helping to finance the Country Club and golf course, the Country Club turned to a different method in acquiring money to keep the golf course up and running. Many churches and politicians, because of the crime that followed this activity in other states, disapproved of gambling in Arkansas.However, money was tight and financing of a country club and its operation of the golf course was not easy to manage.It was known, at the time,that country clubs could support their overhead with slot machines and that the Sylvan Hills Country Club was no exception to this form of generating money.It is stated that members paid an expensive initial joining fee but there were no dues.The slot machines quietly generated enough income to cover expenses and also create a little profit.This practice worked for years but trouble began when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller took action to clean up the gambling in Hot Springs and also began to clean up other areas of the state.With a tip that the Club was to be raided, a few individuals took the slot machines to a wooded area in the middle of the golf course and buried them.The machines were discovered, confiscated, and future financing of club expenses was modified. A couple of machines remained in the club basement until the second clubhouse fire in 1961.Firefighters broke the remaining machines and with newspaper coverage of their existence, the use of gambling at North Hills to generate revenue was stopped and the “gamblers” of the Club were back to golf, cards, and the risks required to develop this area with their businesses.
The July 14, 1950, Pulaski County Court House Special Warranty Deed showed there was “a land swap” between Metropolitan Trust Company (Matthews) and Sylvan Hills Development Corporation (Club) to plat lots on the south side of the golf course. It is noted that Dr. Richard Hardin was the first to purchase property for his residence, Lots 3 & 4. At the same time, the Metropolitan Trust Company gave $10 plus $10,000 to the Club for a strip of land 40’ x 659’ on the north of the previously noted Park Hill Addition survey exception in exchange for Club property with frontage on Club Road.This land swap allowed Metropolitan Trust Company to plat three additional residential lots (Lots 1-3) to make 9 lots from the Park Hill Addition Block 320.This block of lots allowed for the first homes along the perimeter of the golf course to be built.
The Little Rock Air Force Base was established in Jacksonville during the 1950s and area housing was in demand as hundreds of new people moved to the area. Until that time, Sherwood was considered a small farming town with a population below 700 people. During these years, the Club and the town grew and the building was remodeled several times to make improvements to the dining room and bar facilities. In the early 1950s the golf course was renovated to allow play of the fairways on level ground.In 1956 the club name was changed from “Sylvan Hills Country Club” to “North Hills Country Club”.It was another sad day in the history of the property when the clubhouse burned for the second time on May 15, 1961.The cause of the fire was never determined but many believed that it was due to sparks from the large fireplace feature of the building.Within weeks, Mr. G. M. Rozzell, Club President, formulated plans for the rebuilding of the Club House.
With insurance money, the Club constructed the “Teen Building” immediately behind the swimming pool.The Club operated out of this smaller building as the new “modern” clubhouse, designed by the architect Raymond Branton,was under construction.N.P. Alessi, Inc. was contracted to construct the building while Mr. A.C. Ballentine was the superintendent in charge of the clubhouse construction.Construction began in October 1962 and the building was completed December 1963. The “modern” clubhouse was expensive to build. The clubhouse cost approximately $300,000 and approximately $100,000 was in the roof construction.
The cart paths evolved as the Club grew.The paths were originally rock and compacted dirt eventually getting paved with an asphalt slurry surface.As money became available for improvements, the cart paths were upgraded with asphalt or concrete surfacing.Another improvement that evolved was the addition of sprinkler lines for watering the greens and fairways.Natural springs exist under several parts of the property and this water was used to keep the golf course green during the hot summer days in Arkansas.
In 1977 Robert Trent Jones, Sr. of New Jersey, known as one of the leading golf course architects in the world, was contacted to consider a re-building of the existing greens from the base up to the playing surface with new sand traps and tee boxes on the club’s golf course.Other than the 1950’s improvements, much of the original course built in the 1920s could no longer sustain the tremendous golfing activity of the members.The original greens did
not have a base for good drainage and the most extensive work was planned for the north nine holes, with the new sprinkler system becoming completely automated.The total cost of the project was to be approximately $800,000, when the project was completed. There were no another Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed golf courses in Arkansas and this was a great honor to North Hills to be first.
Everything was progressing for the Club until time to finalize the loan for the golf course improvements.Costs for the project had over run the original estimate for the improvements. Another real financial problem was the interest rates in Arkansas during the 1970s—the rates increased to 18% due to inflation in the economy.This extremely high rate was quoted to the Club Board members by the bank when the Club tried to obtain permanent financing.The U.S. was in a recession and it had its effect on the Club debt and membership.The governing Club Board struggled to keep the property out of foreclosure, yet even during these tough economic times the course was able to keep the doors open thanks to the dedicated patrons of the golf course.
The members sold the club property in 1983 to Club Properties, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Club Corporations of America with headquarters in Dallas, Texas.This organization operated the Club until the U.S. experienced another recession due to high oil prices in the 1980s.Club Corporations of America determined that it would be in the best interest of the company to downsize by selling off club properties that were in the lower range of profit.
Club Properties, Inc., purchased the club March 13, 1987.Jim Rodgers, Tommy Eanes, and P.E. “RIP” Munnerlyn owned Club Properties, Inc.They operated the Club until it was closed in the summer of 2007. Club Properties, Inc., announced the pending closure of the North Hills Country Club on May 6, 2007, due to a statement of “Debt versus Income” and an unsolicited offer for $5.1 million from Ron Campbell to purchase the property for development as a residential neighborhood.
Many interested citizens in Sherwood actively worked to save this beautiful green space and golf course in the middle of the city with such a long history.On July 21, 2008, the Sherwood City Council approved an ordinance authorizing the settlement of all litigated claims related to the property and structures commonly referred to as North Hill Country Club thereby facilitating the purchase of this property for the City of Sherwood. The Greens at North Hills Municipal Golf Course is scheduled to open in the spring of 2010.
The idea that the once private country club would become utilized as a public course fits into the general trend set throughout the United States. Public golf facilities have made a large jump in number the last three decades as the demand for golf has again risen.Yet, the same can be said during the Club’s private ownership days as it was commonly shown that in the south, in particular Arkansas, there was a higher number of private golf course compared to public. This is in part because Arkansas has seen higher golf course numbers because of the building of golf courses for resort and residential communities similar to that found at Sylvan Hills. Though the residential development grew around the golf course and brought the course notoriety, the idea that the residential lots would bring money to the club or course never really came to fruition, in part because of the national epidemics that plagued the country. Yet, what the residential lots did contribute was community that is willing to fight to see an early golf course remain open and available for the public to see and taken part in.
Even with the development of golf courses following the construction of the Sylvan Hills Country Club, the oldest golf course in the area is still the Country Club of Little Rock, which was founded in 1902. Other historic golf courses include the Camp Robinson Golf Course (1940) and the Fort Roots Golf Course, known as Emerald Park today which was built in the 1940s. These three older golf courses (Camp Robinson, Fort Roots, and the Little Rock Country Club) were all private courses and restricted the use of the course. This is especially true for the Fort Roots and Camp Robinson courses, which were set aside for military and Veteran Affairs personel only. All other golf courses in the area were built after 1960, with the majority of courses beingconstructed in the 1990s due to the advent of the resort golf course development.
The Sylvan Hills Country Club Golf Course is being nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A, with local significance, for its association with entertainment and recreation, through golf, in the subdivision of Sylvan Hills and the City of Sherwood. At the time when the Sylvan Hills Country Club was developing in the middle of the 1920s, the sport of golf was also beginning to develop and become popular with the public. It is also during this time, that golf course design was in its “golden era” which ended in 1931. The history of this golf course also represents a significant contribution to the growth of recreation and entertainment in Sherwood, Arkansas, dating from its construction in 1927.
Bradburn, Cary. On the Opposite Shore: The Making of North Little Rock. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing Company, 2004.
Robert.L.A Adams, and John F. Ronney, Jr., “Evolution of American Golf Facilities,” Geographical Review 75. Oct. 1985.
Metropolitan Trust Company, “We Recommend for Investment” In the files of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
Pulaski County Deed Record Book 324, pg. 497
Pulaski County: Warranty Deed #51109; 3-19-1927.