Jefferson Lakeside: The “Un” Country Club by Charles McGuigan

Jefferson Lakeside is an “un” country club. Which is to say, it has all the usual trimmings of a country club—an 18-hole golf course, club house, pool and so on—but, what it doesn’t have is the snobbery and exclusionary air frequently associated with country clubs. After all, it is the country club of the North Side, where you don’t need an invitation to live.

As with everything North Side, Jefferson Lakeside has the stamp of Lewis Ginter on it. The financial wizard who developed the streetcar suburbs of the North Side created Lakeside Park on the land now shared by Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and Jefferson Lakeside Country Club. It was more than just a park. Built as a sort of amenity for those who were just settling the North Side in the late 1890s, Lakeside Park included clubhouses, boat houses, a bowling alley, a pavilion, a casino, a restaurant, and even a zoological garden. As a matter of fact, you can still see a few of the zoological enclosures—one for seals, the other for bears—recessed in the woods that surround the country club.

Golf took off at the site during the World War I years and in 1934 JLCC was formed. For a number of years the country club was exclusively Jewish, because Jews were not allowed to join the country clubs of the blue bloods who reigned supreme in Richmond. In the 1970s as the former policies at other country clubs in Richmond became more liberal Jefferson Lakeside began accepting non-Jewish members. Today, it is very probably the most diverse country club in the entire metro area.

“The members here are a very diverse group,” says Martin Thompson, general manager of Jefferson Lakeside. And he suspects one of the reasons JLCC draws people from all walks of life is that its emphasis is on enjoyment, not protocol.

“Folks here lack pretense,” Martin says. “It’s the kind of place where you can use your cell phone, you can come in wearing jeans if you want. It’s comfortable. Members sort of think of this place as their home away from home. There are not a whole lot of rules and restrictions. We want every member to enjoy.”

With that aim in mind, the country club completely renovated the entire golf course this past May. It was a task that took nearly a year to complete and included every green and bunker. Kris Spence was responsible for the rejuvenation of the golf course and he used extreme care in tackling this project. “His philosophy is: don’t change the original design, just maintain it and fix it,” Martin tells me.
Extreme care was employed to ensure that this golf course, originally designed by Donald Ross back in the 1920s, maintained its design integrity. “We’re now the only remaining original Donald Ross design left in Richmond,” says Martin. “Having it all rebuilt now really puts this golf course on the map as one of the top golf courses in the area.”

As we leave his office and make our way to the 19th hole, where a number of golfers are seated and sipping cold drinks, Martin says that JLCC is unique in Richmond because of its perfect size. “One of the nice things about the design here is that it’s not a very long design,” he explains. “You know, it’s very walkable. It’s like a beautiful walk in the park and it’s what a lot of purists really love. But it’s not easy to play. It’s a very challenging course.”

Sandy Oliver, the membership sales representative at JLCC, takes me on a tour of the country club, beginning with the pool, which is ringed in flowers and greenery. ”We have this wonderful pool area where a lot of our members come and bring their families and spend the entire day,” she says. “You can go up to our screened-in area, order, have your food delivered by our wait staff, eat lunch by the pool and order cocktails.” There are a handful of mothers with their kids at poolside and Sandy takes me over to the enclosed playground and kiddy pool where a number of children play and splash under the watchful gaze of nearby mothers. “Joining Jefferson Lakeside gives you a pool membership as well as a membership to the golf course,” says Sandy.

Right now, JLCC has a special offer to entice new members. “Anyone making a two-year commitment will not have to pay the initiation fee,” Sandy says. “And that’s a savings of $1,500. It really is a great value.”
We stroll over to the tennis courts, where two couples are playing. There’s satisfying sound of racket meeting ball. “These are all true clay courts and people love them,” says Sandy. “We frequently have tennis socials.”

Back in the clubhouse, Sandy takes me into the dining room, a spacious room with a dance floor where members can host parties and dinners. Use of the room is free to members and there is on-site catering available. The dining room seats more than 200 people. “Our members use this space all the time,” Sandy says.

Joy Lynch, the head chef at JLCC for the past ten years, enters the dining room from the kitchen. “I offer an eclectic menu for our members,” she says. “We offer everything from Southern to Italian to French. I enjoy every bit of what I do.”

Sandy takes me downstairs where the showers and lockers are housed. But there’s more down here, including a cardio room and a weight room. “You even get a workout area when you join our country club,” says Sandy. “You don’t need to pay a separate fee for a gym.”

Back outside we stroll through the golf course. This day there are the qualifying rounds for the Richmond Women’s Golf Association, so we keep clear of the holes they’re playing.

Here’s the thing about the course: It is completely surrounded by woods and you would swear you are deep in the country when you’re just a stone’s throw from the bustle of Lakeside Avenue. There are massive loblolly pines that tower a hundred feet with bark like alligator hide. It really is a walkable course, pleasing to all the senses. There is the trill of birds and the whirr of cicadas and the smell of pine and wild mint and honeysuckle.

When I mention the abundance of trees throughout the course, Sandy nods and says, “It ten degrees cooler.” And on a day like today, that’s a blessing.
“Hole six is a par three and our members think of it as their signature hole,” says Sandy. We make our way over to the lake across which you can see Bloemendaal House at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Sandy points to a small island that is blanketed in green. “That’s the tee for my favorite hole, number three,” she says. “It’s a favorite among our members, too.”

We pass a rapidly flowing brook that makes its way down to the lake. There is the sound of rushing water, soothing to the ears, and Sandy Oliver says this: “We are a fun, friendly club with a lot of flair.”

Which would be the perfect tagline for this “un” country club.

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