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Historic Cobbs Creek clubhouse gutted, encased in ice

On Tuesday morning, after firefighters extinguished the blaze, the clubhouse at the Cobbs Creek Golf Club stood burned and encased in ice.

The clubhouse at Cobbs Creek Golf Club in West Philadelphia after it was destroyed by fire Monday night.
The clubhouse at Cobbs Creek Golf Club in West Philadelphia after it was destroyed by fire Monday night.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

On Tuesday morning, after firefighters extinguished the blaze, the clubhouse at the Cobbs Creek Golf Club stood burned and encased in ice.

It marked a frozen end to a once-noble building, crafted from the ruins of a farmland mansion when the course was built in 1916. In the 1950s, it hosted players like Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer. It was home to great African American golfers, who played at race-neutral Cobbs Creek when much of the sport was segregated.

Now, Cobbs Creek players and fans said Tuesday, the fiery demise of the clubhouse could push the future of the course toward a climax, toward a moment when years of effort on a planned, hoped-for renovation could be thrust forward or thrown back.

"This might be a real turning point," said Pete Trenham, a local golf historian. "It might go one way or the other."

The loss of the clubhouse could spur a rebirth, he said. Or it might sound a knell for a course that has struggled for relevance and income.

Authorities said the fire broke out at 11 p.m. Monday and roared for two hours before being brought under control. No injuries were reported and the cause is under investigation.

"That was a very iconic clubhouse," said Mike Cirba, who helps lead a group of golfers aligned as the Friends of Cobbs Creek. "It had a grandeur that is hard to replace with a trailer in the parking lot."

Set in West Philadelphia at 7400 Lansdowne Ave., the Cobbs Creek Golf Club boasts of being the oldest public course in the Philadelphia region. It has two 18-hole layouts, "the Olde Course" and "the Karakung Course." The latter course, which initially had only 11 holes, was meant to serve an overflow of golfers from the Olde Course.

For years, Cirba and others have worked on plans to restore and revive a course that was born in greatness, designed to be no less than the finest public course in the nation - with a clubhouse to match.

The 1928 U.S. Public Links Championship was played at Cobbs Creek. In 1936 and 1947, amid segregation, the Negro National Championship was held there. Cobbs Creek gained attention when it hosted two PGA Tour events, the 1955 and 1956 Philadelphia Daily News Opens.

Charlie Sifford, the great, groundbreaking African American golfer who died in February at age 92, haunted Cobbs Creek. After being admitted to the PGA Tour, he won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open in 1969.

The course also served an unlikely role in the nation's defense. In the early 1950s, as the United States fought the Cold War, a large chunk of the course was taken by the Army for use as antiaircraft missile base. From Cobbs Creek, the idea was, the military would shoot down approaching Soviet bombers.

In the world of golf, the 1950s tournaments marked Cobbs Creek's last moment on a national stage. Its lure faded amid changes in the city, the sport, and the economics that govern both.

By 2000, the Cobbs Creek course seemed to have more dirt than grass.

The city government, faced with limited funds and multiple needs, didn't see golf as a priority. The neighborhood declined. Today West Philadelphia/Cobbs Creek ranks fifth out of 55 neighborhoods in violent crime, according to an Inquirer analysis.

In August, for the second time in two months, a woman was sexually assaulted on the golf course.

Control of Cobbs Creek passed through a succession of management firms. For roughly the last seven years, the course has been run by Billy Casper Golf, which local golfers said has worked to improve maintenance and care.

Meanwhile, Cirba said, the Friends of Cobbs Creek has developed extensive plans and raised private financial backing to support a public-private operation. A better course would serve not only mature golfers, but help promote the sport in the city, develop young players, and serve as an economic driver for West Philadelphia, he said.

"I feel very confident this is going to happen, because there are people in and out of the government who want it to happen," Cirba said. "But it's not straightforward. [The challenge is] getting all the pieces aligned."

On Tuesday, pro golfer Greg Jarmas, who grew up playing at Cobbs Creek and plays there still, headed to the course as news of the fire spread.

"The building's gutted; it's gone," he said after viewing the scene.

Jarmas, widely known as a star Princeton University golfer, recalled the clubhouse as a no-frills space, more beloved for its people than its structure.

He wondered if its loss might actually spur a renovation.

"I've been cautiously optimistic all along," he said. "Why not start the project for a new golf course with a new clubhouse?"

Trenham, who has played golf for 70 of his 79 years, said Cobbs Creek faces challenges common to public courses. Years ago, it was harder to find a quality public course. Today there are plenty.

That drives down greens fees, even as maintenance and administrative costs continue to rise. Having a neglected course means fewer golfers come to play, which means less money to restore the course - a harmful, hard-to-break cycle.

"Cobbs feels that pressure," Trenham said. "This will be something, to see where it goes. . . . It might be a rallying point, that now, 'We ought to really do something.' Or they might throw in the towel and just say, 'Work out of trailers.' "