The Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains have local, State, and National significance as the first African-American owned and operated country club in the United States. It has added significance as the home course of the first African American golf professional to play in a U.S. Open, John Matthew Shippen (1879-1968).
The clubhouse, originally the Ephraim Tucker Farmhouse built in the mid-1700’s, became the George Osbourne tavern in 1897. In 1900 the Westfield Golf Club converted the farmland into a nine-hole golf course and the farmhouse into a clubhouse. After the Westfield Golf Club merged with a Club in Cranford to form the Echo Lake Country Club in 1921, a group of prominent black investors known as Progressive Realty Company, purchased the property and organized Shady Rest Golf and Country Club. The Club became a center of African American society at the time hosting events that brought to Scotch Plains such luminaries as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Joe Louis, Althea Gibson, and Newark’s own Sarah Vaughn.
John Shippen was a golf legend in his own right and served as the professional and groundskeeper at Shady Rest from 1931-1964. Shippen was born to Rev. John and Maude Shippen in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C. Rev. Shippen was sent in 1888 to serve as minister and schoolmaster at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church at the Native American Reservation on Long Island. Scotsman Willie Dunn, who came to Long Island to supervise construction of Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, hired young John Shippen to clear brush during construction and then to stay on as a caddy. A natural athlete, John picked up the sport and continued to tend the course and give lessons to the all-white club members. John’s presence on the reservation led to some confusion about his heritage that may have helped him land a spot in the 1896 United States Open Championship in which he finished fifth at the age of sixteen. The other pros who entered the US Open were Scotsmen and Englishmen, and John, therefore, earned the status of the “first American-born professional golfer” to enter the United States Open Championship, as well as the first African American. After his retirement in 1964, Shippen moved into a nursing home in Newark where he remained until his death in 1968. He was buried without fanfare or a headstone in Rosedale Cemetery in Linden. Over thirty years later, the John Shippen Memorial Foundation purchased and placed a granite headstone at his gravesite.
Scotch Plains Township acquired the Shady Rest property through a tax lien foreclosure in 1938 and maintained it until 1964 when it took over operations and renamed it Scotch Hills Country Club. Although the building has been placed on the town’s historic site inventory, the history and significance of the site remains largely hidden and is not promoted as a place of historic interest. Currently, the building is threatened by the Township’s announced plans of demolishing the clubhouse and building a senior center on the site.
The clubhouse itself is a modest, two and one-half story, domestic scaled structure. The overhanging gabled roof is supported by four square posts forming a two story front porch. It has two lower, flat roofed additions to each gable end. The architectural integrity of the building has been somewhat compromised by vinyl siding and replacement windows. The clubhouse has been determined by the State Office of Historic Preservation to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places not on the basis of its architecture, but on its historical associations.
We believe that the Shady Rest Clubhouse has great potential as a tourist attraction for the County and the State. While the development of a new senior center is certainly a laudable goal, it is unfortunate that it would involve the loss of an important African American landmark. The legacy of John Shippen made opportunities possible for the next generation of black golfers such as Lee Elder and in this generation, Tiger Woods. The loss of this site would exemplify a lack of commitment to the preservation of New Jersey’s diverse cultural resources. There is no other African American site in central New Jersey with a comparable level of historic significance. And the building has national significance in the history of the racial integration of the game of golf.
Preservation New Jersey recommends that the historic integrity and the architectural and structural conditions of the building be studied through the preparation of a Preservation Plan or Historic Structure Report. Perhaps there is a way to preserve the core of the clubhouse as a visible memorial to John Shippen and the history of African American contributions to the history of golf. We recommend that any concept design for the new senior center should incorporate portions of a renovated and restored Shady Rest Clubhouse.