The Bon Air Hotel: Spawning Grounds Of The Augusta National Golf Club

Image of the Bon Air Hotel in the early 1900s

The Bon Air Hotel, towering on the Hill overlooking Augusta, was the spawning ground for golf and the Augusta National Golf Club.

The Bon Air was the largest of the grand hotels in Augusta. It began as a dream of Dr. William H. Tutt (1823-1898), a community leader who had made his fortune selling patented medicines such as Tutt’s Liver Pills and Tutt’s Golden Eagle Bitters.

Opened to the public on December 2, 1889, the Bon Air was an expansive four-storied Victorian building with towers and turrets, staircases, and verandas, providing 105 guest rooms. The hotel featured wooden stairs, door facings, wainscoting, and floors made from curled Georgia pine. A broad veranda extended around the entire front and south side of the hotel. A large octagon-shaped solarium enclosed by glass windows on all sides crowned the top of the hotel, offering a spectacular view of the Savannah River Valley.

Image of the original Bon Air Hotel

The Bon Air was one of the finest hotels in the South, renowned for its gourmet food, golf, tennis, and horseback riding. Golf would prove to be Bon Air’s legacy. In 1897, the hotel and a group of prominent Augustans organized the Bon Air Golf Club. The Club originally leased 90 acres of land on the east end of Milledge Road to construct a nine-hole golf course. Subsequently, additional land was acquired to expand its course on the west side of Milledge Road to a 6,174-yard, 18-hole course, known as the Hill course.

The Bon Air hosted a full schedule of golf events for men and ladies during the winter months, including the Governor’s Cup and the Bon Air Cup. Golf in Augusta began to prosper. The Bon Air developed another eighteen-hole golf course on a 185-acre adjoining tract, known as the Lake course. The 5,833-yard Lake course overlooked Lake Olmstead and extended along the lakefront and border of Rae’s Creek. It had the first grass greens in Augusta. The residential neighborhood of Country Club Hills now occupies the site.

The view from the Bon Air Hotel

Regrettably, in the early morning of February 4, 1921, at the height of its success, disaster struck the Bon Air when it suffered a devastating fire and was utterly destroyed. Initially, it was announced that the Bon Air would not be rebuilt. However, financing paired with the leadership of Col. Sanford Cohen and former mayor, Thomas G. Barrett (1862-1929), ensured that it was rebuilt. Cohen, a prominent promoter, aggressively sought financing and secured local support, while Barrett persuaded Walton H. Marshall, manager of the Vanderbilt Hotel chain, to invest in the Augusta landmark.

With significant funding from the Vanderbilt family, the hotel was rebuilt as the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel at a cost of over $1,000,000. The new Italian Spanish renaissance hotel reopened with much fanfare on January 8, 1923, featuring over 300 guest rooms. Chief Justice Taft even wrote a letter published in The Augusta Chronicle congratulating Augusta on rebuilding the Hotel. The hotel was so successful during its first season that an additional one hundred rooms were added for the second season.

The new version of the Bon Air Hotel

It was through the Bon-Air Vanderbilt Company and the Fruitland Manor Corporation that the Fruitland Nurseries or the Berckmans’ property was obtained for the development of the Augusta National. The Berckmans’ tract was destined to become the most famous tract of property in the world. On July 15, 1931, Robert Tyre Jones Jr., “Bobby,” announced the organization of the Augusta National Golf Club. Jones had dreamed about the Berckmans’ tract, after his friend Tom Barrett Jr. (1894-1934), former president of the Bon Air Hotel Corporation and vice president of the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel, suggested it as the most ideal spot for a golf course.

Jones served as legal counsel for the Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel while developing the Augusta National. When the golf course was officially opened with formal ceremonies on December 24, 1932, the majority of the invited dignitaries and guests stayed at the Bon Air Vanderbilt Hotel. The first Masters Golf Tournament, at that time known as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, was held in March 1934. Five years later, the tournament officially became known as the Masters.

The prestigious Bon Air entertained some of America’s most elite dignitaries, including American novelist and author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; founder of the Standard Oil Company, John D. Rockefeller; U.S. president and subsequent Supreme Court Chief Justice, William H. Taft; U.S. president Warren G. Harding; British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill; Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of Major League baseball; Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden; Nobel Prize winner Nicholas Murray Butler; and Harvey Samuel Firestone, the founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

The hotel’s success, however, diminished over the years with the development of Florida as the new winter travel destination. The Bon Air was purchased by the Sheraton Corporation in 1945 but subsequently declared bankruptcy and closed its doors on September 27, 1960. For a short time thereafter, the Bon Air was turned into a retirement community. Today, apartments at the Bon Air provide federally subsidized housing for seniors and disabled people.

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Stroll Summerville & Forest Hills. The article is sponsored by Georgia Dermatology & Skincare Center.