More than century ago, Lake Toxaway Hotel and its namesake North Carolina lake was considered one of the most luxurious places in the country. Situated just south of the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway not far from the borders of Georgia and North/South Carolina, it quickly became a mountain escape for many of America's privileged class after the five-star-caliber hotel opened in 1895.
Among the hotel's famous turn-of-the-century regulars were Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, the Vanderbilt's, Thomas Edison, and iconic actress/singer Lillian Russell to name a few celebrities. But this exclusive getaway became short lived after the lake's original dam burst, flooding the area and forcing the hotel to shut down in 1916.
After sitting abandoned for 44 years, the lake came back to life in 1960 after Reg Heinitsh Sr., and a group of investors purchased the surrounding 9,300-acre tract and set out to resurrect the magic of this once-great mountain retreat. Six decades after reviving the empty lake bed and building a golf course in 1963, the owners of Lake Toxaway Country Club are creating quite a second act in the life of Lake Toxaway's long and rich history.
Indeed, 10 years after Donald Ross restoration-specialist Kris Spence topped off a $9 million project to completely redesign the course, Lake Toxaway is in the midst of putting another $10 million into more club enhancement projects and new amenities. If all goes according to plan, the latest round of capital improvements will not only transform the gated mountain enclave into a livelier multi-generational destination but one that remains sustainable for decades to come.
In many respects, it's the ongoing evolution many aging private clubs are facing from coast-to-coast - especially those well-capitalized clubs willing to embrace the demographic and societal changes influencing golf and country clubs of the future.
The dramatic shift in leisure-time lifestyles at private clubs is especially pronounced inside Lake Toxaway's newly renovated $7.1 million clubhouse. Where private clubs once were the bastions of mostly golf and card-playing men being boys a generation ago, today's private clubs have the look and feel of some of the trendiest restaurants, coolest nightclubs and family-friendly Four Diamond resorts all packaged in one setting.
Yes, this isn't your father's or grandfather's country club anymore. At least that's how the contemporary Atlanta-based Kuo Diedrich Chi team of architects envisions the changing look and feel of many 21st-century private clubs. In a nutshell, today's clubs have to incorporate places where all generations of family members are equally as comfortable experiencing, time and time again.
For Lake Toxaway general manager John Schoenbeck, Lake Toxaway's newly imagined Firestone Bar & Grille is symbolic of that new-age KDC-inspired leisurely space. Featuring an expansive indoor and outdoor bar, casual grille area and a sweeping covered dining porch with scenic lake and golf course views, the success of the dining venue goes far beyond some of the award-winning interior design work contributed by Traci Rhoads and noted landscape architect, Mary Palmer Dargan.
"Everybody is just piling into the new area," says Schoenbeck, who opened the newly transformed clubhouse in late 2018. "We still get 1 or 2 requests for tables inside the older dining room, which really isn't older anymore because it's been completely revamped as well. Just because they maybe want some quiet time.
"But everybody else wants to be joining the party in the other place. ... We've more than doubled our outdoor seating; It's so beautiful up there, everybody just wants to look at the mountains. It's a great vibe with the craft beers, the cool specials, TVs in the bar ... Clubs need to hang onto some of the traditions and golf is obviously still very important. But you've got to evolve and be a place where people want to hang out and have fun."
For Lake Toxaway, whose average member profile is in the 60s, the new clubhouse was just phase one of a strategic plan to help attract much younger members with families that might have bypassed Lake Toxaway for other clubs geared to "modern families," according to Lake Toxaway Company president/chairman Reg Heinitsh Jr.
Now, the classic club is celebrating the recent completion of phase two of the strategic capital improvement plan - highlighted by a multi-million-dollar resort-style pool complex alongside North Carolina's largest man-made lake. Heinitsh Jr., who officially unveiled the new amenity Labor Day weekend, anticipates the residential development and club life to be even more youthful in the years to come.
"What we're doing is making all of our property owners and club members thinking I really don't need to leave Lake Toxaway to do anything," says Heinitsh, whose son, Reg Heinitsh III, is now active in the Lake Toxaway Company as a vice president/broker, along with several other family members. "(The newly enhanced clubhouse and Firestone Bar & Grille) is the focal point for their social culture. And they are wearing it out.
"With our new upscale modern clubhouse and the variety of different eating venues, we're preparing for the future. We've got to attract the 45-50-year-old people. Our older members love it, and they're extremely happy; we're attracting people who ultimately will be taking their places as we move forward. ... The multi-generational pool complex is yet another major step."
It's something Heinitsh seems genuinely excited to experience with his own grandchildren.
"A lot of our people are out on the lake," Heinitsh points out. "Now you're able to take the float boat and go into the club and park; walk about 75 steps and we'll have several pizza ovens and a new bar and grill by the water. The kids have their own entertainment room. ... You'll have a lot of parties on Lake Toxaway in the float boats with (this new complex).
"We'll end up having a great balance (of amenities). These days a country club has absolutely got to do both."