By Anthony Pioppi
In the annals of golf course architecture there are few if any designers whose careers were as brief and as memorable as that of Charles Banks, and that left behind so many pressing questions.
A member of the Great Design Triumvirate, Banks was a protégé of Seth Raynor, who in turn was a protégé of Charles Blair Macdonald. Beginning in mid 1925 and ending less than six years later in March of 1931, Banks completed some of Raynor’s most highly-regarded courses after his mentor died unexpectedly, laid out approximately 15 of his own designs, most of which were built, and renovated a smattering of others before he too passed away early, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 49. This all occurring during the Golden Age of Golf Architecture when the likes of A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross were at their heights.
Visit Banks’s courses and it is readily apparent that his style fits seamlessly in with that of Macdonald and Raynor. Found on every one of his creations are the hole designs Macdonald popularized, such as Knoll, Road, Biarrtiz and Redan. Like the layouts of his mentors, though, some of Banks’s best work are holes of his own creation, having absorbed the tenants of sound design from Macdonald and Raynor.
Banks’s surviving work display a boldness that calls to mind Macdonald more than Raynor, for instance the prominent mounding that is part of green complexes at layouts such as Tamarack Country Club in Greenwich, Conn., and Cavalier Golf and Yacht Club, in Virginia Beach.
That Banks was able to create his own niche while working within the confines of the Macdonald-Raynor motif displays a grasp of not just the strategy but also the artistry.
Banks used modern mechanized equipment to move earth rather than horses and drag plates, taking advantage of modern technology. Somewhere along the line a story appeared that Banks lost a steam shovel in a bog, now a pond, during the construction of Whippoorwill Club in Armonk, N.Y. It seems the story is a fable. When the pond was drained a few years ago, no heavy equipment was found, nevertheless Banks was unfortunately nicknamed “Steam Shovel” by a long-forgotten individual.
Like Macdonald, but in contrast to Raynor, Banks not only designed courses, but also wrote about the craft, his work appearing in newspapers, the Yale University weekly alumni magazine and in at least two national golf magazines.
Banks’s article in the Feb. 1 1927 issue of The Honolulu Advertiser, recounts Raynor’s final days, just over a year after his death, a rare glimpse into Raynor’s life.
His 1930 seven-part series for American Golfer on every aspect of building a golf course from selecting a site to estimating cost to utilizing topography remains as one of the most in-depth explanations of the design process ever compiled, much of it as relevant today as it was nearly 90 years ago.
Banks introduction to the field of design most likely came no earlier than 1923, (he did not work on Macdonald’s Mid Ocean Club layout as has been incorrectly stated for years) but by 1925, was made an associate in Raynor’s firm, departing from his job as a fund raiser for the private Hotchkiss School in Northwest, Conn. Although Raynor had staff with much longer tenure than Banks, Banks was the only one ever elevated to associate and most likely the only employee who designed layouts besides Raynor. The rest of the group were civil engineers and construction supervisors. An astounding achievement for someone who had no background in course design or civil engineering.
When Raynor passed in January of 1926, it was Banks who either completed or oversaw Raynor’s projects in progress such as Waialae Country Club, Mid-Pacific Country Club, both in Hawaii although he never travelled there, Lookout Mountain Club in Georgia, (originally known as Fairyland), Camargo in Cincinnati, Ohio and Blue Mound Golf and Country Club outside of Milwaukee, in Wauwatosa, Wisc. At the Fishers Island (N.Y.) Club, Banks guided the completion of the original layout and apparently made design changes on the drawing of the second course, which as late as July of 1926 was still going to be built.
It appears Banks and Raynor met when Raynor was hired to renovate the existing nine-hole course at the Hotchkiss School. Raynor would also be simultaneously working on one of his finest designs if not the finest design, the Course at Yale, 65 miles to the south. Banks, who was employed by Hotchkiss as a fundraiser when Raynor first visited the campus, was a graduate of Hotchkiss (1902) and Yale (1906).
Around the same time, Raynor also laid out a nine-hole course for the called the Watertown Golf Club and located on the campus of the Taft School, another prestigious prep school located in Northwest Connecticut. It was built without Raynor or his staff playing a role in the construction. It no longer exists.
When work began on the Hotchkiss course, for which Raynor took only expense money for possibly the only time in his career, Banks was one of a small group that acted as intermediaries between the school and architect. Starting in 1923, Raynor visited the site a number of times. It is then that the two would have forged a friendship and when the love of course design first blossomed within Banks.
Even though work on the Hotchkiss course extended through two of the school’s summer breaks, Banks would have most likely continued on his duties as the school’s fundraiser year-round, yet somehow, he apparently devoted much time to the course project, an endeavor that would lead to his exit from his beloved Hotchkiss.
Banks was born in Amenia, N.Y., the town across the border from Lakeville, Conn., the home of Hotchkiss, most likely to humble means. His father died when he was nine. His mother would remarry a man 16 years her junior and 12 years older than Banks. Banks, known as “Josh,” first attended Hotchkiss as a sophomore. He flourished at the private all-boys boarding school taking part in all realms of activities including the banjo club and glee club. His senior year he was business manager of the yearbook, captain and standout of the track team and a pitcher for the baseball squad and fullback on the football team. There is no record, however, of Banks playing golf at Hotchkiss, although he was an adept golfer while employed there, losing in the finals of a 1925 handicap tournament among the school’s educators.
Even in its infancy, Hotchkiss was a pipeline to Yale and Banks matriculated there.
After his sophomore year in New Haven, his hometown newspaper noted, “Mr. Charles H. Banks, who is gaining scholastic knowledge and athletic renown at Yale College, has been in town this week.”
His senior year, Banks was voted Hardest Worker by his classmates. He was not a member of the golf team, which at the time played at New Haven Golf Club, designed by Yale golf coach, Robert Pryde. The course no longer exists. Pryde also designed the original Hotchkiss layout.
Upon graduating Yale in 1906 with a Bachelor of Arts, Banks was offered a job at Hotchkiss but turned it down for employment with a railroad in Camden, Maine. Not too long after, however, Banks had a change of heart and returned to Hotchkiss. In an emotional, two-page letter housed in the Hotchkiss archives, Banks explained what lead to the decision.
“I now feel a very great satisfaction in having settled the matter as I did, and I rejoice in my decision.” Banks wrote. “I guess there is only one explanation. The Lord did it, after a hard struggle on my part. I shall be ready for the work.”
Over the next 19 years Banks was a mainstay of the Hotchkiss campus. He coached sports (not golf), taught among other subjects English and Bible studies and later became the school’s first fundraiser. He was also one of the most popular faculty at the elite institution as evidenced by a yearbook which reads: “To Charles Henry Banks. In appreciation of a courteous and inspiring instructor, a kindly advisor, and a loyal friend, and as a token of our lasting love and respect, we the class of 1918 dedicate this book.”
It must have seemed to everyone at Hotchkiss, including Banks, that he would spend his life at the school, but then Seth Raynor came to campus.
In early 1925 Banks left his position at Hotchkiss and joined Raynor’s staff. His exit was reported in a page 1 editorial of The Hotchkiss Bulletin’s December issue.
“The resignation by Mr. Banks of his mastership in the spring of 1925 and his departure from Hotchkiss with his family leaves a vacancy which everyone deplores, and for which the trend of events and his own highest interests alone are responsible,” wrote the editor, concluding, “We all love ‘Josh’ and shall long remember his unselfish devotion to the spiritual, as well to the material welfare of Hotchkiss.”
In 1914 Banks had married Agnes Lindsay Baillie in Tacoma, Wash., her hometown. Baillie’s father was Alexander Baillie, a founding member and original captain of the Tacoma Country Club, the first golf course in state. At the time of the abrupt deviation in the course of his life, Banks’s only child, Janet, was six years old.
The career change raises at least two burning questions.
First, what was it about golf course architecture that ignited a fire in Banks that burned so hot he would leave his treasured Hotchkiss?
Second, what did Raynor see in Banks that made him realize that Banks had the necessary skills for Raynor to not only trust him as a construction superintendent, but also see that Banks was such talented designer in his own right, even though he had no background in the field?
One tantalizing bit of evidence is found in the Lakeville (Conn.) Journal of June 7, 1934. It was written by J.G. Estill, who was part of the Hotchkiss golf committee during construction and during the 1930-31 renovation by Banks.
“Mr. Raynor entrusted Mr. Banks with making models for most of the greens and superintending the construction. He became so interested that he never returned to teaching but became a partner of Mr. Raynor, and two or three years later upon Mr. Raynor’s death, his successor and one of the most successful golf architects in the country… .”, Estill recounted.
How is that Banks was entrusted with such important tasks at this juncture?
One misnomer concerning Banks is that he was intimately involved with the construction of the Yale golf course. If that is so, Yale has no record of his role and Banks never wrote of it.
A report from the Yale Golf Committee dated Feb. 22, 1926, slightly less than a month after Raynor passed away and two months before the first holes were opened for play, goes into minute detail about the history of the construction of the course. It lists two known Raynor associates as “superintendent of golf course construction work,” first William P. Nugent, who was replaced by Ralph M. Barton. Records also state that William E. Perkins, “an engineer who had worked on the course… as foreman and assistant superintendent, became superintendent… .”
Not a word on Banks.
An intriguing reference, though, seems to indicate Banks was on the Yale project at least once, and it was there he met the master.
Writing in the April 19, 1929 edition of The Yale Alumni Weekly about the course, Banks recounted, “No less an authority than Mr. Charles B. Macdonald once told me that, in his estimation, the Yale course would, when brought into condition, achieve the distinction of being our greatest inland course.”
By October of 1925, Banks was co-billed with Raynor on the Lookout Mountain project plans. Advertisements touting Banks as an associate of Raynor began appearing in national golf magazines in the summer of 1925.
In the Honolulu Advertiser article Banks penned, Banks recounts his final time on the ground alongside Raynor, which happened in November of 1925, just a few months after joining the firm.
“I went with him to Lookout Mountain, Tennessee where we worked together for a week on the layout of the Fairyland Golf Course (the course is in Georgia). Mrs. Raynor accompanied Mr. Raynor on this trip and we had a most delightful time together, though, we worked steadily in the field by day and on the maps by night, often up to midnight,” Banks later adding, “Little did I suspect this was to be my last opportunity to work with Mr. Raynor in the field.”
Three months later Raynor was dead and Banks was out on his own, apparently with little disruption to Raynor projects that were underway or still in the design process. It is likely for a time that Banks worked with some if not all of Raynor’s employees, at least until Raynor’s courses were complete.
An article in the March 12, 1926 New York Evening Post, said that Banks was just back from Palm Beach where he laid out a new golf course for Paris Singer as part of the Craigin Park project; the project was never realized. This would most likely have been a Raynor design if he was alive.
Singer was the founder of the Everglades Club, for which Raynor designed 18 holes, and it was for the dedication of Singer’s private course, now North Palm Beach Country Club, that Raynor was in Florida when he died. Unfortunately, no remnants of Raynor’s work survives at that location, which was renovated by Jack Nicklaus.
The article went on to say Banks was engaged to design the 36 holes for Essex County Country Club and 18 for Rock Spring Country Club, both in West Orange, N.J., 18 for the Knollwood Country Club, Elmsford, N.Y., the Fairyland course, Camargo Golf Club in Cincinnati, the second course at Fishers Island (N.Y) Club, and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel course, now known as Waialae Country Club. Only the second 18 at Essex County was a Banks original. It was sold by the club in the 1970s to Essex County, N.J. and is now the municipal Francis Byrne Golf Course. All the other designs listed were Raynor creations.
Banks also assumed the role of de facto course architect for the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, a position formerly held by Raynor and Macdonald. Raynor laid out courses in conjunction with Olmsted projects at Fishers Island, Mountain Lake in Florida, Yeamans Hall in South Carolina and the Creek on Long Island, N.Y. Macdonald had designed for the Olmsteds as part of a 36-hole project on Gibson Island, Md., and possibly the Otto Kahn private course, on Long Island.
When Olmstead was hired as part of the Annapolis Roads development in Maryland, Banks was brought in to design the 18-hole course, of which only nine holes were built. In 2013 the course was purchased by the Key School, which converted some of the property to athletic fields and abandoned the rest. Banks also designed what is now known as the Caracas (Venezuela) Country Club, also an Olmsted project.
In March of 1931 Banks had just returned from working on the Castle Harbor 18-hole layout in Bermuda when he died of a heart attack in a New York City hospital at the age of 49.
According to the obit, Banks had been in ill health for two years and was suffering from a weak heart.
His glowing obit in the Hotchkiss Alumni News, read in part, “Hotchkiss can ill afford the loss of such a man as Charles Henry Banks, and is definitely poorer for his untimely death. He was the perfect Hotchkiss gentleman.”
Banks was survived by his wife Agnes and his daughter Janet.
Here is where another Banks mystery takes flight.
Being the only associate in Raynor’s firm and the one charged with overseeing the completion of almost all the courses under construction, Banks would have been in possession of Raynor’s plans for those projects and maybe others. The civil engineering firm where Raynor filed his plans still exists but says it does not have Raynor drawings.
Raynor had no children so maybe after Banks’s death the maps and drawings were passed onto Banks’s wife and his daughter. My research uncovered that Janet attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts for a year. I find little of her after that, only that it appears she, then known as Janet House, died in New York City in 1985 at the age of 67 leaving no children. She was predeceased by her husband.
At some point Banks’s wife Agnes moved away from Connecticut, possibly back to her hometown of Tacoma, Wash. Banks is buried in Connecticut by himself, neither his daughter nor wife alongside of him.
If Janet was the keeper of her father’s legacy then what became of his files? Her father had siblings that outlived him but from my research their trails went cold years before Janet’s did. It is possible one of them came to possess the trove of material after their brother died.
Perhaps, like on so many other occasions, the drawings, sketches and letters were discarded by someone who saw no value in them.
For now, what Charles Banks left behind is a handful of stellar golf courses, and some illuminating writing. Perhaps that is enough, but I hope not.