From the very beginning of Augusta National Golf Club, the Bon Air Vanderbilt was the off-course hub for golfers and club members. The grand hotel played host to evening entertainment, including boxing matches, dances and high-stakes gambling in the ballroom.
The original Bon Air opened in 1889, putting Augusta on the map as a premier tourism destination for wealthy Northerners who arrived on an overnight train. Visitors played on golf courses at the Bon Air, the Augusta County Club and the Forrest Ricker Hotel, which opened in 1927.
Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones built on Augusta’s resort boom and increasing importance as a Southern golf haven, said Stan Byrdy.
Byrdy authored Augusta and Aiken in Golf’s Golden Age, a book highlighting the importance of the area’s winter resorts to the growth of golf in Augusta.
When Jones invited potential members to Augusta for the grand opening of the course in 1933, the wealthy guests stayed at the Bon Air, Byrdy said.
“It was the unofficial home of the Masters in the early years,” he said. “Everyone who came into town stayed at that hotel.”
In a March 22, 1934, Augusta Chronicle story, hotel managers reported few room vacancies with guests arriving from across the nation and Canada.
“The tournament has put Augusta in the sports headlines of the entire nation and its value to the permanent residents and business men of the city, not to speak of the winter hotel, is beyond estimation,” said M.W. Partridge, the manager of The Partridge Inn across the street from the Bon Air.
Visitors looking for a quieter stay found that at the Forrest Ricker hotel, which surpassed the Bon Air in luxury.
Carlton “Beanie” Morris worked as a bell hop for the Forrest Ricker in 1941 and 1942. He earned $20 to $35 per day serving the wealthy and celebrities.
“It was one of the finest hotels in the country,” Morris said. “I made big bucks.”
Golfers Ben Hogan and Sam Snead stayed at the Forrest Ricker for the first time in 1942, having earned enough money to afford the grand hotel, Morris said.
Morris, 89, remembers trying to haul both golf bags in one trip to the hotel’s golf course.
“I tried to carry their bags about 100 yards down to the golf course,” he said. “About halfway down, I gave up.”
The Forrest Ricker was transformed into a military hospital during World War II. The Veterans Administration took over until it was razed in 1988.
At the Bon Air, guests were entertained nightly by well-known singers and musicians. A glamorous dance called the “Golf Ball” was held at the Bon Air beginning in 1936.
Leading golfers, including Jones, attended the dance that served as the official kickoff for social events during the Masters. By 1938, more than 1,000 tickets were sold, according to The Chronicle archives.
The tournament’s Calcutta betting party was held at the Bon Air even after the United States Golf Association formally disapproved of the gambling auctions in 1948.
In the mid-1950s, Augusta native Mary Gambill, her husband, Floyd, and another Augusta couple were at a Calcutta party when it was suddenly shut down. Eager guests filling the ballroom were not disappointed, however.
Entertainer Phil Harris and one of Bing Crosby’s sons jumped up on stage and performed an impromptu concert, Gambill said. Other guests started singing along and the night was saved.
“Everyone was there for the (Calcutta) pool and there was going to be no pool, so we just had a party,” said Gambill, who spent the night talking to two couples from Dalton, Ga., who traveled to Augusta to participate in the Calcutta.
The Bon Air changed ownership several times and was constantly lambasted for its deterioration after the Vanderbilts relinquished management.
Visits by President Eisenhower were the last-ditch effort to return the Bon Air to its early prominence. The president stayed at the Bon Air during his many trips to Augusta during the 1940s and 1950s, and the press corps assembled in the ball room.
In 1963, the grand hotel on the hill became a retirement community. It now houses elderly and disabled residents in federally-subsidized apartments.