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Wisconsin’s American Club a Luxurious and Historic Retreat

The American Club at dusk. Photo Destination Kohler.

By Brian E. Clark

For more than 60 years, the aptly named American Club was a dormitory housing hundreds of immigrant workers who toiled at the successful Kohler Co. making sinks, toilets, other bathroom fixtures and small engines.

The imposing structure, built in the Tudor Revival style in 1918, was the brainchild of Walter J. Kohler, who had partnered with the Olmsted family – of New York’s Central Park fame – to design the Village of Kohler, an attractive company town near the Sheboygan River that is now home to around 2,000 residents.

The dormitory featured private rooms, a pub, bowling alley, barbershop and three meals a day, initially costing $27.50 a month. One floor of the East Wing was set aside for female teachers and nurses at the company.

Making bathtubs at Kohler in 1933. Photo Destination Kohler.

“The Club,” as it was sometimes called, also offered civics and English-language classes to help employees earn U.S. citizenship. Rooms were named after famous Americans, including Georg Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway and even actress Mary Pickford.

There was also art because, as Walter J. Kohler put it, “A worker deserves not only wages, but roses as well,”

By the late 1960s, however, the building had outlived its usefulness and needed major repair. It sat empty for a time and in the mid-1970s, company president Herbert V. Kohler Jr. proposed spending millions to turn the building into an luxurious village inn.

Fully rejuvinated in 1981, the American Club and its accompanying Kohler Waters Spa now both have Forbes Five Star rating. That ranking for the spa is rare: Only 84 others worldwide have the distinction. Today, visitors come from around the globe to stay in its 241 rooms, play golf at four championship courses, eat at nine restaurants and take numerous wellness and spa treatments.

But it didn’t come easy, at least at first. The striking American Club hotel faces a large lawn and is directly across the street from the Kohler factory, which is fronted by an attractive administration building that looks somewhat like a high school.

The three consultants that Herbert Kohler first hired told him it was a bad idea. But Kohler, a self-described rebel in his youth, persisted, even though first few times he presented his plans to the company’s board of directors, he was turned down.

In 1978, after the American Club was placed on the National Register of History Places, Kohler finally got approval for the renovation.

“It was a hard sell and he had to go back to the board several times,” said Betsy Froelich, marketing director for the company’s Hospitality & Real Estate Group. “But he said they made him build his business case and answer all of their questions.”

When a guest and I made the 120-mile drive to the American Club from Madison recently for a mid-week visit, we were impressed by the understated elegance of the resort, the service, the artwork on the grounds and the wellness program. It was March, so the golf courses had yet to open.

We opted for a yoga session in a workout room that overlooked a small lake, relaxing massages at the Kohler Water Spa and tennis lessons with an amiable coach from Alabama named Jasper Letson at the Sports Core center.

Immigrant Restaurant. Photo Destination Kohler.

For dinner, we enjoyed salmon one night in the expansive Wisconsin Room, which had once served as the dining hall for workers and has large tapestries depicting the immigrant experience. The second evening, we took a shuttle to the a log structure on one of the resort’s golf courses for another tasty meal.

We also toured the three-level Kohler Design Center, which has the latest displays of Kohler sinks, showers, vanities, bidets and bathrooms designed by artists.

On the lower level of the center is a museum the tells how the company grew from a humble start in 1873 making farm implements – including cast iron water troughs – to its focus on bathroom fixtures and small engines.

It was those early cast iron troughs, coated with white enamel in 1883, that started Kohler down the path of becoming one of the country’s top plumbing product manufacturers.

River Wil;dlife Lodge. Photo Destination Kohler.

Froelich said the American Club grew organically over time, starting with the addition of the Carriage House in the early 1980s.  Together, they have 241 rooms. Next came the Inn on Wood Lake, another lodging option with 138 rooms that offers “slightly more contemporary rooms” than the American Club, she said.

“Most recently, we’ve expanded into private cabins for a fully secluded experience,” she said.  Rates rang from a low of $200 a night during the low (winter) season, up to $700 a night during the high season when the demand from golf aficionados is great.

Golf at Kohler. Photo Destination Kohler.

The two courses at Destination Kohler are Black Wolf Run, which opened in 1988, and then Whistling Straits, which is on Lake Michigan and was built a decade later. Each of the courses has 36 holes. With the addition of 10 par-three holes last year, the total offering is now 82.

“The reason we got into the golf business was because someone in accounting read many guest comments that said people would like Kohler to build a golf course because they’d like something to do like that when they were at the American Club,” she said.

“We were already taking them to other courses in the area, but they thought we should have something here. Mr. Kohler thought that was an excellent idea and started looking for golf architects. He found Pete Dye  – who designed dozens of courses around the country – and the rest is history.” (The company now also owns courses in Scotland.)

Froelich said Herb Kohler, now 83, remains passionate about the sport of golf and continues to play. His courses have hosted a Ryder Cup, two U.S. Women’s Opens, a U.S. Senior Open and three PGA Championships.

She said the Sports Core, a private tennis and athletic club, opened in the early 1970s – before the American Club was turned into a hotel – as a gym option for company employees. After 2000, it expanded into yoga, cycling and other fitness activities.

Destination Kohler is also home to River Wildlife, a private, 500-acre nature preserve with hiking trails, an outdoor yoga platform, canoeing on the Sheboygan River and other recreational options.

Outdoor Yoga at River Wildlife. Photo Destination Kohler.

The Kohlers are patrons of the arts and my guest and I enjoyed the sculptures and other artwork in the hotel’s courtyards and around the community.

Some of those pieces, Froelich said, are the product of an Arts and Industry program in which artists stay in the village and work in the Kohler factory using the same materials – from cast iron to vitreous Chine –  to create their works.

“It’s a symbiotic program because our technicians and learn so much from how artists view and manipulate the materials,” she said. “Likewise, members of the manufacturing team help the artists better understand the materials they are working with.”

Froelich said that while American Club remains a popular spot for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations, it has ramped up its spa and wellness programs in recent years.

“One of our main goals has been to make it easy for guests to book wellness experiences and to showcase how we can help with a holistic wellness lifestyle,” she explained.

The American Club is offering have four new immersion weekends through October where guests can have private Yoga Nidra sessions (a kind of mediation), guided hikes at River Wildlife, intention setting and journaling classes, a custom-blend essential oils class and other spa experiences.

“It’s an easy way to participate in the wellness experiences we offer because we are taking all the work out of it,” she said.

For more information on the American Club and Destination Kohler’s Wellness Weekends, see destinationkohler.com/well-being/wellness-weekends.

 

Brian E. Clark

Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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