Blaze & Glory
Downed by water, wind and fire, the Southern Yacht Club charts its future
Only a few events in the 157-year history of the Southern Yacht Club, among them wars and hurricanes, have managed to put a temporary stop to its definitive purpose – sailing. Pleasure yachting disappeared from the local scene during the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Sailing activities also were curtailed in 1918, when, as the result of a nationwide influenza epidemic, the Lakefront club opened its doors as a convalescent hospital to the military, providing care for more than 2,500 soldiers, and again in World War II, when the club was used as a base for the U.S. Navy, which was guarding the coast.
The most recent interruption of business as usual occurred Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina assailed the club, tossing boats on land and causing a ruptured gas line to ignite a fire that on Aug. 30 destroyed the clubhouse and the surrounding grounds. In the days after, as the damage was surveyed, it looked like activities at the SYC would be sidelined indefinitely. But the internationally renowned club, which has a strong tradition of volunteerism, responded with defiance and pluck, holding post-Katrina regattas and gatherings and letting its membership know that while it may not be able to sail into the future at breakneck speed, it would sail ahead nonetheless. This month, the club plans to open a temporary, 6,200-square-foot modular clubhouse.
The second-oldest yacht club in the country (the New York Yacht Club is the oldest, dating from 1845), the SYC had its beginnings in Pass Christian, Miss. On a July evening in 1849, a group of prominent business- and professional men from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast became its founding members, meeting for the first of what would become regular gatherings at the Pass Christian Hotel.
Eventually, the club moved its headquarters to New Orleans, and in 1879, with a growing postwar membership, its first clubhouse, a two-story, wooden structure featuring a flat roof with a railing and a tower topped by a cupola, was built over the water in the area now known as West End Park. A hotel, restaurant, pavilion and amusement-park attractions opened nearby, making West End a favorite spot for weekend relaxation and water sports, including sailing, rowing and “barrel polo” competitions, in which players rode astride floating barrels.
In spring 1900, the doors of a new, considerably larger, classically inspired clubhouse, designed by the architectural firm of Burton and Fraenkel, opened during a grand celebration ball, ushering in a century in which the club would garner an international reputation and become one of the top yacht clubs in the world. “If you had to name 10 of the most renowned in the world, we’d be one of them,” says lawyer Corky Potts, commodore of the club. “We’ve had the most Olympic medals in the country.” In fact, in the 1930s, SYC member Gilbert Gray was the first U.S. citizen ever to win a gold medal in sailing. In 2004 another member won the club’s most recent Olympic medal, a silver, and in 2005, the SYC brought home the prestigious Sewanhaka Cup, a coveted international racing trophy. Sadly, most of the trophies and cups commemorating the club’s many wins were lost in the August fire, which was not the first in the yacht club’s history.
In the 1940s, wear and tear from the Navy’s wartime use of the SYC building rendered the second clubhouse structurally unsound, so in 1949 the members built the third and most recent of the clubhouses. Designed by architect Douglas V. Freret, the building, streamlined like a cruise ship and built of steel and reinforced concrete, was dedicated at a gala celebrating the centennial of the club. It was home to the club’s members for more than half a century. “Since the clubhouse burned, I’ve probably been contacted by 40 different [yacht] clubs asking what they can do to help us,” Potts says. “We’ve had correspondence from clubs as far away as South Africa, San Francisco, New York, Puerto Rico, Scotland and Italy.”
Last summer, the SYC had approved plans for a major renovation of its facilities. But the plans had not been finalized when Katrina struck. The SYC is currently exploring ideas such as building a new clubhouse that closely resembles one of the two previous buildings or one that would include features typically associated with traditional Southern architecture, such as a porch.
Whatever its design, its mission is clear. ”We’re trying to accommodate the new and young urban sailing families to feed the membership, while continuing to foster the traditions of over 150 years,” Potts says of the 1,700-member organization. “The traditions of the Southern Yacht Club are some of the oldest traditions of the city,” he adds. “The common threads are the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the enjoyment of boating.”