The (first) new clubhouse at Meadow Brook Golf Club in Reading, Mass., toward the end of its construction on March 24, 2021 (top), and during the fire that destroyed it on April 13, 2021. Photos by Rich Gagnon
If there’s a positive to be gleaned from the incredible run of bad luck that befell Meadow Brook Golf Club over a 361-day stretch, it’s this: Staff and members of the historic Reading, Mass., club have learned how to be flexible through adversity.
“There’ll never be a club more prepared for its clubhouse to burn down than ours,” says Rich Gagnon, Meadow Brook’s GCSAA Class A superintendent and a 27-year association member. “In a lot of ways, it was business as usual.”
Early on the morning of April 17, 2020, Gagnon received a frantic phone call from his mechanic, John Higgins.
“I live an hour away. I was just getting in my Jeep, and he called, screaming, ‘The clubhouse is burning to the ground,’” Gagnon recalls. “Fast-forward to this year. He called me at the same exact time and said, ‘The clubhouse is burning to the ground.’ I said, ‘John, please tell me you’re joking.’ He said, ‘I’d never joke about that.’”
In a case of diabolical déjà vu, Meadow Brook lost its 72-year-old clubhouse in 2020, then nearly a year to the day later, its in-progress replacement met the same fate, just weeks away from its scheduled grand opening.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Gagnon says. “In the beginning, there’s a lot of disbelief. It’s really just amazing. But one of the things people don’t think of is, we haven’t had a clubhouse since 2019. We’d been closed all winter, and it had only been open a few days before it burned down. This time, we already had the port-a-potties set up, the chain-link fence, the food truck, the trailers. The first fire, it was tough. The second fire ... it’s just another day where we don’t have a clubhouse.”
Despite the coincidences — same time of year, same time of day — neither fire is considered suspicious. An investigation into the 2020 blaze quickly determined it was an electrical fire that had started in the floorboards of the aging clubhouse’s kitchen. The cause of the second fire hasn’t been released, Gagnon says, but foul play isn’t suspected.
Watch CBS Boston’s coverage of the fire at Meadow Brook Golf Club on April 13, 2021:
If it weren’t for all the bad luck, perhaps it wouldn’t be so easy to see that Meadow Brook, a member-owned club, has benefited from some good fortune as well.
As part of its master plan, Meadow Brook had envisioned a new clubhouse years before the 2020 fire. Gagnon described that old clubhouse as run-down and poorly designed. Front-office staff, for example, would have to walk outside and up an outdoors staircase to reach the restrooms. “Obviously, since we’re just outside Boston, it’s lousy outside six months of the year,” Gagnon says.
Roughly four years ago, the club commissioned plans for a new $6 million clubhouse, and the permitting process began. Though no actual construction had begun, the plans were sitting on the proverbial shelf when the 2020 fire leveled the old building.
Meadow Brook Golf Club’s longtime clubhouse in 2016 (top), aflame on April 17, 2020, and post-blaze on April 19, 2020. Photos by Rich Gagnon
That first fire came at the start of the global pandemic, and “in some ways,” Gagnon says, “the timing could not have been better. The governor of Massachusetts declared no restaurants should be open — takeout only. You couldn’t have gatherings of more than X amount of people. There was no golf until late May. If you could pick a time to not have a clubhouse, it would be during 2020. It was actually somewhat convenient. Once golf opened up, we did have a little time to install port-a-potties, tents for dining and trailers for office workers. It bought us a little time.”
In Gagnon’s assessment, the 2020 fire didn’t have a huge impact on the golf course maintenance department. “In the beginning, it did a little bit,” says Gagnon, who was the subject of a December 2018 GCM article about his work as a professional published photographer. “Right off the bat, we had no electricity, no running water, no phone. They did get things up and running very quickly, within the first couple of days. Other than that, the impacts to my staff were minimal. Parking was probably the biggest effect day in and day out. Everything was fenced off around the clubhouse. Once construction started, you’ve got 25, 30 cars and pickups from the construction crew. We have a parking lot that spills into the gravel area in front of the maintenance building, so I’ve got cars completely surrounding the maintenance building. Sometimes I can’t get out of the building. That’s the biggest impact.
“As devastating as the fires were to everyone, my department was affected the least of all the departments. I couldn’t be more impressed with how resilient all my colleagues have been. I am proud to be associated with this group of people. We are all in this together. I am extremely grateful that no one was injured, and I’m extremely thankful to the Reading Fire Department and the first responders who worked so hard to minimize the spread of both fires.”
Right: Superintendent Rich Gagnon with his dog, Mayzie, whose first day on the job with Gagnon also happened to be the day of the 2020 clubhouse fire. Photo by Rich Gagnon
The infrastructure built to accommodate clubhouse staff displaced by the first fire — the food truck, tents for dining, a large refrigerator — is still intact, and the clubhouse plans are still relevant. Assuming an inspection of the foundation deems it sound — which would trim weeks from the reconstruction schedule — construction on the new new clubhouse can begin as early as this month. The club is targeting an April 2022 opening.
“Nothing has changed,” Gagnon says. “It’s just a matter of getting the green light. We’re ready to go. The plan is exactly the same. One positive is, this shows just how resilient the membership is. They’re 100% planning on rebuilding. It’s never been a question of ‘if.’ That positive reinforcement right out of the gate set us at ease.”
Editor’s note: Hear from more golf course superintendents who’ve been faced with flames in Wildfires and golf courses: What superintendents should know.
The nine-hole Meadow Brook Golf Club was established in 1898, and Gagnon has worked at the club for five years. While dealing with the aftermath of the 2021 fire, he learned that the clubhouse lost in 2020 had been built in 1948. Care to guess what happened to that clubhouse’s predecessor?
Yep — it burned down.
The clubhouse at Meadow Brook Golf Club following the 1948 fire. Photo courtesy of Rich Gagnon
“Everybody’s saying we must be built on a secret burial ground or something,” Gagnon says. “I really don’t think that’s the case.”
Might he feel differently if, come April 2022, he receives another frantic, 3 a.m. phone call from his mechanic that the new new new clubhouse is aflame once again?
“I’m not even going there,” Gagnon says.
Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.