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Wampanoag Country Club President: ‘Build Back Better Plan’ Set to Begin

Fire damage to the clubhouse at Wampanoag Country Club visible Sunday afternoon. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Wampanoag President Glenn Cunningham said that although the clubhouse at the West Hartford country club was devastated by fire over the weekend, he hopes to get people out playing golf in a matter of days.

Wampanoag Country Club. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

By Ronni Newton

Wampanoag Country Club leadership and members are coping with the aftermath of not one, but two fires that impacted the clubhouse over the weekend – the second of which essentially destroyed the structure – but Glenn Cunningham, the club’s president, remains optimistic and is looking at the silver linings.

“If there’s one good thing, the community outreach has been really heartwarming,” he told We-Ha.com Monday afternoon, as the process of assessing the damage and implementing contingency plans kicks into high gear.

Cunningham said Wampanoag, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024, is prepared to implement its “build back better” plan.

“The clubhouse is the clubhouse,” he said. While the building that burned down Sunday, which was constructed in 1955 and renovated just a few years ago, is an important element of the Wampanoag experience and will likely need to be completely replaced, the golf course itself is intact.

Fire damage visible Sunday afternoon at the rear of the clubhouse at Wampanoag Country Club. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“The course, which has always been the gem, was completely untouched,” Cunningham said. That course, one of nearly 400 courses, including several dozen in New England, designed by famed golf course architect Donald Ross, affords a challenging golf experience to players of all levels while maximizing the natural elements in the bucolic park-like setting. The course was renovated beginning in the fall of 2022 and reopened for play with great acclaim for the 2023 season.

Golf Digest ranked the renovation No. 4 among 30 golf course renovations for 2023, noting that “architects Tyler Rae and Kyle Franz, working with historian-consultant Brad Klein (a former Wampanoag member), commenced a comprehensive restoration of the course that included several new and newly enlarged greens and tees and significant tree removal. Back are Ross’s cops and chiseled bunkers rotated at angles into the avenues of play setting up set-piece strategies,” the article states. The renovation restored and enlarged lost bunkers, “twisting them suggestively across fairways as Ross had them, and also re-introduced short top-shot bunkers that rarely come into play but create depth and directional confusion … after nearly 100 years feels once again like the golf course it was meant to be.”

Cunningham said he expects the pool to be up and running by Memorial Day weekend – which is the usual opening date. The pool area was not damaged, but just needs cleaning up. The firepit area also was survived the blaze without damage.

The fire pit area behind the clubhouse at Wampanoag Country Club appears undamaged from the fire that ripped through the building. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The clubhouse was renowned for its views – especially from the patio – and although the building has been gutted, the views remain. “We’ll just have to build a new gathering space,” said Cunningham.

The clubhouse area has been fenced off for security purposes and Cunningham said Wampanoag staff has not been able to get inside.

The West Hartford Fire Department was able to retrieve several items, and among the items they were already able to salvage for the club were Ross’ original sketches for the course that were stored in a protected room in the basement, below a concrete slab. Trophies and some other historical items have also been salvaged. The bag room is also located in the basement, and Cunningham said he hopes that other items will be able to be retrieved.

“We expect to be playing golf in days, not weeks,” Cunningham said, hopefully by this coming weekend. They will need to work with the fire department to ensure safe access to the course.

Wampanoag just purchased a brand new fleet of E-Z-GO golf carts. “They were unharmed,” Cunningham said, and will be ready for use as soon as power is restored to the cart barn so they can be charged.

“We’ve pivoted to contingent operations,” he said, and that includes setting up tented areas for gathering and bringing in or renting food trucks.

So many have offered assistance already, Cunningham said. Country clubs in the area, and other organizations, have been amazing, contacting him to ask, “What can we do for you?”

He is especially grateful to Hopmeadow Country Club in Simsbury for immediately picking up the Watkinson School prom that was scheduled for Saturday night at Wampanoag – the day of the first fire. “They picked it right up,” he said. “The folks at Watkinson were terrific,” he added, and reportedly everyone had a great time.

Smaller member events, such as bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, confirmation parties, and showers, will need to be moved to other venues, and those plans are in the works. There was one wedding scheduled to take place in a few months, and they are working with the couple on relocating that event as well.

Cunningham said he is hopeful that golf-related activities won’t need to be moved. “I’m hopeful we will be able to combine the golf events this summer.”

Fire damage to the clubhouse at Wampanoag Country Club visible Sunday afternoon. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The first fire, which was reported at 2:10 a.m. on Saturday, April 20, originated at the east end of the loading dock area of the clubhouse and also extended into multiple areas of the roof and attic space and resulting in propane cylinders catching fire. Officials said it was challenging to gain access to all areas of the attic to which the fire had spread, and fire was burning in multiple pockets of the attic area. Much of the work had to be performed from the roof as well as from extended ladders.

Restoration activities had already begun at the clubhouse, and contractor vehicles and generators were at the scene. The fire suppression system in the building had been reactivated as well, Cunningham said.

Almost exactly 24 hours after the first fire, at 2:18 a.m. on Sunday, April 21, nearby residents called 911 to report that the clubhouse was ablaze. That fire – much more significant than the first – spread throughout the entire structure, and the roof was already partially collapsed when crews arrived at 2:23 a.m., officials said.

A fire early in the morning of April 21, 2024 consumed the clubhouse at Wampanoag Country Club. Photo credit: Deb Savage Schunder (we-ha.com file photo)

Both fires remain under investigation by the West Hartford Fire Department’s Fire Marshal’s Office and West Hartford Police Department and the Connecticut State Police Fire Explosion and Investigation Unit are also involved.

Fire Chief Greg Priest said an update would be forthcoming soon.

“Thank you to the community for your outpouring of support,” Cunningham said. “We are just thankful that no one was hurt, and grateful to Chief Priest and his crew.”

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