September 28, 2020

Holding Fast to Tradition at Charlevoix’s Belvedere Club

By Kristi Kates | April 22, 2017

The word belvedere is derived from two Italian words: bel, meaning beautiful, and vedere, which means view. The English language has borrowed the word since the late 1500s. Appropriately enough, it’s the name of an exclusive summer community in Charlevoix with a beautiful view of its own.

The Belvedere Club’s storied history began in the late 1800s. In 1878, the club was called the Charlevoix Resort Association. It started when a group of people from various church groups further south came Up North and built a half dozen cottages near the Pine River Channel in Charlevoix.

Dennis “Marty” Joy is the PGA golf professional at the associated Belvedere Golf Club. A Charlevoix native who’s currently writing two books about the club and its architect, William Watson, he’s also delved into the history of the Belvedere Club itself, all the way back to its beginnings.

“These groups first traveled here to get away from the summertime heat and disease in big cities like Nashville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati,” Joy explained. “Add in a little ‘summer fever,’ and the wealthy people figured that Charlevoix would be a pretty great place to build their vacation getaways.”

In 1879, the Belvedere Hotel was built as a boarding home for guests of the resort as well as loggers; it burned down in 1886 and was replaced by the New Belvedere Hotel in 1887, with rates of $2 per night or $6 per week. By 1882, more and more cottages were being added to what was now called the Charlevoix Summer Resort Organization. Finally, in 1923, the group added a “casino” and changed the name to the Belvedere Club.

“The term ‘casino’ [didn’t mean] a gambling facility,” Joy quickly explained. “It was a different term back then, simply meaning a place where parties and gatherings were held.”

Some of the oldest and most notable homes of the Belvedere Club have huge terraces with spectacular views across Lake Charlevoix. Belvedere cottages on the other side of the resort overlook downtown Charlevoix, the annual 4th of July fireworks display and the neighboring Chicago Club, which is much like the Belvedere Club, just a little smaller.

“The Chicago Club is mostly people from Chicago, as the name would suggest,” Joy said. “They only have about 30 cottages, but at the turn of the century, it was said the Chicago Club actually had more millionaires than there were millionaires across the entire U.S.”

Ninety cottages still remain at the Belvedere Club today, behind big white gates that are closed and locked at night during the summer season. Most are still the original buildings from 1878; Joy noted that only a few cottages have been “built new” in recent years. “I’m guessing around 70–80 percent were actually built before 1940,” he said, “and the interesting thing is that they were built, literally, with whatever you could find.”

During the time that Belvedere was being expanded, northern Michigan was the scene of a lumber boom. Much of the area was being clear cut, with the lakes and streams full of lumber on its way elsewhere. The cottages in Belvedere were consequently built with clapboard, ship beams and leftover lumber. “It’s not like you could go to Home Depot back then,” Joy pointed out. But this approach made each cottage individual and unique, and many of the owners went the extra mile to add special ornate features like crow’s nests, cupolas and secret passages. Also included in some of the cottages were hidden service entrances, as these were more genteel times. In addition to the exclusivity of the club itself, Belvedere members also commonly employed maids, chauffeurs and other service staff.

“I remember growing up here, and it was just a normal thing that all the Belvedere people had ‘help,’” Joy recollected. “The help was as generational as the families that came up here, so if you were a maid and you worked for, say, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, then your kids would grow up to work for the Smiths, and your grandkids would work for them, too. But all the help was treated very well, like part of the family.”

Employing “help” continued until the end of the 1970s and for the most part phased out as the ‘80s arrived. “By 1988, I think just a couple of families were bringing their own help up with them,” Joy said. “Today some still have nannies for their kids, but that’s about it.”

Also generational are the cottages themselves. Family members of each cottage have first dibs on them, and there’s a membership board that must approve any construction or improvements on the cottages. While most Belvedere members keep their exteriors true to the original period, just sprucing them up as needed, many families upgrade interior features like kitchens, bathrooms and fireplaces. David Gray is the Belvedere Club’s general manager; he’s been there for the past five years. “Belvedere respects the architecture that came before,” he explained. “When [owners] do make changes, they kind of mirror what was already there and just renew and refresh it.”

In order to buy outright if you’re not already a Belvedere Club family member, you first have to be approved to rent. Then you have to rent acceptably for a certain number of seasons so the membership board can get to know you. “Once you’re approved, you can apply to buy, but right now only about one or two cottages per year actually come up for sale,” Joy said.

About half the Belvedere cottages are winterized; the grounds are open to the public in the winter for foot traffic and cross country skiing, and some Belvedere families return to their cottages for Christmas or ski trips. “But most of the winterized cottages don’t really get used that much,” Joy said. “The owners think they’re going to come up here every winter, but really they only come up maybe every five or six years.”

Summer remains the high season, although the schedule is a little different these days. “Members used to come up on Memorial Day and leave on Labor Day, but now the season’s been shortened,” Gray said. “Kids often stay in school until June and have to be back as early as August; some families do stay the entire summer, but others only spend about six to eight weeks here.”

Access to Lake Charlevoix is the obvious draw of the Belvedere Club, but similar to what you might remember in the movie Dirty Dancing, in travelogues about the resorts of Pennsylvania’s popular Poconos or in nearby places like Petoskey’s own Bay View summer community, Belvedere also has its own slate of classic summer activities that recollect the longstanding traditions of summer camps from the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Once kids hit age five, we have ‘gangs’ for them, all the way up through the teenagers,” Joy explained. “You start early with tennis, golf and learning to sail, and for the older kids there are overnight trips to places like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and Tahquamenon Falls in the U.P.”

Beach time is another popular pursuit, and the Belvedere Club has its own beach with multicolored cabanas. Each family owns its own cabana, sturdy structures made of refined cement block with colorful awnings stretching out over the front entrances. Some cabanas even have refrigerators and bars. There’s also a garden club, plenty of scenic landscaping and a small yacht club with 30 privately owned boathouses and a couple of 20–foot daysailers available to take club members and guests on mannerly cruises around the lake.

Mrs. Nancy Porter lives Up North full time. Previously from Missouri, she married local dentist Jeffrey Porter (now retired) and became a Charlevoix resident and member of the Belvedere Golf Club, but she knows the Belvedere Club well. She visited for the first time with her parents when she was five years old.

“We came up from St. Louis, and my parents rented a cottage at Belvedere,” Porter said. “I remember belonging to the ‘gang,’ swimming and playing golf and tennis. There was such a sense of freedom, even at the age of five – being able to walk downtown and get an ice cream on my own felt very grown–up at the time. There’s no way you could do that now, and we didn’t do that at all in St. Louis.”

After that initial visit, Porter returned with her parents in 1958 when she was 15 years old and quickly caught up with other teens she’d played with as a child. “We’d meet at the casino and dance, and there was a lot of waterskiing and hanging out at the beach,” she said. By her late 20s, Porter had purchased her own Belvedere cottage (“history repeating itself,” she said.) And she still sees many of her Belvedere Club friends today. “Some of them I’ve known since I was 15,” she recalled. “It was always so hot and humid in St. Louis, so we’d come up to Belvedere and Charlevoix and see all these people again, and it was just like another world. In those days, too, people didn’t have TVs or air conditioning up here – you didn’t need them. So it was very different and very memorable.”

The casino was another big draw at Belvedere, with its casual resort feel and big wraparound porch. Today, it offers daily lunches in the summer and special evening dinners for members as well as events like coat and tie dinners, banquets and weddings, all right on the lake.

“In the summers, Memorial Day through Labor Day, the casino is members only; it’s made available for the public to book in the off–season for weddings and parties,” Joy explained.

The previously mentioned golf club – Joy’s domain – was the host of the Michigan Amateur Golf Championship for 40 years and is just now getting its own mini–renovation that will hearken back to Belvedere’s early days.

“A print shop in downtown Charlevoix was being demolished to make room for a new restaurant, and in so doing, they found drawings from 1925 with William Watson’s original plans for Belvedere’s golf club and golf course,” Joy explained. “We were very excited about this, so we’re using them to restore the club and course back to how they were meant to be.”

This process began last fall and is slated for completion by Memorial Day this year. The golf club is open to the public, with the exception of member hours for tee off from noon to 2pm every day, so it’s a great place to get a sneak peek at the golf club’s new vintage revamp or an introduction to the Belvedere Club itself.

Indeed, nearly 140 years later, the allure continues to be strong for this unique summer community. Is this a surprise to Joy, considering how much our country and its social structures have changed since the 1800s?

“The Belvedere Club is antiquated only in the sense that some of the money is running out,” he said. “But as far as traditions go, I think everyone wants to be a member. You’re in Charlevoix, with views of the lake, and it’s just a beautiful place to be.”

Gray agreed that tradition is a big part of why places like Belvedere still matter. “These families have been coming here for years, so it means a lot to them to keep all these memories intact,” he said. It’s also a place, he added, where you can meet friends and family, people you might not see all winter long, and pick up right where you left off.

“It’s like a summer camp you go to for your entire life,” Joy concluded, “but it’s a camp you never grow out of.”

For more information, contact belvederegolfclub.com or (231) 547-2512.

PICTURED ABOVE: The former Belvedere Hotel, which burned down in 1886. Photo courtesy of Dennis “Marty” Joy and Belvedere Club member Lori Autterson.

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