A century ago, the Automobile Club of Buffalo wanted to build a country clubhouse for its members, within a day's drive from the city.
The organization found a suitable spot in Clarence, roughly 17 miles from downtown. And in 1911, the clubhouse made its debut.
The centennial of what it is today called the Clarence Town Park Clubhouse will be celebrated Saturday, in connection with the annual Day in the Park, at 10405 Main St. The clubhouse's events will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with other Day in the Park events starting at 2 and fireworks at 9:45.
In its early days, when car ownership was still new, the clubhouse was an exclusive getaway. But after the town acquired the clubhouse and its grounds in the late 1950s, the property became more widely used.
"For years it was only enjoyed by the rich and famous," said Sharon Barker, chairwoman of the Clarence Clubhouse Restoration Committee. "And now everybody in the town of all means gets to enjoy it. And I think it's a great place for meeting new people through all the organizations."
The elegant, Arts & Crafts-style clubhouse was designed by the noted architectural firm Esenwein & Johnson, known for buildings such as the Electric Tower and the Temple of Music at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.
But for the Automobile Club of Buffalo, the country clubhouse proved a heavy financial burden over time, according to a history provided by the AAA. And as cars became more advanced, car ownership grew, and the network of roads expanded, a drive from Buffalo to Clarence became less of a novelty, said Doug Kohler, the Erie County historian.
"That changes the way you view using your automobile and sort of what the building was going to be used for," Kohler said.
A turning point came in 1957, when the town acquired the clubhouse and its grounds, ushering in the property's present use as a community meeting space and park.
The clubhouse has its devotees, especially among organizations that use it. Those groups have played a key role in efforts to restore parts of the clubhouse, including furniture and lights, Barker said.
"We've done an awful lot in just a few years," Barker said. She credits Kathleen Hallock with being the guiding force behind the formation of the restoration committee several years ago, when Hallock was town supervisor.
As black-and-white photos on the wall from the early days show, the clubhouse maintains a strong resemblance to its appearance a century ago.
"It's nice for a community to have a place that is both historic and functional," Kohler said.
Saturday will be a big celebration for the clubhouse, with an exhibit of automobiles from the early 1900s, speakers and tours. Two restored paintings of Glacier National Park by artist John Fery will be unveiled. The paintings were part of a collection commissioned by the Great Northern Railway that were donated decades ago to clubs, like the one in Clarence, to promote trips to the park, which the railroad served.