With an eye toward the future, one Columbus business is reviving a piece of the city’s past.

From the original stone wall to the green carpeting to the windows overlooking its expansive 27-hole course, the newly renovated Otter Creek Golf Course Bar & Grill makes residents feel as if they have stepped back into 1965.

“It looks like it could have been the original,” Otter Creek golf pro Chad Cockerham told a crowd gathered Thursday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new restaurant.

The new Otter Creek Bar & Grill opened for business on the upper level of the course’s clubhouse Sept. 11 after a yearlong construction process, Cockerham said.

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The renovated space, previously used as a banquet hall, is now a full-service restaurant. It has a newly installed bar stocked with local craft beer, four 70-inch televisions and a wood-burning fireplace.

Official unveiling of the restaurant comes at a time of year when the course’s regular business begins to slow down, Cockerham said.

“This gives golfers an option to still do something once the weather gets bad,” he said.

Its start

A plan to develop a world-class golf course in Columbus took root in 1956, according to golf course records.Cummins officials wrote a letter to the U.S. Golf Association and other groups asking for a list of the top golf course designers in the world. Robert Trent Jones Sr. topped all of the lists.Otter Creek Golf Course was built by Cummins, but it was donated to the city in 1964.

“We would like to see this community come to be, not the cheapest, but the very best community of its size in the country,” said J. Irwin Miller, chairman of what was then known as Cummins Engine Co., in explaining the gift.

From the time Otter Creek was donated to the city, it has been run as a separate, not-for-profit entity, Otter Creek Management Corp. It is overseen by an all-volunteer board of directors, and money earned by the facility goes back into its maintenance.

When the golf course opened in 1965, the room where the Bar & Grill is housed was a formal dining restaurant designed by renowned architect Harry Weese.

Weese’s designs are featured in more buildings in Columbus than any other architect, according to Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, who cut the ribbon at Thursday’s ceremony.

The restaurant operated until 1998, when it was shut down and eventually converted into a banquet hall, along with another room on the building’s upper level.

As the years went by, Cockerham said, he began to think Otter Creek could put the banquet hall to better use. That’s why he called in Steve Risting — an Indianapolis-based architect who serves as president of the board for the Columbus, Indiana Architectural Archives — to study the room’s potential.

“It’s such a beautiful space, and we were looking for the best way to utilize it,” he said.

After completing his feasibility study, Risting found that restoring the restaurant would best serve the golf course and its customers. The room was already equipped with a rarely used kitchen, which was designed to run a restaurant. So returning the space to its original purpose was the most logical choice, he said.

Because the golf course prides itself on its architectural and design heritage, it was also a logical choice to restore the restaurant to its original image, Risting said.

That meant taking Weese’s design and updating it for modern use.

“I feel like I’ve been a member of Harry Weese’s office,” Risting said. “I tried to be very respectful to the original design and intent.”

Risting said the stone walls behind the bar are completely original to the Weese design and were left largely untouched by the renovation process.

“We were very careful not to drill into them,” he said.

The bar’s granite countertop was created to match the granite plaque with a quote from Cummins executive J. Irwin Miller’s dedication speech for the golf course when it opened 50 years ago.

The furniture that was wooden in the original restaurant was replaced with a more durable material but still resembles wood closely enough to honor the initial design.

The renovation did stray from Weese’s design in the kitchen, where Cockerham said there was too much space that would never be put to use. To resolve that issue, contractors partitioned off part of the kitchen space to better suit the needs of the restaurant’s traffic.

What next?

But the addition of the restaurant is only Phase 1 of what could be an extensive renovation, Risting said.His full feasibility study showed that locker rooms also located on the club house’s upper level no longer served the purpose they once did for the golf course because modern golfers have less of a need for those spaces.In the future, the locker rooms could be made smaller to create space for meeting rooms, which Cockerham said better suits the needs of the golf course as a whole.

However, all changes to the clubhouse will have to happen in phases, Cockerham said.

“We did this, and we want to see how this goes before we do something else,” he said.

Because of its architectural heritage, golfers often focus more of their attention on the upkeep of the course itself rather than the club house, Risting said.

However, like other aging buildings of significance in Columbus, the Otter Creek golf course should be carefully watched to ensure its unique design is not lost or damaged, Risting said.

The course is regularly ranked among the Top 100 places to play golf by Golf Digest, and maintaining that ranking includes maintaining the club house.

“The clubhouse is secondary, but it’s an architectural gem,” he said.

Freddie Wagner, a Seymour resident who has golfed at Otter Creek for about seven years, said she already has sampled — and enjoyed — some of the items on the Bar & Grill’s menu, including the hamburgers, tenderloin and beer.

Even though the golf season is winding down, the newly opened restaurant will give her and her husband, Gary, an excuse to visit Otter Creek regularly through the winter, she said.

“The golf course is such a gem, and the restaurant really adds to it,” Wagner said. “The food is wonderful. I’m really enthusiastic about it.”

Restoration of the restaurant hopefully will create more interest in preserving the clubhouse by attracting non-golfers to visit the building, Cockerham said.

In order to keep the golf course relevant in the community for years to come, he said, a constant evaluation of the ways the public can benefit from the clubhouse is necessary.

“This building is 50 years old, and things have changed a lot with the game of golf,” Cockerham said. “We want to modernize it, make the best use of the spaces and keep it up-to-date.”

About Otter Creek

Address: 11522 E. County Road 50N, Columbus

Phone: 812-579-5227

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Holes: 27

Cost for 18 holes: Monday-Friday, $79; Saturday-Sunday, $89; military, age discounts available

Otter Creek timeline

1964: Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs an 18-hole course for Cummins Engine Co., when is given to the city of Columbus as a gift.

June 1965: The original course opens with a formal dining restaurant in the clubhouse.

June 1995: An additional 9 holes designed by Rees Jones opens.

1998: Restaurant closes.

2014: Architect Steve Risting is hired for a feasibility study on the clubhouse, and renovation of the restaurant begins.

September 2015: The new restaurant opens, resembling the original design.

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.