September 4, 2018 By: Frank Fitzpatrick — As he surveyed it all from the cockpit of his Bellanca CH-200 one crystalline May morning in 1929, the unspoiled countryside near Newtown Square, still laced with great estates, lush springtime thickets, and checkerboard fields in various shades of green, must have reminded Victor Dallin of his native England.
A World War I Royal Air Force pilot who came to Philadelphia in 1919 to help create its airport, Dallin owned and operated an aerial-photography business. He also was an avid golfer and, throughout the 1920s and 1930s whenever he flew above a club, he’d descend to 1,000 feet, throttle back, and either snap a photo himself with a shutter-mechanism beneath his seat or ask an on-board assistant to do so. Ultimately, his golf-course collection grew to include 135; most, like Pine Valley, Merion, Huntington Valley, and Whitemarsh, were in the Philadelphia area, but some were as far away as Georgia and North Carolina.
That day in 1929, he zeroed in on Aronimink Golf Club, only recently carved out of 300 hilly Delaware County acres by famed architect Donald Ross. From 1926 through 1939, Dallin would shoot 24 photos of the club, images that in 2016 served as the Rosetta Stone to an ambitious restoration of what already was among America’s elite venues, one that this week has hosted the 2018 BMW Championship.
Those vintage photos allowed Aronimink to recapture Ross’ original vision — widening fairways significantly, expanding the size of its greens, and, most notable, reinstalling as close to their original locales as possible the 176 bunkers that once were the layout’s signature feature.
“The photographs were critical to what we did,” said Gil Hanse, the Malvern-based golf architect who supervised the 1½ years of work that preceded the club’s hosting this weekend’s PGA event. “They were, in essence, our blueprint.”
Even before the first bulldozers arrived in 1926, Dallin had photographed the club in Newtown Square — its third location after West Philadelphia and Drexel Hill. He was back following its 1928 opening and returned periodically for flyovers until 1939, two years before he enlisted in the U.S. Army for World War II and dissolved his company.
After that, his revealing views of courses during an era when golf was exploding here and elsewhere were nearly forgotten. In 1970, by then retired in North Carolina, he donated them and the rest of his 13,600 aerial photos to Wilmington’s Hagley Museum.
“He loved golf, but golf courses also were one place where he felt he could get some business,” said Kevin Martin, curator of Hagley’s audiovisual and digital collections. “He imagined that golf courses would be interested in seeing them. He’d charge $100 for the photo, $25 for additional copies.”
Some of Dallin’s earliest views were of Pine Valley, the mysterious and exclusive course in Clementon, N.J., that’s often ranked as America’s finest. He flew over Merion in 1930 on the day Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur and completed golf’s Grand Slam. There are photos of Southern Pines and Pinehurst in North Carolina, and East Lake in Atlanta, the site of the FedEx Championship finale Sept. 20-23.
Dallin took a spectacular panorama of Center City Philadelphia in 1930, but most of his subjects were small towns, airports, housing developments, and country estates, like that of William du Pont, whose home and half-mile horse track along Route 252 can be spotted in some of the Aronimink photos.
His plane was a Goodyear blimp precursor, and newspapers here and elsewhere often carried Dallin’s overhead photos from sporting events — a sellout crowd at Franklin Field for a 1930 Notre Dame-Penn game, the Army-Navy game at Municipal Stadium, Shibe Park on the October day the 1930 World Series began. He sometimes dipped as low as 500 feet to get those shots.
“It wasn’t considered appropriate to be flying so low over crowds like that,” Martin said, “but there were no laws against it.”
But Dallin, who was awarded the Order of British Empire in 1946 and died at 94 in 1991, seemed most interested in golf. And course architects, many guided by a trend toward restoring layouts to their original state, are glad he was.
Not long after Hagley, an industry-focused museum and archive on the banks of the Brandywine Creek, put the Victor Dallin Aerial Survey Collection online, course designers discovered it.
“One of the most common uses for this collection over the last 20 years has been golf-course architects who are looking to see what the original layouts were,” Martin said.
It wasn’t until 2007, however, that anyone at Aronimink saw the photos of their course. That’s when superintendent John Gosselin, a former DuPont employee who lives in Delaware, learned of the collection. He visited Hagley, made copies, put them in an office desk, and forgot them.
“Then in 2016 our bunkers were failing and we needed to make a change,” said Steven Zodtner, a former club president and championship chairman for this event. “I established a two-member committee … to review what we needed to do. John met with them and said, `Oh, by the way, I have some old photos if you want to take a look.’ … If it had not been for the discovery of these pictures, we wouldn’t have had any idea what it was like when it was built.”
The most interesting finds were the 176 bunkers – more than double the 2016 total – that dotted Aronimink when it opened in 1928, many in distinctive clusters. Through the years, some of those clusters were consolidated into single hazards.
Confronted with photographic evidence of how time had altered a course Ross once called his masterpiece, club members voted to, wherever possible, take it back to its roots. And so a modest plan to rebuild 75 bunkers ballooned into a major restoration.
“We were delighted when the club ultimately decided that this was a worthwhile exercise and said, `We want to put them all back in the ground,’ ” Hanse said. “We also looked at the scale and size of the greens, the formation of the tees. [The company that did the bulldozing] blew the photos up and put them in the cab. I’d look at them every day.”
Many of the bunkers went back to their original spots, but, according to Zodtner, others, like those on the second hole, were placed 15-20 yards farther out to account for advances in golf equipment.
“When you’re dealing with an actual genius in Donald Ross, you try to figure out how to restore the principles, the layout, everything that he put into the landscape so that it still makes sense for the modern game,” Hanse said.
Another impactful change to Ross’ design – and one evident when Tiger Woods’ AT&T tournament was played there in 2010-11 — had been the narrowing of Aronimink’s fairways. Hanse broadened them by about 20 percent.
“With 30-yard fairways, players weren’t really thinking left side or right side. It was just about hitting the fairway,” Hanse said. “So in order to fit the scale of the golf course back into the landscape and provide players with the opportunity to make decisions if they want to challenge hazards, you’ve got to make the fairways wider.”
The club’s massive undertaking – it was closed from October to April for two years — was made easier by the clarity and detail of Dallin’s 90-year-old photos.
The onetime barnstormer who in 1940 became Philadelphia Municipal Airport’s first manager cut a hole into the floor of his six-seat Bellanca. He built the camera that fit there. He used Zeiss lenses and, until switching to roll film in the company’s final years, shot on 8-by-10-inch glass negatives. The photos were developed in a darkroom at his airport office.
“One of the challenges of taking photographs in an airplane was the vibration,” Martin said. “He would slow down when he wanted a photo and he surrounded the camera with rubber that acted like a shock absorber.”
Occasionally, Philadelphia-based architect William Flynn, who designed dozens of local courses as well as such national gems as Shinnecock Hills and the Country Club outside Boston, accompanied Dallin on a flight to better sense the landscapes he was shaping.
And so the PGA pros who have returned this past week to Aronimink after a seven-year absence will have someone other than Ross to thank or blame for the changes they’ll encounter. They can point to Dallin and his camera.