Normandie Golf Course has enjoyed its share of celebrity over the years. Founded in 1901 and thought to be the oldest course west of the Mississippi, Normandie played host to the first major golf tournaments held in St. Louis. In the 1920s it became the regional playground of the rich and famous -- an exclusive club where boasts and wagers flew loose and wild.
Legend has it that Babe Ruth, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra all exchanged money on Normandie's golf course or clubhouse poker tables. Such was its notoriety that Colliers magazine once cited it as the top gambling golf club in the nation.
Today much of Normandie's prestige has faded. In 1985 the club opened to the public, and now its patrons are more blue-collar than blue-blooded. Still, for long-time fans of the course, the stakes have never been higher -- especially since last June, when it was revealed that the owners of the golf course planned to sell it to a real-estate developer.
The development deal, which would replace the course with 400 single-family homes, has sparked a firestorm of protest within the Village of Bel-Nor, where the golf course takes up approximately one-third of the tiny north-county municipality.
"Normandie is the anchor of this community," argues Joe Filla, a silver-haired accountant who has volunteered his services to fight the development. "The golf course is what makes Bel-Nor a great place to live, and now someone wants to destroy it by putting up a bunch of tacky housing? We simply can't lose it."
Driving his green Chrysler minivan through his Bel-Nor neighborhood, Filla points out the dozens of protest signs that pepper the yards of the charming brick and stone homes lining the 117-acre course. The signs, at ten bucks a pop, are one of the key fundraising devices for a citizen's brigade that has formed to oppose the development.
As the unofficial chairman of the group "Save Normandie Golf Course," Filla is leading a vocal and diverse crowd that claims it's fighting to preserve both the Village of Bel-Nor and the grand history of Normandie. Filla maintains that 99 percent of the residents of Bel-Nor and nearby Greendale support his cause.
In a strange anomaly of 1960s grass-roots revivalism, the citizen's campaign has drawn support of both black and white, rich and poor. So passionate are members of the campaign they've even composed a Woody Guthrie-like ballad:
Come ye friends and come ye neighbors, stand up for your town.
Don't allow some outside group to tear that golf course down.
Tell them, "You're not welcome, we won't have it, listen to our plea.
Save the 18 holes and the trees and the valleys and the hills of Normandie."
"I've never seen anything rally this neighborhood like this issue," says Filla, who moved to the neighborhood from University City in 1977. "But it's not just here -- we've got people in Clayton, south county, west county and all over the city supporting our efforts. We've even received e-mails as far away as Miami and Boston."
Even one of the owners of the golf course has sided with the Save Normandie group.
Since 1937 the course has resided in the family trust of the late Rice Emerson, a local businessman who bought the club when the original owners defaulted on their debt. Today some eleven descendents of Emerson hold ownership in the golf course.
Robbie White, Emerson's great-grandson, says family lore has it that Emerson requested on his deathbed that the family keep the land as a golf course.
"It's obvious to me they're more concerned about getting money and don't care about the history and tradition of the course," fumes White, who served as the trustee of the estate from 1995 to 2003. "Thing is, there's no mulligan on this deal. Once they tear it up for development, it's over. You can't replace a course like Normandie."
White believes that some members of the family wanted to sell Normandie for decades. It was not until this summer, however, that the trust assembled enough votes to sell the course. White says the measure passed by one vote.
Jack Hisserich, the current trustee of the estate, declined comment, other than to say the matter was not for public consumption.
"[White] shouldn't be talking," says Hisserich, who married into the family and works as a general sales manager for Plaza Lexus in Creve Coeur. "This is a private trust, and all I can say is that the majority of the owners have elected to put the course under contract, and that's what we plan to do."
The amount of money the trust will receive for the land is not clear. White says he's been out of the loop with the family ever since voicing his opposition to the deal last fall. Hisserich declined to name a price, and Bill Taylor, president of Taylor-Morley Homes, which plans to build the development, could not be reached for comment.
County tax records place an appraised value on the land at $2.9 million. White believes the trust will likely receive much more than that.
In reaction to public uproar last September, the Village of Bel-Nor slapped a six-month moratorium on any development on the course. Taylor-Morley later filed suit in St. Louis County Court to lift the moratorium, and the village responded by filing a motion to dismiss the suit. The suit remains in court. Meanwhile, the six-month moratorium is set to expire at the end of this month, a deadline that has the Save Normandie group scrambling for a long-term solution to preserve the course.
Normandie is currently zoned only for a golf course or a cemetery, but the village has hired an urban consulting firm to explore other possibilities for the land. Those findings likely will not be available for several weeks, and city attorney Kevin O'Keefe says it's too early to determine what may happen.
"When the city last looked at its future during its build-up in the '40s and '50s, it was presumed the land would remain a golf course until the village or the landowners saw another use for it," he says. "Now that time has come and we're looking into all alternatives."
O'Keefe's words do little to allay the fears of Filla and the Save Normandie group, who believe the development will decrease property values in the area. The group has retained an attorney and amassed a war chest in excess of $10,000 to fight the development. Still, Filla concedes the odds are great, particularly when taking on the likes of a real-estate giant like Taylor-Morley, which reported revenue of about $100 million in 2003.
"There's going to be a legalistic fight over this, but we feel we have good grounds to fight it," he says. "I'm confident in our outcome."