The American Club in Wisconsin has long been a favorite of Andrew Harper members. The 241-room hotel has an improbable history, having opened in 1981 in a red-brick building that decades before had served as a dormitory for single male immigrant employees of Kohler Co.
The idea at the time was to provide Kohler workers with clean and comfortable quarters as well as a place for them to learn how to speak English proficiently and prepare for the American citizenship exams company leaders encouraged them to take. “A worker deserves not only wages but roses as well,” said Walter Kohler, the then-CEO at the dedication of the building when it opened in 1918. And it was his nephew Herbert V. Kohler Jr., the current executive chairman of the company, who endowed the inn with its name, to reflect its original raison d’etre.
Today, the property’s accommodations are outfitted with showers, tubs, sinks and faucets by the famous Kohler brand. Apparently, it is not unknown for guests to change rooms during their stay so they can sample different models and combinations of fixtures.
Herb Kohler has long led the company his grandfather founded in 1873. He brought it into the hospitality business some four decades ago, and during that time has demonstrated a drive for constant improvement. Not even a global pandemic has thwarted him, as evidenced by the recent debut of some rustic yet sumptuously appointed cabins and the unveiling of a 10-hole, par-3 “short course” at Blackwolf Run called the Baths.
The American Club is the centerpiece of the sprawling Destination Kohler resort that includes the recommended Carriage House, a “hotel within a hotel” attached to the spa, and the less expensive Inn at Woodlake, which functions as a separate property. In addition to the Baths, there is a quartet of 18-hole golf courses that are ranked among the best in the United States. Two of those, the Straits and the Irish, are located 9 miles northeast of The American Club in the farming hamlet of Haven, while the River and Meadow Valleys layouts are just a short drive away on the southeast edge of the village of Kohler. The resort complex also boasts 10 restaurants and cafés, a fitness facility, a dozen tennis courts, a golf academy and an indoor swing studio and a 500-acre nature preserve.
The American Club also features the Kohler Waters Spa, which has 21 treatment rooms and utilizes the company’s plumbing products in a number of innovative ways, and the Kohler Cabin Collection, four high-end cabins in secluded parts of Kohler and the neighboring town of Mosel.
Most of the rooms in the annex are named after carriages, a nod to Kohler’s passion for driving coaches with Morgan horses from his breeding farms.
On my recent trip, I opted to stay at the Carriage House, the 52-room annex located just across the street from The American Club. Although hardly isolated, it felt tranquil and private owing to its relatively modest size. I rarely saw more than one other guest whenever I entered the lobby.
Most of the rooms in the annex are named after carriages, a nod to Kohler’s passion for driving coaches with Morgan horses from his breeding farms. My room, Cabriolet, reminded me of those in The American Club itself, with its dark wood paneling, thick drapes, upholstered chairs in sedate shades and window seats with chocolate leather cushions. These dark colors were offset by pale yellow-and-green-striped wallpaper. The bathroom was equipped with a cavernous tub with a series of water jets, and the walk-in shower had two heads, both ejecting water with equal pressure.
There was no better place to be after a full day of golf, except perhaps in the Kohler Waters Spa itself, which was just an elevator ride away. This offers a wide range of treatments in its 25,000-square-foot facility. Alas, I only had time for one this visit, a Woodsman massage that left me feeling wonderfully limber and smelling somewhat of pine. But I did return each evening for a soak in its grottolike pool, letting a cascade of water, maintained at a perfect 86 degrees, wash over my back.
Nearly a decade ago, Kohler built his first cabin, Sandhill, located in a 350-acre nature preserve that boasts wildflower-flecked meadows and stands of pines and hardwoods in Mosel. The three-level, 2,000-square-foot lodging sleeps up to six people and features a red steel roof, weathered wood siding and a wraparound porch. Hand-hewn wood beams and a stone fireplace help generate a strong sense of place, as do framed prints that depict hunting and fishing scenes. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in natural light and provide sweeping views of a pond at the base of a gentle slope. One of the bathrooms is equipped with a classic claw-foot bath, made by Kohler, of course. And just off the front entrance stands a small stone-and-wood outbuilding that contains a sauna, plus a card room and wood stove.
Demand was so strong for Sandhill that Kohler decided to construct three other cabins. Red Fox opened to guests in 2019, and Pond and Lake this past year.
Unfortunately, all those dwellings were booked during my latest visit. But I was able to arrange tours of Sandhill and Lake through an accommodating concierge. As much as I appreciated Sandhill, it was Lake that truly captured my fancy. “Mr. Kohler has a passion for nature and believes in big entrances and big reveals,” my guide explained, as we walked through the woods down a trail toward the one-story 1,200-square foot cabin located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Suddenly, we turned a corner and entered a meadow of knee-high grass. As we followed the path to a structure with blond wood siding, I caught my first glimpse of the lake, as vast as an ocean and the color of indigo. The interior of the cabin came with whitewashed wood walls decorated with pastoral prints, and the rug and couch in the living room matched the blue of the waters visible through the windows. Each of the two bedrooms had a king-size bed; the bathrooms, accessed through sliding barn doors, featured walk-in showers. I ambled onto the back porch and discovered a pair of rocking chairs and a gas grill. There, I watched butterflies flit along the tops of daisies, took note of a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs and fantasized about spending a summer evening in that very spot.
As we followed the path to a structure with blond wood siding, I caught my first glimpse of the lake, as vast as an ocean and the color of indigo.
The American Club has three restaurants, the best of which is The Immigrant. It comprises six rooms designed to reflect the different ethnic backgrounds of early Wisconsin settlers and offers contemporary cuisine with locally sourced ingredients. It also boasts a 51-page wine list with something for every palate — and most every pocketbook — from New Zealand whites to first-growth Bordeaux. My dinner there was as superb as ever. I opted for the five-course tasting menu, which opened with a chubby crab cake accompanied by a dollop of red curry aioli, followed by pan-seared foie gras, a hoisin-glazed pork belly hot pot and a grilled A5 wagyu strip loin. The wine pairings were imaginative, but I was especially pleased when the sommelier went off-script and poured me a glass of Shafer “Relentless,” due to an earlier conversation about the vineyard. It was a wonderful treat — as was the lemongrass panna cotta topped with roasted peaches that I devoured for dessert.
The Wisconsin Room is also a favorite of mine. Located in what once was the dining hall for the immigrants living in the old dormitory, it takes a farm-to-table approach to the breakfasts and dinners it serves daily and relies heavily on seasonal ingredients. I also enjoy visiting the tavernlike Horse & Plow that operates in the space where the workers used to retire for a pint or two at the end of the day. The beer still flows in today’s bar, and it features an exceptional list of European ales and lagers and American microbrews.
The resort’s four golf courses are among the finest in the United States. On this occasion, I was keen to check out Whistling Straits, the links-style gem Pete Dye laid out on the shores of Lake Michigan more than two decades ago. This September, it is hosting the Ryder Cup, which pits the best professional golfers from the U.S. and Europe against one another and invariably produces high drama and high anxiety. Of course, it also makes recreational golfers pine to play the course on which the matches are staged. My round lived up to my high expectations.
So-called short courses have recently become all the rage. In addition to providing another option for golfers, especially those of a certain age who no longer want to play two rounds of 18 holes in a single day, they also add an element of fun not found on more traditional and formal tracks. Recognizing the trend, Kohler decided to build the Baths. Located on 27 acres between the first and 11th holes of the Meadow Valleys course at Blackwolf Run, it features 10 holes that range from 60 to 160 yards and four strategic water features — or “Baths.” A former protégé of Dye’s, Chris Lutzke designed the track with significant input from Kohler, and many of the holes are modeled after Old World classics, like the Redan at North Berwick in Scotland and the Dell from Lahinch in Ireland. There is also a 2-acre putting green fashioned after the fabled Himalayas putting course in St. Andrews.
Many of the holes on the new short course are modeled after Old World classics, like the Redan at North Berwick in Scotland and the Dell from Lahinch in Ireland.
Oftentimes at the Baths, players shed their shoes and walk their rounds barefoot. Some also eschew their regular bags, instead stuffing a handful of irons into one of the small carry bags the resort provides. Music plays over speakers around the putting course, and players sit at tables on a stone terrace sipping craft beers and eating bratwursts they bought at a restored wood cabin that serves as combination starter’s hut, bar and grill. There is even a trio of fire pits for cool days in the spring and fall, when the courses are still open.
Kohler himself was sitting in a golf cart by the first tee of the Baths the day I played, and he beamed as he watched groups of golfers start out. “I love this,” he said as guests stopped by to shake his hand. “People are having fun, and this gives them another way to enjoy golf. We want them to be happy. We do birthday parties here. Corporate events, too. We get sixsomes and eightsomes, and we let the kids walk into the Baths, if they so desire, and get their feet wet.”
Even though the Baths has been open only a few months, it already has a convivial atmosphere. Just as important, the golf is of high quality. Any of the holes would stand up nicely on the big courses at the resort.
As ever, it was a joy to return to The American Club. It is one of those classic properties that just gets better and better with each passing year.
The quiet intimacy of the Carriage House annex; the easy access to the Kohler Waters Spa in the same building; the plethora of electrical outlets in our room; the iPad that made ordering room service so easy.
The desk chair felt too low for the surface on which I was trying to write and answer e-mails each day, and I found it uncomfortable to sit there for very long.
Though the golf courses only operate from mid-April through late October, the cabins in the Kohler Collection are open year-round and equipped with phones, cable television and high-speed internet; tours are available of the Kohler Design Center, which is part museum and part showroom and features displays of Kohler plumbing products from the past and present; it is also possible to tour the Kohler factory in town.