Miniature golf is golf’s younger, tackier friend. Popularized in the 1920s by a Tennessee resort owner, the sport is now thought of as a quaint vacation activity or a solid idea for a kid’s birthday party — if it’s thought of at all.
But miniature golf was wildly popular across the country around the time of the Great Depression, including in Washington, D.C. At one point, there were upwards of 30 miniature golf courses in the District. Now, there’s only one: East Potomac Miniature Golf on Hains Point.
The course holds a special place in some people’s hearts. It’s on the National Register for Historic Places, and the Atlas Obscura Society D.C. included it on its list of unusual places to visit in the city. But many locals and newcomers alike aren’t aware that it even exists, must less its ties to major moments in the city’s history.
Part 1: The Mini Golf Craze Of The 1930s
There were only a handful of mini golf courses in the U.S in 1928, but there were about 30,000 just two years later. “American sportdom has known no such epidemic,” reads a Washington Post article from Aug. 31, 1930. “Even the bicycle craze, of the old days, pales into insignificance beside the popularity accorded Lilliputian golf.”
In the District, people built mini golf courses on rooftops, in vacant lots and, eventually, on government land. The 18-hole miniature golf course at the federally-managed East Potomac Park opened on May 9, 1931. It had long, leisurely fairways, stone barriers and a few flourishes, including miniature reconstructions of the White House, Capitol Building and Mt.Vernon.
The course is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, but the concessionaire who built and operated it was a businessman named Severine G. Leoffler, Sr. We’ll get back to him in a bit.
Part 2: Desegregation
East Potomac’s miniature golf course was segregated for its first decade of operation, as were all the city’s public recreation facilities. East Potomac Park was for whites, and Langston, a course in Anacostia Park, was for blacks. The facilities at Langston weren’t as well maintained, according to National Park Service historian Patti Kuhn Babin, who is currently conducting a study on the Park Service golf courses in D.C.
One day in 1941, a group of African American men came to play at East Potomac Park. White people verbally harassed them, Babin said, but efforts to keep the course segregated failed. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes opened the courses to everyone the following day. It was the first step in desegregating all public recreation areas in the city.
East Potomac Mini Golf continued to be a go-to destination after it was desegregated. The game remained relatively popular through World War II, in part because it was inexpensive. In 1948, a round of miniature golf cost 35 cents.
Part 3: Leoffler’s Reign
Through all of this, Severine G. Leoffler, Sr. operated the course. Leoffler was a lifelong entrepreneur with just as many business hits as misses: He started a rolled ice cream business (sold for $20,000), a box lunch business (sold for $100,000) and a square donut business (tanked). He also opened the first ice hockey arena in Washington, and operated a half-dozen golf courses around the region.
Leoffler’s tenacity probably served him well in the mini golf business, since his East Potomac Park course proved to be surprisingly controversial. Three months after it opened, public parks director Ulysses S. Grant III wrote Leoffler a letter claiming that the miniature golf course has become “a public nuisance.” A high-ranking official with the D.C. police confirmed that detectives in his bureau had observed “men (and some women) who we know to be identified with professional gambling, selling of liquor, etc.” hanging out at the course late at night. Grant told Leoffler that he had to close the course by 11:30 each night, a move that some avid mini golfers at the time called “an injustice.”
The miniature golf course at East Potomac Park survived even after every other course in the city shut down. Leoffler passed away in 1977, but his company continued to manage the links at East Potomac Park until 1983.
Part 4: The Present
Elsewhere in the region, a handful of new courses were built in the D.C. suburbs during the mini golf “boomlet” of the 1950s and early 1960s. Few remain today. While East Potomac Park has no other competition in D.C. proper, its location out on Hains Point and lack of frills have made it difficult to attract visitors. Between 2001 and 2017, the course averaged 7,180 rounds of miniature golf per year.
Kim Thomas manages East Potomac’s golf courses for the concessionaire GolfDC. She has visions for how to attract more mini golfers, such as introducing wine nights, adding more decorations and obstacles, and advertising along the newly redeveloped Wharf, across the river. But because of her budget and government contract, those ideas face an uncertain future. Thomas is hopeful that a change to the way the Park Service contracts with concessionaires, which is coming next year, will change that.
So, if you go to East Potomac Park today, the miniature golf course will look about how it did when it first opened nearly 90 years ago. A little more empty, yes, but just as charming, and much more diverse.
As published by WAMU – Mikaela Lefrak – 5-23-18