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Classic Hotel: The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin
by Judith Kirkwood

Forgive me for dwelling on it, but you can't help but think about bathrooms when you stay at the five-diamond American Club Resort in Kohler, Wisconsin. Especially if you happen to stop in at the Kohler Design Center, across the street, before checking in. Toilets and bidets hang like hunting trophies on the famous "Wall of China," and themed designer bathrooms — with names like "A Gentleman's Retreat," "Today's Yesterday," and (my favorite) "The Main Event" — are showcased every few feet.

The truth is that most visitors to this luxurious and idiosyncratic historical golf and spa resort probably check out their room's bathroom fixtures before doing anything else to see what kind of Kohler products have been installed: An antique-look rolled rim whirlpool tub? An artist's sink painted with peonies and ivy? The fixtures in my bathroom are disappointingly basic — no gooseneck spouts or pedestal lav, but the Fleur wall-mounted sink has nice lines, as does the toilet (better than a Rialto or a Wellington).

This preoccupation with bathrooms is entirely appropriate at the American Club. After all, Kohler is a leader in the plumbing industry. And the American Club is not only in the town that Kohler built, it's in the former living quarters of the immigrant men who produced the toilets, lavatories, and other fixtures that made the Kohler Company a brand name. Turning the company buildings into a haven for travelers was a stroke of recycling genius. What better way to illustrate the work ethic upon which this country was founded than to let guests live for a few days in a structure of our industrial heritage?

Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, and a member of Historic Hotels of America (it opened in 1918), the American Club is not all history lessons. It has the superb Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits golf courses designed by Pete Dye, which are sought after for tournament play. Regularly voted one of the top resort spas in the country, the American Club is opening a larger and more elaborate self-standing spa in one of the historical buildings this November. Its fitness center, Sports Core, offers tennis, racquetball, swimming (lake or pool), and a jogging path around Wood Lake.

The American Club celebrates holidays in high style, a tradition that began with the immigrants to give them a sense of a common national identity. It even creates holidays of its own like the annual Chocolate Gala, which is why my husband and I are here: cakes, tortes, pastries, ice creams, bonbons, and truffles. What can I say? It was 600 pounds of chocolate in a chilly room (to keep the chocolate from melting). If I hadn't compromised my abilities by having had dinner earlier, I could have sampled everything.

Food at the American Club is, and always has been, a destination in itself. The formal Immigrant restaurant and winery is a series of six rooms decorated to salute the European mix of early Wisconsin settlers, with a menu of gourmet beef, lobster, and lamb dishes. The Wisconsin Room was the original dining hall for the resident factory workers and is oriented more toward trout, duck, and venison. The Horse & Plow tavern (once the taproom for workers) and Greenhouse coffee bar (in a stained glass English greenhouse) are for snacks and sandwiches. And River Wildlife, a log cabin café in the woods that features game dishes (a lab is curled up under one table while a couple eats and hunting guns are left on the porch), is pure Wisconsin.

All of which has come to be expected. Most upscale resorts offer some variation of these extras. What sets the American Club apart as an original are two things: its setting in the town of Kohler and the convenient opportunity to take a fascinating 4-hour factory tour (which is free and open to the public).

It's not often that you get to be bathed, buffed, and polished at a spa with the latest water therapy appliances and fixtures one day — and the next day walk across the street to see how those tubs and showers were made. It's a reality check. It's industrial art. And at this particular factory, it's a trip back in time.

Yes, there's an automated molding machine that pours a bathtub every 30 seconds, and robots that look like dinosaurs that spray the prime coat on the red hot tubs. But seeing men rolling vats of flaming iron down the visitors' aisle, feeling the concrete floor of the building shake with earthquake rumblings as molten iron makes a sparkling fireworks display, it feels more like Dickens' England than the digital age. Hunched intense men ride large, ancient-looking tricycles around the floor, making deliveries or checking the progress of work.

The tour starts in the Pottery, where there are usually 700 people working in 3 shifts to mix powdered clay in tanks and then pack it into plaster molds to make different plumbing fixtures. On the day we tour, most of the workers are out deer hunting. The ones who remain are barechested and sweating — it can get up to 120 degrees in the pottery. We stop at one of the stations to watch a man applying a bead around the top of a toilet bowl as carefully as if he were putting the finishing touches to the frosting on a wedding cake. The Pottery produces 4,000 pieces a day and the kiln hasn't been shut off since the early 1960's since it would take 2 weeks to cool down.

Back at the American Club, we still have an afternoon of racquetball and swimming to look forward to, as well as dinner at Cucina, an Italian restaurant at Kohler's Shops at Woodlake (where there will be no chocolate for dessert). After dinner, we return to the American Club and take a carriage ride through the town of Kohler (population 1,900), which was laid out for Walter Kohler by the firm of Frederick Law Olmstead. Our driver is an immigrant from Austria, and is well-versed on the history of the resort and the town, of which he is fond. He is happy to take us through the winding streets of the village, which many visitors to the resort never see. Later in the evening we meet up with friends in the empty antechamber of one of the meeting rooms. It has a great fire going even though there's no one else around and we reminisce about our own childhoods, as if we, too, were immigrants, each from a different country.

The American Club, Highland Drive, Kohler, Wisconsin 53044
800-344-2838 or 920-457-8000
http://www.americanclub.com.

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