I will present 3 sets, and you may ask what characteristics each set has in common:
1. Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall
2. Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Pennsylvania Station
3. The Forest Hills Tennis Stadium
Set 1 consists of NYC landmarks that it would be difficult to visualize our cityscape without. History proves that they were once at risk of the wrecking ball, until citizens and celebrities bonded, and advocated for their official landmark designation and continued use.
Set 2 represents a fraction of many sites that had architectural, cultural, and historical significance, and should have been safeguarded for future generations to utilize and cherish, but are now nothing more than dust in a landfill. Ebbets Field, demolished in 1960, and the Polo Grounds, demolished in 1964, have since been replaced by non-descript buildings of Anytown USA. New York City citizens rallied and urged the city to preserve the majestic Penn Station in 1963, but watched in awe with each slam of the wrecking ball. In 1965, the city answered to the countless pleas, when Mayor Robert Wagner signed the Landmarks Law into effect, but it couldn’t resurrect the classic Penn Station or any other landmarks at heart prior.
Set 3 consists of a standalone icon, which could join either set 1 or set 2. In 2011, what might be conceived as the people’s Landmarks Law is 46 years young, but without the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission calendaring a most democratic public hearing and granting landmark status, its fate is in limbo, and it could be the Penn Station case of Queens. The larger picture could be an American treasure forever buried.
As Chairman of Rego-Forest Preservation Council and Queens VP of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, I am spearheading a campaign to landmark the imminently endangered Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, and advocate for the historically-sensitive, creative reuse of an icon. The West Side Tennis Club owns the stadium, and considered selling it to a condo developer in October 2010, who planned to demolish the majority. This would have been a short-sighted, least imaginative approach. This was realized by 56% of its members who rejected the condos proposal, but a 2/3 vote in favor of the sale would have potentially sealed its fate for demolition.
The Forest Hills Tennis Stadium is situated at 1 Tennis Place, Forest Hills, NY, in the Forest Hills Gardens area of Queens, which is one of the earliest planned garden communities in the country. It was influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, which was a method of urban planning originating in England in 1898. It illustrated how people can live in harmony with nature. The Forest Hills Gardens was established in 1909 by Mrs. Russell Sage, with many of its Tudor homes designed by noted architect Grosvenor Atterbury. The Forest Hills Gardens was rated #1 by Cottage Living magazine in 2007.
The Forest Hills Tennis Stadium is truly an American and International icon of tennis, music, architectural, and social history. It was the first concrete tennis stadium countrywide, and was portrayed as “America’s Tennis Stadium” in a Nov. 1922 ad in MIT’s The Technology Review, and has always been conceived as a destination of the greater public, beyond the membership of the West Side Tennis Club. The 14,000-seat stadium was completed in 1923 for the Davis Cup matches. It was designed by noted architect Kenneth M. Murchison of NY, and was erected by The Foundation Company. Mr. Murchison specialized in public building design across the US. For example, Baltimore’s Penn Station and the Hoboken Terminal are state icons.
The highly intact stadium features grand historic archways, eagles, simplified cornice detail, and glazed terra-cotta shields bearing the West Side Tennis Club logo and stadium completion date. The grandstands are authentic wood and iron. On the opposite end of the property, the Tudor-style clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club dates to 1913, and was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury and John Almay Tompkins. Murchison, Atterbury, and Tompkins were considered “noble” architects who designed various sites countrywide; many of which are now designated landmarks.
The West Side Tennis Club predates Forest Hills. It was established in 1892, and first operated courts on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which is how it earned its name. The West Side Tennis Club helped establish the sport of tennis in the US. Forest Hills is known for tennis, and tennis helped place Forest Hills on the map.
Some of the many prominent names that played on its field include Bill Tilden, Helen Wills Moody, Helen Jacobs, Don Budge, Ted Schroeder, Rod Laver, Billie Jean King, Roger Federer, Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe. Helen Wills Moody was the first American woman to be recognized as an international celebrity athlete. Don Budge coined the Grand Slam after his victory over the nationals in England, France, Australia, and the U.S. The Stadium was the birthplace of the U.S. Open, and Billie Jean King played the first open match in 1968.
It is where Althea Gibson broke the color barrier to become the first African American woman to compete on the world tennis tour, and won a Grand Slam in 1956. It is also where Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open. Besides its legendary role in the U.S. Open, it hosted singles tennis championships, the Davis Cup, and the Wightman Cup.
The stadium was also home to many significant summer music festivals, predominantly from the 1950s — 1970s, hosting the likes of Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Simon & Garfunkel, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Joan Baez, Trini Lopez, The Who, Johnny Mathis, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, and Peter, Paul, & Mary, to name a few. Fans who could not gain entry due to sold-out concerts, or those who could not afford a ticket, were sometimes spotted peeking through a barbed wire fence, which photographers caught. One of many historic attractions was the landing of The Beatles in a helicopter. What an entrance!
Twentieth century culture and media was shaped in many ways by the Stadium’s influence. Tennis players, spectators, musicians, and the Stadium and its notables appeared in countless magazine illustrations and articles such as The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Life, Time, and the Mid-Week Pictorial — “News of The World In Pictures.” It appeared on and/or influenced record albums (such as The Beatles), clothing including t-shirts and Forest Hills 72 shoes, and numerous magazine and newspaper ads
Ads were a work of art, and some included Jarman Shoes For Men, Forest Hills 72 Shoes, Gin-and-Tonic with Schweppes (with a sketch by Bouche of members relaxing at the clubhouse patio with the Stadium as the backdrop), Blatz Beer, Chesterfield Cigarettes (with a watercolor view from the grandstands towards the Clubhouse), Cinco Cigars, Spalding tennis balls, toothpaste, The Forest Hills (Adidas’ lightest tennis shoe), etc.
Almost daily, stories dominated newspapers nationally and internationally, and were also covered in a wide range of books. Hand-colored, linen, and real photo postcards were once a form of mass communication, and a subject with the majority of Forest Hills cards was the Stadium. The WSTC, tennis matches, and concerts were frequently advertised on matchbook covers and posters. Its legacy can also be found on high-quality news photos. Other inspirations include a Forest Hills Table Tennis game which likely dates to the 1920s or 1930s, and a variety of racquets which have Forest Hills etched into them (such as the Alex Taylor & Bancroft). The Stadium also played a cinematic role, in which a key scene in Strangers On A Train (1951) by Alfred Hitchcock took place, in addition to other films including the more recent, The Royal Tenebaums. From the primitive to the broad, and from the material to the humane, barely any societal surface was untouched!
A major source of income for the WSTC was the U.S. Open, which moved to the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows Park in 1978 to accommodate increased demographics. After its heyday of great matches, music festivals, and concerts, lesser known concerts were featured into the mid-1990s, and then the Stadium became accustomed to neglect.
Numerous citizens feel the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium should be retained by the West Side Tennis Club under Plan A, or purchased by a historically-sensitive creative visionary under Plan B. The fusion of both plans would be for the WSTC to gain a partner. Regardless, the Stadium merits a restoration and revitalization as a “21st century family destination,” which would commemorate history, increase tourism, enhance property values, and boost area business and jobs, to name some benefits. It has the greatest potential as a mixed-use venue for tennis matches (such as 1 U.S. Open match as a start), concerts, an academy, weddings, community events, fundraisers, music and art festivals, school trips, and exhibits, which are some of the methods of yielding a greater economic benefit for the WSTC and greater community during an unstable economic climate.
On July 23, 2010, a grassroots landmark campaign was launched by Rego-Forest Preservation Council. A Request For Evaluation form with 50 pages of primary sources was sent to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, recommending the Stadium, Clubhouse, grounds, and interiors for NYC Landmark status. A landmark letter campaign and offline petition drive to the LPC & elected officials was launched, and was greatly supported by local to international residents & organizations.
On May 3, 2011, local to international landmark supporters of the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium received a letter from the Landmarks Preservation Commission stating, After a careful review of the current condition and architectural integrity of the above-referenced property, a senior staff committee of the Landmarks Preservation Commission found that the building does have some historic significance related to cultural and historic events that have taken place at the site, and does retain intact architectural features. At this time, however, the property will not be recommended to the full Commission for further consideration as an individual New York City landmark. The reason not to recommend further consideration is due to the deteriorated state of the building’s architectural features.
Rego-Forest Preservation Council feels that by not calendaring a public hearing for the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, the LPC is engaging in a neglect of public duty and of the architectural & cultural provisions of the Landmarks Law. It is also strongly believed that the Landmarks Law does NOT reference a site’s condition as a means for rejecting a public hearing. There have been buildings in boroughs outside Queens needing major repairs and in worse condition, which have been calendared, heard, and landmarked, and have been restored or are now undergoing restoration. Some case studies are The Windermere, West Park Presbyterian Church, & Coignet Stone Co. This represents a double standard.
Both the vicinity’s current zoning, and the Restrictive Covenants which are upheld by the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation to maintain the Forest Hills Gardens, may not be enough to retain the Stadium. If the WSTC, a future owner, or a partnership applied with the Queens division of the NY State Historic Preservation Office, and achieved status on the State & National Register of Historic Places, they would be eligible for grants and tax credits to help restore the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. These funds have been proven effective for sites of historic merit countrywide. City Landmark status via the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission would immediately preserve and commemorate the complex, as well as increase the likelihood of funding opportunities, due to a landmark’s prestige. The Stadium would need weatherizing, in addition to other historically-sensitive upgrades. Besides City, State, and Federal landmarking, which is most productive in conjunction, benefactors can also make a great difference for the Stadium’s future.
A Queens, citywide, national, and international icon should not be demolished and lost forever. This is likely the last chance for the people to defend one of our nation’s greatest historic “landmarks at heart,” so current and future generations can live history in a 21st century mindset, in contrast to only reading its widespread role in a history text or admiring photos gracing the walls of the clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club.
On Saturday August 6th, UntappedCities and Rego-Forest Preservation Council are hosting a tour of Forest Hills, including this beautiful stadium, at 11 am. Spots are limited so please RSVP by writing on the UntappedCities facebook wall, “Hey Untapped! I’d like to attend the Forest Hills tour on 8/6!” First come, first serve.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Rego-Forest Preservation Council is seeking preservation-friendly proposals from interested parties at [email protected] , which will be shared with the WSTC.
ONLINE PETITION: http://www.petitiononline.com/FHtennis/petition.html
FLICKR PHOTOS: http://bit.ly/ForestHillsTennisStadium
FACEBOOK GROUP, “S.O.S. (Save Our Stadium!)” http://on.fb.me/SaveOurStadium