Categorized | Queens

Struggle to Save Tennis Stadium Goes Into Overtime

The gray historic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium hasn’t been used for years and feels more like a graveyard than a sports venue these days.   But some prominent ghosts haunt this particular graveyard look-alike.

From 1923 to 1978 the U.S. Open tennis championships made their home at this arena, and some of the most significant moments in tennis history occurred here. The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan have all performed here too.  But the future of this dormant icon is now in question as its owners and Forest Hills residents debate whether to tear it down or restore it to its former grandeur.

The West Side Tennis Club, which owns the stadium, was poised to sell it to Cord Meyer Development Co., which planned to tear it down and replace it with condominiums.  But a vote among club members resulted in a tie, quashing the sale.  The question now is what to do with the stadium?

“Some people may see it as an eyesore, but if you look really closely at its history and its great craftsmanship, you’ll see a distinctive story of a 20th century icon,” said Michael Perlman, president of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, “It’s a gem that needs polishing.”

Some of the critical moments in tennis history occurred here:  Althea Gibson becoming the first black woman to win the U.S. Open in 1957; Arthur Ashe becoming the first black man to win it in 1968.

As Jean-Moutoussamy Ashe, Arthur Ashe’s widow, said in a recent letter to the Landmark’s Preservation Committee, the stadium “represents the progress and achievements of tennis, and furthermore, the last American century.”

“It’s important to take time to really consider things, in this case, to realize that the Forest Hills structure is a part of our history and irreplaceable,” she said via email.

Even some residents who favored the sale to Cord Meyer say they’re open to refurbishing the structure.  “It would be sad to see it torn down, the history and all,” said local resident Wendy Wong, who lives right across the street from the stadium, “It would just be nice to see something done with this.”

Kenneth Parker, president of the West Side Tennis Club, says he, too, would like to see the stadium refurbished, “but coming up with the money is the real problem.”

Many local officials would like to see the site named an official landmark—and wrote a letter to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Committee requesting the designation in August.  Making the stadium a landmark would not only ensure that the building will never be torn down, but it would also make it eligible for federal, state and local funding to restore it.

The preservation council’s Perlman said he got over 750 signatures for a letter that he sent to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In his view, making the stadium a landmark could open the door to reusing the stadium “and, hopefully, a historically sensitive restoration would take place.”

Possible uses for a revamped stadium, he says include tennis matches, concerts, music and arts festivals “similar to Shakespeare in the Park,”, community gatherings, charity fundraisers and even weddings.

The New York Philharmonic, he adds, has already expressed interest in using the stadium for its summer concert series, but representatives of the philharmonic could not be reached for comment.

In addition, local Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-9th District) publicly asked the United States Tennis Association to consider holding one match of the U.S. Open at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium each year.

A recent engineer appraised the restoration project at $12 million, said Perlman, who added that the money should be easy to get once the stadium gets landmark status.

It is now up to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to make a recommendation.  According to Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the commission, “Our staff is in the process of making our evaluation.  We are still in the preliminary stages,” she said, adding that it is unclear at this point when the commission will make its recommendation.

Meanwhile, the president of the West Side Tennis Club says that he isn’t aware of the move to make the stadium a landmark.

“I haven’t spoken with any government officials,” says Parker. “I would suspect getting any government funding would be very difficult.”

Parker adds that the West Side Tennis Club is reaching out to other organizations about uses for the stadium, but says he cannot disclose at this point the names of those organizations.

On Oct. 18 the tennis club sent letters out to its members requesting proposals for possible uses of the stadium.  According to Perlman, the club’s board has set a November 15th deadline for these new proposals.

For the moment the future of the stadium looks as hotly contested as any of the championship matches that occurred here over the years.

“It’s as if the ghosts of tennis past were watching over the stadium, inspiring the voters to vote down the development plan,” says Perlman.  But it is still to be seen if these ghosts will ever see their graveyard reopened and brought back to life.

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