June 22, 2016

Competition and Community: 124 Years of History at the West Side Tennis Club

In the Summer 2016 issue of Preservation magazine, you will learn about the recent revitalization of the West Side Tennis Club’s Forest Hills Stadium as an outdoor concert venue featuring acts such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Van Morrison this summer. We decided to take a look back at the club’s history from its inception in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, to hosting tournaments for tennis greats, to the almost-demise of Forest Hills Stadium. Read on to learn about the West Side Tennis Club's over 125 years of competition and community.

Shot of tennis court

photo by: Library of Congress/B2-3190-6

The American and Australian Davis Cup teams face off in 1914.

A Club is Born

Founded on April 22, 1892, the West Side Tennis Club originally consisted of 13 players interested in renting ground for three clay courts in New York City’s Upper West Side. Within two months the courts were built, and by the end of the season the club had grown to 43 members with five courts. Over the next 20 years the club would change locations multiple times as membership and attendance growth outpaced its various Manhattan locations.

Setting Down Roots

Finally, in 1912 the West Side Tennis Club formed a committee to secure a permanent location for the club. After voting to purchase a 10-acre plot in Forest Hills in December of that year, the club began construction on the Tudor-style clubhouse which was completed in 1914.

The architectural style of the clubhouse was likely connected to the Club's location in the historic Forest Hills Gardens district. Established in the early 20th century, Forest Hills Gardens is a 175-acre community commissioned by architect Grosvenor Atterbury and designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (son of the renowned landscape architect of Central Park) in the British “garden city” style.

Club house image

photo by: Library of Congress/B2-2452-10

A photo of the Tudor-style clubhouse of the West Side Tennis Club taken between 1910-1915.

From the onset, strict rules for architecture and design were established for the community, requiring the houses to be built with stone, cement, or brick in the Tudor or Georgian styles. The Forest Hills Gardens Corporation (FHGC) maintains that it was the first planned garden community in the United States. Even today FHGC is still responsible for upkeep of the streets, sidewalks, parks, and green spaces, and reserves approval rights for any architectural changes to the neighborhood.

The Golden Age

A short two years after the purchase, the United States Lawn Tennis Association National Championship—later renamed the U.S. Open—transferred from its original location at the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island, to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York. Many believed that the tournament needed a larger home in an area more saturated with tennis players and fans—and West Side Tennis Club’s location less than ten miles from the Manhattan seemed ideal.

Following the Club’s only land expansion, a stadium that seated 13,500 spectators was erected in 1923 on the two newly acquired acres, and the West Side Tennis Club firmly staked its claim as the home of the US Open.

Between 1915 and 1977, 60 U.S. Open Championships were held at the West Side Tennis Club featuring matches with some of the sport’s greats. “Big Bill” Tilden, Fred Perry, and Suzanne Lenglen all played on the grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club.

In 1950 Althea Gibson became the first African-American player to play in a Grand Slam on the grounds; she went on to become the first African-American player to win one seven years later. Billie Jean King was the first player to win a Grand Slam with a metal racket at the Club in 1967 and Chris Evert won three of her six US Open titles in Forest Hills.

By the 1960s the stadium became host to the Forest Hills Music Festival which featured artists like Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, and The Supremes.

End of an Era

It became increasingly apparent that the U.S. Open had outgrown its Forest Hills home, and in 1978 the tournament moved to its current location, three miles away, in Flushing Meadows. However, West Side Tennis Club continued to host large tournaments until 1990.

Though the Club maintained its private membership group, Forest Hills Stadium eventually fell into disrepair and was almost sold off on multiple occasions. In the late 1990s, a push to build an assisted living facility in its place was voted down. In 2010 a proposal for condos was also vetoed. Most recently, in 2011 bids to build a high-rise adjacent to the stadium also failed.

Tudor style club house modern day

photo by: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The West Side Tennis Club maintains the clubhouse by completing small improvements annually, including replacing some of the windows and updating the plumbing system.

Restoration and Rebirth

In 2013 restoration and revitalization of Forest Hills Stadium began, and it now plays host to music and comedy acts throughout the summer months. Rock band Mumford & Sons reopened the stadium with a concert that year and returned just last week for the 2016 season.

Today the West Side Tennis Club has around 800 members who benefit from an outdoor pool, full dining room, workout room, basketball court, and three platform courts. The Club still features 38 tennis courts in four different surfaces—grass, Har-Tru, red clay, and hardcourt.

Round two at Forest Hills tonight, doors 5pm! NYC, who's in? 📷: @johnsonty

A photo posted by Mumford & Sons (@mumfordandsons) on

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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