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

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2016

Outside the Box: The Revival of Forest Hills Stadium

When Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to hoist the silver winner’s trophy at tennis’s U.S. Open in 1968, he did so at Forest Hills Stadium. Other tennis greats—including Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and Rod Laver—also wielded their rackets inside the arena, part of the hallowed West Side Tennis Club in Queens, New York. The 1923 stadium served as a popular concert venue, too: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan all played there during the 1960s.

But after the Open moved to nearby Flushing Meadows in 1978, the stadium fell into disrepair. Trees and bushes took root, bathroom pipes burst, and much of the rebar in the concrete bowl became exposed. The West Side Tennis Club came close to selling the structure to developers a few times, but couldn’t bring itself to part with such a major piece of its 124-year history.

photo by: Courtesy Michael Perlman/Rego-Forest Preservation Council

Forest Hills Stadium in 1938.

In 2013, music promoter Mike Luba and business partner Jon McMillan worked out a deal with the club. Their company, Tiebreaker Productions, would lease the stadium, rehabilitate it, and stage concerts there. The plan caused controversy, because the building sits in the middle of historic Forest Hills Gardens, a residential neighborhood built early in the 20th century. Any alterations would have to be discussed with the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, with final approval by the tennis club.

Working with Axis Design Group and the Queens building department, Luba and McMillan determined that the building was structurally sound. They cleaned it up, patched over the exposed rebar, and performed lead paint and asbestos remediation. The bathrooms and seating were torn out to make way for modernized versions, but the Neoclassical exterior and the 11 eagle statues lining the top of the stadium were kept intact.

Acoustic engineers at Arup Group created a noise mitigation plan that included enclosing the stairwells with sound-dampening insulation, and according to West Side Tennis Club president Angela Martin, it works. “All of the concerts have been very well managed,” she says. “There’s not a great deal of noise.”

It may be quiet outside the stadium, but inside, the 12,500-seat venue rings with live music from acts such as Mumford & Sons and Dolly Parton, who both performed there earlier this summer. Bob Dylan returned this season for the first time since 1965. World Team Tennis will also hold matches there this year, with stars Andy Roddick and Caroline Wozniacki on the schedule.

For a building that was falling apart just a few years ago, it’s a remarkable comeback. “To reconnect with the people who saw Dylan there the first time and introduce a whole new generation to it is amazing,” McMillan says. “Now it’s [again] becoming the iconic place it once was.”

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design. @mdrueding

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