by Randy Walker
While New York may be labeled as a tennis town, based on the popularity and buzz of the US Open tennis championships, it is a rather difficult place to play tennis. With a lack of real estate – or the value of real estate on the island of Manhattan – tennis courts are not seen as the best use of space. So where can you place a tennis court? How about on top of a roof! Here’s the story on how Manhattan’s Town Tennis Club was founded by 1931 Wimbledon champion Sidney Wood in his book “THE WIMBLEDON FINAL THAT NEVER WAS… AND OTHER TENNIS TALES FROM A BYGONE ERA” ($14.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com, available for sale here. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0942257847/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_dp_D1Tkub16E3N8E Wood was one of the most interesting characters tennis has ever had, causing him to earn the labels of “The Most Interesting Man in the World (the tennis version) as seen here: http://www.tennisgrandstand.com/2011/06/28/the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-the-tennis-version/ and “The Indiana Jones of Tennis” as described here: http://www.tennisgrandstand.com/2013/12/08/the-indiana-jones-of-tennis/
In 1952, with the increase in building in New York City fast decimating its numerous empty-lot tennis courts, I got the urge to look into the possibility of utilizing open rooftop areas to save Manhattan’s tennis mavens from settling for racquetball. I knew of no previous exploration of this concept and concentrated my survey on primarily lower buildings.
I could go on ad nauseam, but the final result was the fortuitous discovery of the one time, two-story Doelger Brewery in the upscale Sutton Place area of Manhattan. The street-level space owned by Bill Doelger was occupied by the FBI for a garage on 56th Street. An even luckier find was that the three hi-rise apartment houses that bordered the site to the north and east could not be built on.
Bill immediately saw that a four-court, live action tennis landscape, center-pieced by a remodeled, glass-encased second floor of the brewery as a clubhouse and outer terrace, would be a unique, scenic enhancement for his present and projected buildings. My layout design for a not-for-profit club went straight to his architects, who advised that among the multiple code violations that the project would face, the Doelger’s East 56th Street apartment entrance – the only feasible entry we could have for the club – was a no-chance approval item. It looked like curtains for us.
But having recruited New York’s Mayor, my friend Bob Wagner, as one of our club’s governors, I asked him if there was any kind of hardship plea worth pursuing. Bob guffawed and said, “Sid, the city needs tennis courts.” I immediately phoned Bill Doelger who said he wanted to kiss me.
So this and multiple other ensuing code violations were summarily quashed and after phoning the Mayor’s secretary, Mary, a few times for his signature in response to the NYC Building Department code violations, she suggested that I simply initial his name!
I’m reasonably certain that ours was the first-ever rooftop tennis installation, and at present day is still in business. Some of my purist tennis pals may look upon me as a rules and regulation “Benedict Arnold” for the liberties I took to squeeze four courts into an area that was never intended to accommodate them. With 100 feet of width (half a block) to fit pairs of side-by-side, playable doubles courts and leave enough room for the fencing and for the fat lady to pass between the net posts, called for a bit of nimble doings. It came down to cutting nine inches off each outside alley line, (from 4 ft. 6 in. to 3 ft. 9 in.) It’s hard to believe, but year after year nobody, including a succession of top-level players on the Church Cup team, the senior version of the Davis Cup, ever had a clue.
Sorry about that, fellows!
With the club humming, my wife Pat suggested that we add a 40 by 80 foot ice rink atop our sitting room, aeons before the Donald Trump-built Central Park skating area came into existence. Even Olympic gold medal winner Dick Button would occasionally drop by for a sunny day spin.