Lost Courts of America

Tin-Men, Unicorns and Ice Wagons in August—Notes on the History of U.S. Tennis

By James Zug

Defunct Courts

Buckingham Street (1876-1897)
Boston Athletic Association (1888-1935)
Racquet & Tennis Club, 43rd Street (1891-1918; 1904-1918)
Chicago Athletic Association (1893-1901)
Myopia Hunt Club (1903-1930)
Harbor Hill (1907-1949)
Randolph Hall, Harvard (1908-1919)

Dormant Court

Greentree (1915-2001)

Playable Courts

Newport (1880-1945; 1980— )
Tuxedo (1899— )
Lakewood (1901-1923; 1982— )
Aiken (1902-1920; 1936— )
Tennis & Racquet Club, Boston (1904— )
Racquet Club of Philadelphia (1907— )
Racquet & Tennis Club, Park Avenue (1918— )
Racquet Club of Chicago (1924-1936; 2012— )
Prince’s Court, Washington (1997— )

1. The Very Lost Courts

The first tennis court was built in Boston in October 1876. It was an enclosed court with all the various aspects—tambour, dedans, penthouse, etc—that had become standard for a proper tennis court.

But for well more than two centuries before that court opened, tennis was an informal, under-the-radar part of the sporting scene in North America. In 1932 Malcolm D. Whitman mentioned in his Tennis: Origins and Mysteries a document that he dug up in the city hall of Amsterdam. Dated September 1659, it was a proclamation issued by Pieter Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Amsterdam, that prohibited all sorts of activities on an upcoming day of fasting and prayer (a Wednesday it turned out). At the top of the list of banned games was tennis.

Since Whitman’s discovery, more prohibitions have come to light. In the April 2002 edition of the USCTA’s now-defunct newsletter, The Dedans, I reprinted what we now think might be the earliest mention of tennis in North America. In October 1656 Stuyvestant banned all sorts of activities on the Sabbath: “playing Ball, Cards, Tricktrack, Tennis, Cricket or Ninepins.” A fine of two Flemish pounds was the punishment. Recently David Best has dug up a letter from 1658 that mentions a tennis court in what is now Kingston, New York.

The indefatigable Best has http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Badminton dug up numerous examples of tennis prohibitions across colonial America. They focused not on playing on a Sunday but on making bets on tennis. (Best traces these prohibitions to the 1710 Gaming Act in Great Britain, “an Act for better preventing of excessive and deceitful Gaming.”) The problem was apparently widespred. South Carolina in 1711 banned gambling at tennis (the city of Charleston specifically banned it as well in 1791); Massachusetts in 1742; Georgia in 1764; North Carolina in 1788 (they also declared it illegal to sell a slave in order to pay a tennis gambling debt); New York in 1788; Northwest Territory (Ohio) in 1790; Virginia in 1795; New Jersey in 1797; Connecticut in 1805; Indiana in 1824 and Maryland in 1863.

Tennis was not just played all over the continent, but it was also popular. Whitman dug up a mention from 1766 of a New York merchant importing racquets for tennis. Best has located the 1835 Annual Report of Vital Statistics of Massachusetts in which it was reported that three cities had shops that employed men involved in the art of restringing tennis racquets: in Lowell, they restrung twenty-seven racquets that year; in Worcester, the shop restrung ninety; and in Pittsfield, they restrung one hundred and ninety-five.

Tennis appeared often in American periodicals. Sometimes, editors were simply reprinting articles from British publications. But some pieces were home-grown. In 1768, for instance, the Pennsylvania Chronicle reported that a storm in Lancaster produced hail that “rebounded from the ground like a tennis ball.” In 1853 The Albion, a journal published in New York, reprinted Edward Jesse’s article on the history of tennis.

Ironically, gambling played a central role in the most tantalizing mention of tennis before 1876. In 1840 a New York historian wrote of a 1770 tennis match in Lower Manhattan. One player was a local tinsmith. The other was Sir William Draper, a British military officer. Draper had attended Eton and King’s College, Cambridge and led the capture of Manila in October 1762. In 1769, after his wife died, he went on a tour of the American colonies and in New York fell in love with and married a local woman. He evidently also played a celebrated match against the tinsmith. They played in a court near Montagne’s, a well-known tavern in what is now TriBeCa. The court was almost certainly the same one that was mentioned in an April 1763 advertisement in the New York Gazette that Whitman discovered: the ad, a tavern for sale, mentioned that it had “a very fine Tennis-Court, or Five-Alley.”

The match wasn’t close. The 1840 historian wrote that, “the tin-man, no doubt, beat Sir William easily, and used to say, that he could have done it with a wheelbarrow tied to one hand.”

Sir William, nonetheless, was a serious player. David Best has uncovered a number of contemporary mentions of his tennis abilities, but also a damning one of his gullibility. In 1781 the Hibernian Magazine in Dublin contained a mention of Draper, that “this gentleman has been the dupe, for successive months, to a marker of a Tennis-court, and a dedans of sharpers, who picked his pocket of very capital sums; and whilst they flattered his skill and address at tennis, smiled at his credulity, and lived upon the spoils of his vanity.”

Indeed in 1779, Draper was appointed lieutenant governor of Minorca where it was hoped he wouldn’t play tennis, as it had been his ruin elsewhere.

2. Buckingham Street

In October 1876 Horatio Hunnewell and Nathaniel Thayer opened America’s first bonafide court. The roots of the American game were in France, not England.

In 1825 when Hunnewell was fifteen, he moved to Paris to work at Welles & Co, a bank owned by his cousin’s husband. By the time he returned to Boston after the Crisis of 1837, he had acquired a taste for tennis.

In 1876 Hunnewell’s son’s brother-in-law, the architect Robert Gould Shaw, erected two houses in Back Bay, Boston, both just south of Hunnewell family home at 315 Dartmouth Street. (Horatio’s son, Arthur Hunnewell, moved into one of the houses, at 303 Dartmouth and Shaw moved into the other, at 151 Commonwealth Avenue.) Along with the work going on at the corner of Dartmouth and Commonwealth, Shaw designed a building for Hunnewell a couple of blocks away at the corner of Dartmouth and Buckingham Street. Hunnewell and his old friend and fellow banker and railroad director, Nathaniel Thayer, owned the building.

Hunnewell’s son, Hollis was the more well-known sportsman in the family and sometimes is confused for the founder of the Buckingham Street court. In the 1890s Hollis, a 1886 St. Paul’s School graduate; erected a maple-floored squash court at his estate outside Boston, the first private squash court in the country. He was, however, just eight years old when his father built the court.

Buckingham Street, modeled after courts in Paris, was made entirely of Portland cement. “It was a funny old-fashioned court, say those who remember it,” wrote E.B. Noel in his 1924 A History of Tennis. Metal wires hung as netting in the dedans. An old railway line ran right next to the windows of the club. It was lit entirely from the overhead skylights.

Hunnewell and Thayer brought over Ted Hunt, the longtime Oxford professional, to run the court and imported balls and racquets from Paris. Hunnewell also hired a teenage boy as Hunt’s apprentice and “under-marker,” as the Saturday Review termed it in May 1885.  It was Tom Pettitt, a sixteen year-old born in Kent, England, who had come to America to join his older brother. He later told Allison Danzig, the New York Times reporter, who wrote a book about U.S. racquet sports in 1930, that he was practically penniless when Hunnewell hired him.

Pettitt’s chief duty, the Saturday Review wrote, was sweeping our the court, as well as taking care of players’ clothes, but the boy also managed to pick up the game. In April 1877 the club hosted its first tournament in which Pettitt beat Hunt. A few months later, Hunt sailed back for England—it was unclear whether he left because of Pettitt’s gift as a player or because the court was not busy and thus unlikely to generate much income. In November 1885 a reporter from the Boston Daily Globe visited Buckingham Street. “The court, off Buckingham Street, near Dartmouth, is a curious place,” he wrote. When he walked into the club, Pettitt was on court “having a practice game with a friend.” The reporter noted even with the addition of the Newport court that “two courts are a great plenty, however, as there are not more than thirty court tennis players in America.”

Buckingham Street was the site of a few historic events. In December 1885 Pettitt hosted Charles Saunders there in a three-day, best of five-sets each day match. Saunders received fifteen and a bisque. Tickets were $1 for each day. Play began at one o’clock. Accompanied by a Mr. Walker, Saunders won on Tuesday 1 December, 3-0; Pettitt won 3-0 on Saturday 5 December; and on Monday 7 December Saunders won the decider 3-2. In 1891 Peter Latham came to Buckingham for an exhibition with Pettitt and also receiving fifteen, beat him. A year later Edgar Lambert played against Pettitt.

Pettitt was certainly a unique figure in the history of tennis in America. After those first six months with Hunt, he never had a lesson again or even a training partner of any real quality. Yet after finding himself, poor and hungry and at loose ends at age sixteen, he became the world champion at age twenty-five. Buckingham did not have much besides that, but it is still one of the most striking images: this thin teenager, hitting alone in the odd little court, the midday sun pouring down, the train rumbling by.

The Hunnewell court, as the papers called it, had a short life. Both Hunnewell’s two sons and Thayer’s son played the game, but none of them were interested in running a club. In 1885 the national amateur champion, Fiske Warren, acquired the lease. Warren, just twenty-five, was another Boston Brahmin like Hunnewell and Thayer (John Singer Sargent painted his wife and daughter’s portrait), and he decided to have a go at running the court. His first move, as seen in The Field magazine and later reported by David Best in Disturb’d with Chaces, was to try to light the Buckingham court with electricity. He hung twenty-four lamps from the ceiling. It was a failure and the three thousand candlepower didn’t dissipate the gloom. Four years later Warren tried again with more lamps equaling fourteen thousand candlepower; again it wasn’t enough.

After the erection of the much-improved court at the Boston Athletic Association in 1888, anyone serious about tennis was going to join that club around the corner—Pettitt left to become the pro there (Warren remained good friends with him and accompanied him to Ireland for the 1890 world championship challenge).

Buckingham slowly slid into disuse. Warren was a prickly person, it appears. In September 1886 the New York Times reported on a match at Newport that Warren delayed at the outset because he wanted the door near the last gallery to be locked. “He prevailed,” the Times wrote, “but soon the door had to be opened to allow somebody to pass out. This caused another delay. The delays were numerous until one of the Governors of the Casino forbade the door being locked. Altogether it was a dull game of court tennis.”

In 1897 Boston decided to build America’s first underground subway system. They swallowed up little Buckingham Street and all its buildings to make way for Back Bay Station, a major hub for what was soon known as the T.

3. Boston Athletic Association

Every third Monday in April in Massachusetts and Maine is Patriots’ Day, officially celebrating the Battle of Lexington & Concord. On Patriots’ Day, the Boston Red Sox traditionally host a baseball game at Fenway Park with a late morning start. And the Boston Marathon takes place and thus some of us are again reminded, however obliquely, of the first major tennis court in America.

Buckingham was a start, but it never took hold; Newport was lovely, but it had a professional (Tom Pettitt) only in July and August and no real activity when it was not the high social season.

In December 1888 the Boston Athletic Association opened their clubhouse on Exeter Street at Boyleston, just a block from Buckingham Street. The BAA was formed a year earlier as an all-male, socially elite club, Initation fees were $40; annual dues were $30. The symbol of the club was the head of a unicorn.

The towering Exeter Street clubhouse was the most magnificent in the country. Designed by John Sturgis of Sturgis & Cabot, it occupied a former baseball sandlot with aplomb: it had a dining room that could seat eighty-five, gym with a running track, swimming pool, Turkish and Russian baths, billiards room (walls covered with buckram) and bowling alley, “No new building in Boston has attracted so much attention as that recently opened by the Boston Athletic Association on Exeter Street,” reported the American Architect and Building News in January 1889. “Before dressing, the member can receive a rubdown with alcohol, which will prevent his catching cold and will act like a cocktail before dinner.”

On the third floor were a tennis court and a racquets court. (A fives courts was below on the first mezzanine floor; it was soon used not just for fives for but that curious American invention, the game of squash tennis.) The racquets court was made of Keene cement, painted red; the tennis court of Portland cement and painted black. The floors were of Portland cement placed on four inches of concrete on top of hard-pine planking which also served as the ceiling for the gymnasium on the second floor. Skylights half the width of the court ran nearly the whole length. The first tennis court in America to not be on the ground, the court’s weight made it necessary for the architects, as the American Architect explained, “to use heavy box-girders which added considerably to the difficulties of the construction, as they tended to centralize weight at certain points.”

The club was a great success. Within a fortnight of its opening, the membership was at twelve hundred, well beyond original plans, and it had established a waiting list of three hundred men. The reason, according to the American Architect, was because older men liked it: “Thanks to the commingling of the provisions for social and athletic enjoyment, these athletes of a former day do not find themselves out-of-place here, and under the pretence of a lounge can get actual profit from their membership by taking such casual exercise as their years and inclination may permit, without feeling obliged to take up the systematic and regular course of exercise that membership in an ordinary gymnasium would naturally urge on the really unwilling man of years. A half-hour at the weights in a place like this, with a pleasant dining-room below and ample lounging-rooms and good company around, is a vastly more agreeable thing to contemplate than the same time spent in a bare and ill-smelling gymnasium, when it has to be followed by a chilly walk home, or a still more dangerous ride on the horse-cars.”

Pettitt was the head professional. Otto Gloeckler apprenticed there—Gloeckler went on to play in the 1921 court tennis U.S. Open, losing 3-1 to Jock Soutar in the first round. He also played for the U.S. national professional squash title in 1920, again losing to Soutar. Gloeckler’s squash prowess was not a singular thing at the BAA. Another pro, Bill Ganley, challenged for the pro squash title in 1916, barely losing to Soutar. Other tennis pros of note at the BAA were William Hartley, who later trained with Walter Kinsella, and Charles Hickey.

The top BAA amateur was at first Dick Sears, who after winning seven straight national lawn tennis championships, turned to the older game and won the national amateur title in 1892 (the only person to be the U.S. national singles champion in both versions of tennis). In fact, from Sears win in 1892 until the appearance of Jay Gould, only three non-BAA men won the national title and one was a visiting Englishman, Eustace Miles. The best of the lot was Joshua Crane, who dominated until the appearance of Jay Gould (Crane would go on to lose to Gould in the finals of the national amateur in ten of eleven years).  The BAA became the twin power of the game, and the club alternated with New York in holding the national amateur tournament (the one annual U.S. tournament) which lasted a full fortnight. The BAA also ran an annual junior tennis tournament, the first of its kind in the country.

After the Tennis & Racquet Club opened in 1904 a few blocks west on Boyleston and Pettitt decamped there, the BAA went into a decline tennis-wise. Squash became ascendant and with some new courts, the BAA became a major power in the game, with the national amateur champion, Constantine Hutchins a member.

The Great Depression killed three courts in America and almost permanently ruined two more (Aiken and Chicago). In 1935 the BAA filed for bankruptcy and sold the building to Boston University. In 1961 BU gave the building to the city, and it was demolished, making way for a new wing of the Boston Public Library.

But the BAA didn’t disappear. In 1897 fifteen members of the BAA ran a twenty-six mile footrace that ended at the clubhouse (ten finished; winning time was 2:55). Today the club, though without a clubhouse, still operates the Boston Marathon. It is the world’s oldest and possibly most prestigious running race. The course winds its way right past the T&R, then the site of the old BAA clubhouse and finally ends up at Copley Square, just a few feet from the Buckingham court—thus annually connecting the three downtown Boston tennis courts.

4. Racquet & Tennis Club, 43rd Street

It doesn’t pay to be superseded. Because New York has two famous, widely celebrated courts, its original two courts have not received the attention of historians that you would expect for having two courts at a Midtown Manhattan club.

In 1890 the Racquet Court Club changed its name to the Racquet & Tennis Club and, following the intentions inherent in its new title, decided to build a tennis court. The space at its West 26th Street clubhouse was too small for that (it had two racquets courts, a running track and two bowling alleys) and already too crowded for its nearly six hundred members. In April 1891 the club opened a new, grand clubhouse at 27 West 43rd Street. Designed by Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz and situated next to the Academy of Medicine, it boasted one hundred and forty-two feet of frontage and was so deep that it backed onto 44th Street. The clubhouse more than rivaled the BAA. It had a shooting range, boxing and fencing rooms, a Turkish bath in the basement and a billiards room. On the second floor were two racquets courts, a fives court and one court tennis court.

The court was a bit small by modern standards and like the BAA and Newport it had a low ceiling.  Robert Moore, the racquets pro at the 26th Street clubhouse, ran it until a proper tennis pro was hired (Moore moved onto Tuxedo once it was built in 1899). The story went that the R&T wrote to the legendary Tompkins family, asking if Fred might come over to serve as the pro. Alfred, his older brother, intercepted the letter and took the job (Fred got a second chance with the Racquet Club of Philadelphia sixteen years later). George Standing arrived in 1892 as Alfred’s assistant. In the twenty-seven years of tennis on 43rd Street, a number of other pros also worked there: John Allen, Frank Blow, Alfred Forester (arrived in 1906), Frank Forester (later Lakewood and Greentree), David Gardner, Jack Hammond (a Mancunian who died in January 1908 of pneumonia after nine years at the club; he was just twenty-nine), Harry Harris, R. Johnson, Walter Kinsella, Eddie Rogers, Fred Trot, Alfred White and Jack White,

In December 1904 the R&T renovated the clubhouse. They repaired one racquets court (snow once drifted in from the skylight in February 1899) and took away the other, in its place adding a second court tennis court. (They also converted the boxing and fencing rooms into squash tennis courts—only in 1914 did they start to use courts for squash). An odd story emerging from the renovation was that a valet living at 25 West 44th, directly across the street from the Racquet & Tennis Club, attacked a janitor in his building. A construction worker at the R&T, tending to an iron railing out front, heard the scuffle and ran across the street and broke up the scuffle, getting shot in the back. He was taken to the hospital but survived.

On Christmas Eve 1904, George Standing and Punch Fairs played the opening day exhibition. Standing received fifteen. They split the first two sets, 8-4 to each. In the third, Standing was up 7-5, 40-0 and then 7-6 40-0; both times Fairs saved all the match points. In the last game of the two-hour match, 7-7, Fairs got it to 30-30 while receiving, and then he twice laid down chases, both better than two yards. Fairs successfully defended the chases to win the match.

The new court, with such a rousing start, was a spur for the game of tennis in New York and nationwide. It was dubbed the “big new court,” as it was of standard size. So many players took up the game that in January 1906 Peter Latham, told the New York Times how the racquets court at the R&T used to be booked several days ahead, but now the court is often vacant and “the professionals are frequently compelled to play among themselves to keep in practice.” Meanwhile “it is a difficult matter to secure bookings” on the court tennis court.

The 1904 court was also the site of some of the great matches of the early years of American tennis, especially the falling glasses incident of 1906. A young Jay Gould was playing in his first national amateur tournament. Down 2-1 in the final round of the eliminator tournament, he was losing 5-3 in the fourth set. Suddenly, the glasses of a spectator in the clerestory tumbled down onto the court and shattered. A couple of minutes passed as the broken glass was swept away. Gould came out of the unexpected interlude on fire and won the set 6-5 and the fifth 6-2. He then beat the defending champion in the challenge round 3 sets to 1.

In 1916 the club began to prepare for a move north and east. New commercial buildings had cropped up nearby, some of which were blocking the sun from reaching the skylights. Ironically others clubs stayed in the area or moved in and so now on that block today, nearly a century later, there is the Princeton Club of New York and the Century Association and on 44th Street, at the old R&T’s backdoor, the Harvard Club of New York, St. Nicholas and the New York Yacht Club.

In April 1918 the club moved to its new quarters on Park Avenue and 53rd Street and the old building was turned into an office complex.

5. Chicago Athletic Association

The shortest-lived tennis court in America (and perhaps the world?) was the one at the Chicago Athletic Association. It was so quick that E.B. Noel failed to mention it in his history of tennis and Allison Danzig gave it only a paragraph.

Chicago was not a surprising place for a tennis court. Eight racquets courts have been built in the Windy City: two are still in use at the Racquet Club of Chicago; one was at the Illinois Athletic Club (built in 1908 on South Michigan Avenue; you entered the court through a trap door in the floor; the building is now a part of the Art Institute of Chicago); two at the University Club (the outlines of one is still visible in the club’s fitness center); and one at the University of Chicago (this, the most mis-attributed court in the world—it was a racquets court, not a squash court—was where in December 1942 the atom was first split.)

The Chicago Athletic Association, founded in 1890, erected an eleven-story clubhouse on South Michigan Avenue in September 1893, in time for the 1893 World’s Fair. Henry Ives Cobb designed the building. It had the usual accoutrement—bowling alleys, swimming pools, billiards rooms—and on the ninth floor, reached by an elevator, were two fives courts, two racquets courts and, in the rear of the building, a court tennis court.

Harry Boakes was the professional. He had apprenticed at Queen’s Club and then worked for years at the Quebec Racquet Club, the last of the many racquets courts in Quebec City. Throughout the eighteen-eighties and nineties, Boakes, styled as the Canadian court tennis champion, came down to Newport every August to play tennis exhibitions with Tom Pettitt. In 1891 he received thirty and a bisque and, if that was not enough, Pettitt was barred “from his strong underhand service,” according to the New York Times. In 1895 Boakes, however, beat Afred Tompkins 3-0 in an exhibition at 43rd Street.

Boakes was assisted by Eddie Rogers, William Joyce and Jim Fellman, but they couldn’t get the court off the ground. Under the skylights on the ninth floor on a city building without air conditioning or electric fans, it grew hot on summer days; in winter cloudy skies often made play impossible. To stimulate new tennis players, young sons of members were allowed in to play in the mornings, and a silver loving cup was offered for neophytes. A common tactic was an exhibition on ladies day, when women were permitted to join their husbands in the club. But, the CAA newsletter, the Cherry Circle, warned, “The court tennis game is complicated and not of much interest to spectators unless players who are acquainted with the game accompany ladies to the gallery and explain it to them. What is a very poor stroke at one period of the game is an exceedingly brilliant one at another, and between these the uninformed spectator cannot distinguish.”

Play was so slow that the Professor, as Boakes was known, had to take summer jobs teaching lawn tennis and golf at the Kenwood Country Club. He left his markers in charge and there was very little play except for a few men, as the Cherry Circle, reported in August 1896: “Some of our fat men are in training for coming sports in the fall, and they all agree that it [tennis and racquets] is the only way to reduce their avoirdupois.” One self-described “fat old duffer” named Frederick Greeley went from 240 pounds to 220 by playing tennis and racquets and could get “around the court nearly as rapidly as an ice wagon in August.”

The CAA charged was fifty cents an hour per player for tennis; Boakes charged seventy-five cents for a lesson. There was some good fun at the courts and the day after Bill Feron and Bill Hulbert played a match for a case of wine, the Cherry Circle reported that “it is alleged that no caller went dry from the top floor that day.”

Visitors helped rejuvenate the ninth floor. In 1895 two-time defending national tennis champion Spalding de Garmendia visited for exhibition matches. A year later Boakes and W. H. Cohen, a player from Prince’s in London, gave an exhibition. Cohen received fifteen each game and lost quickly in two sets (he developed blisters on his hand). In a rematch with the handicap at half-fifteen, Boakes beat him 3-0.

Boakes played a court tennis & racquets test match against George Standing in January 1895 at the CAA, beating Standing in tennis but losing 3-0 in racquets.  Two years later the CAA hosted Tom Pettitt for a similar week of exhibitions.

Still the game suffered. The skylights, which extended across the entire length of each court, began to leak. In 1901, eight years after opening the court, the CAA closed it. The floor became bowling alleys, and the upper story became a tenth floor where the male staff lived.

In 1909 Boakes left the CAA to become head pro at the brand-new clubhouse  of the University Club around the corner. In future years, the court tennis space became squash courts. (One of the racquets courts became a squash tennis doubles court; the other survived until 1931 when it and the squash tennis court were converted into three squash courts and one handball court.) When I visited in June 2002 the court tennis space was a boxing room, small golf range, fencing salle and workout facility, some of which overlooked Millennium Park and Lake Michigan.

In the summer of 2007 the CAA sold its two buildings for $31 million to a hotel developer. “There are a significant number of members who are of the opinion that the club should continue,” Ron White, the club’s historian who helped me research the tennis court, told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “But some would be just as happy to see it all blow away. A hotel and health club, the building then closed in 2010 and now is empty.

6. Myopia Hunt Club

A clarity of vision has infused the Myopia Hunt Club since its founding as a polo and fox hunting club in 1875. Myopia moved in 1891 from Winchester to the village of Hamilton on the North Shore outside Boston. There the club built lawn tennis courts, a polo field (the oldest still in continuous use in the nation) and a golf course, third-oldest after Shinnecock and The Country Club, and host of five U.S. Opens between 1897 and 1908.

At the turn of the century, Hugh Whitney gathered a group of thirty Myopia friends and persuaded each to donate one thousand dollars to build a real tennis court. Whitney, an 1892 graduate of Harvard where he was in the Hasty Pudding and Porcellian, was unrelated to the Whitney family of New York.  “With a fine voice and an endless sense of humor, he was a centre of entertainment at all gatherins to which he was so welcome,” the Boston Evening Transcript reported after he committed suicide in October 1907. “He never engaged in business or any profession after his college days, but has always lived a rather retired life, merely looking after his own property interests.”

In February 1903 the club erected, near the stables, a free-standing brick building containing a squash tennis court, a locker room, a spectators gallery and a court tennis court. Warren & Wetmore, the architectural firm which had designed the tennis house at Tuxedo three years before and later would build Harbor Hill, gave their services pro bono when, as Allison Danzig delicately put it in 1930, “it was found at the end that the fund was a little bit short of the necessary amount.” Alfred Kirton, an English professional, was hired from London to be the pro at Myopia, and a local boy, Ernest Maraden, became his assistant.

“With everything spick-and-span the new building was a ten-day wonder,” the official history of Myopia recalled. For a few years Myopia flourished. Joshua Crane often played there on the weekends. Quincy Shaw and George Fearing, both great tennis players—Fearing won the nationals in 1897—were also subscribers of the new court and used it regularly.

Myopia’s most famous player perhaps was the first American woman to ever play court tennis regularly, Eleo Sears. One of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century, Sears won the national lawn tennis doubles four times; the first national squash championships; played baseball and football; and was the first woman to play polo astride a horse. In the summers at Myopia, along with her uncle Dick Sears and father Philip Sears, Eleo Sears played court tennis.

Ten-day wonder, indeed, for Myopia faded away after just a decade. Most of Myopia’s members retreated to Boston or points further south for the winter months. In 1911 Kirton left to run the new court at Harvard. Rowland Dufton, a local boy and assistant of Kirton’s, took over for the summers of 1913 and 1914.  The court was mothballed during the First World War and afterwards Dufton went to the T &R and then eventually to his legendary spot at the New York Athletic Club. In the 1920s, R.L. Agassiz made arrangements for a marker to come up to Myopia from the T & R on the weekends, but that was eventually discontinued due to lack of play.

In the early 1930s, the club converted the building into a stable. In the 1950s the club pulled down the penthouse and galleries, tore out the dressing room, pro shop and squash tennis court and turned it into a maintenance shed for the golf course grounds crew, “thus becoming,” reported the Myopia history, “a quaint, if expensive, barn.” Today the building still stands and has a curiously majestic feel to it. There are ball marks on some walls, the tambour still juts out from the north wall and one can see evidence of a grille, now bricked-in. On the floor are lawn mowers, waterhoses and golf carts.

Myopia is the only Lost Court with any remote chance of being returned to play. As a stand-alone court, it would not cause disruption if renovated. The building is overall in fine shape. The club recently put on a new roof, tore off all the ivy along the exterior walls and repointed the brick and repaired and reinforced the hazard back wall that had buckled.

7. Harbor Hill

In 1860 a young Irishman arrived at new mine in Virginia City, Nevada called the Comstock Lode. The Irishman, John MacKay, started a processing mill and began buying up claims. In 1872 when miners working on one of his claims hit the Big Bonanza—a shelf of gold and silver worth more than $100 million (today $1.6 billion)—Mackay became a very rich man.

His son Clarence MacKay (pronounced MACK-ee) built the most expensive tennis court in U.S. history, Harbor Hill.

Clarry MacKay was born in 1874 in San Francisco; at age twenty he became a director of his father’s companies. In May 1898 he married Katherine Duer, a leading New York socialite and the “Prettiest Woman in America” according to the Chicago Chronicle. As a wedding present John MacKay gave them a seven-hundred-acre estate in Roslyn, on Long Island’s Gold Coast. The land contained a series of rolling hills—the highest on Long Island—that had views of both the Atlantic and Long Island Sound. The New York Times reported, “on a clear day the Brooklyn Bridge can be seen with out the aid of field glasses.”

Over the next decade Clarry and Kitty built their dream home there, designed by Stanford White. It was a difficult process. They had to relocate an old Zion African Methodist cemetery and close the town road that wound through the estate; both were controversial, as was a plan to build a twenty-three mile private road between the estate and Long Island City for Mackay’s commute to Manhattan (it was never built). At one point they had a thousand artisans from all over the world working on the estate. There was more scandal when one of them, an Italian stonemason, shot and killed a Roslyn groceryman and his wife in cold blood.

In November 1901 the MacKays opened Harbor Hill. It was considered the most opulent home in the country, surpassed only perhaps by the Biltmore. Modeled after Chateau Lafitte in France, Harbor Hill was almost three hundred yards wide. There were twenty-three feet-high ceilings; twenty-six bathrooms; marble floors; meticulous workworking; acres of artwork. Many critics, eager to scorn Harbor Hill, pounced on the heavy decorations and the fact that the stairwell was visible from the front hall.

MacKay was a sporting man, a keen thoroughbred horse breeder, but his first joy was racquets. He won the 1902 national amateur title, beating the defending champion Quincy Shaw in the finals at the Boston Athletic Association. (Tom Pettitt did the marking.) MacKay also won a half dozen Racquet & Tennis club championships at the 43rd Street courts and the Gold Racquets at Tuxedo three times.

In June 1907 MacKay finished a $200,000 casino. (The six-year delay after the opening of his house was due in part to the 1906 murder of Harbor Hill’s architect, Sanford White.) Designed by Warren & Wetmore, it had a French-style half-timber over brick exterior, with columned porches. Like the main house, the provenance of the materials in the casino was global: marble from Alabama, stone from Maine, limestone from Indiana, steel from France, cement from England and tilling from Italy. It faced north, looking over the Sound and had a tennis court, squash tennis court, billiards room, bowling alley, swimming pool, sauna and a gymnasium. Attached were the living quarters of its caretaker, John Canary. On the parquet floor of the casino’s sitting room was an enormous polar bear skin with bared teeth; on the walls was the prize possession in the casino’s artifact collection, Gentleman Jim Corbett’s heavyweight boxing championship belt.

As for the tennis court, the New York Times said that “the best points of the English courts were being used with the premier advantages of the American, making an effective combination.” Mackay formally opened the tennis court in March 1908 with a match between world champion Peter Latham and Eustace Miles. Latham, conceding a handicap of fifteen, won 6-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

The first pro at Harbor Hill was Robert Moore, who Mackay hired away from Tuxedo. In 1915 Moore left to become the tennis coach at St. Paul’s School and Punch Fairs succeeded him at Harbor Hill. Fairs, a former world champion, lived there for twenty years and trained a number of players in the twenties and thirties. His last great pupil was a young A.B. Martin. The court, though, was never terribly active, with more play going on down the road at Greentree.

Harbor Hill was a sad place. In 1913 Kitty left Mackay and their three children. She fled to Europe where she obtained a divorce and married a New York surgeon, Joseph Blake, whom she had met at a suffragette conference at Harbor Hill; she and Blake divorced in 1929. Kitty’s uncle, William Travers (the founder of the winter colony in Aiken) killed himself in 1915 after his wife left him and the husband of Kitty’s first cousin jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and died. The worst tragedy was avoidable: after the Mackay’s daughter, Ellin, married Irving Berlin, Clarry broke off all communication and disowned her. (They later reconciled.)

The Wall Street crash in 1929 ruined him. The story went that he lost $36 million in thirty minutes on Black Friday. He and his second wife, Anna Case, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera, moved out of the main house at Harbor Hill and into a caretaker’s cottage. Mackay died in November 1938 at the age of sixty-four deeply in debt. Three thousand people attended his funeral.

In July 1943 the Army Signal Corps took over the estate to use it as a radar station to spot submarines; it was called Camp Mackay. The Army recycled the six-foot high, three thousand-foot long iron fence. In 1947 the main house was dismantled. In the 1940s a syndicate of players, led by Clarry Pell, sometimes used the court. That ended in in January 1949. Nine months after the Army left Camp Mackay, the last remaining large building at Harbor Hill, the casino, burned to the ground. The cause might have been arson or a leftover pile of Army explosives stored in the casino The nearest fire hydrant was a mile away. Two hundred firemen fought the fire in vain. The casino was lost and with it went the Harbor Hill tennis court.

In 1954 Samuel Roth, a Manhattan developer, bought the property and built an upscale, four hundred-home residential housing development that still exists today. The only remnant of Harbor Hill is the original gateway in Roslyn, a servant’s house, one farm building and a life-size pink marble Marly horse rearing on a hilltop, forever frozen.

8. Randolph Hall, Harvard

The only court tennis court ever built at an American university, Randolph Hall at Harvard University came into existence not just from a love of the tambour and grille, but from pure jealousy.

For centuries Harvard men had to fend for themselves as far as accommodation. Some could find rooms in Harvard Yard, though most were bleak and uninviting, and more often than not they found apartments and homes in Cambridge. In 1892 Charles Wetmore financed and designed Claverly Hall, which had fifty-five steam-heated suites, each with a bathtub and a bay window. This was the opening bid in the game of the so-called Gold Coast, a series of luxurious private dormitories that appeared near Mount Auburn Street: Apley Court in 1897; Craigie Hall in 1898; and Westmorely Court, also designed by Wetmore, in 1898, with diamond-leaded panes and oak wainscoting.

Into this twee game jumped Archibald Cary Coolidge. A young Harvard graduate and assistant professor in the Department of History and Roman Law, Coolidge proposed building a complex modeled upon Oxbridge. Coolidge had studied for years in Europe. He also had pedigree: his grandmother, Ellen Wayles Randolph, had been given away in marriage to Joseph Coolidge in 1826 on the grounds of Monticello by her grandfather, Thomas Jefferson.

With one brother, Harold, acting as lawyer and another, Joseph, as architect, Coolidge came up with a plan for a five-story building right next door to Claverly Hall. Wetmore tactfully suggested that Coolidge add a ten-foot setback from the road, so as to increase the chance of sunlight reaching Claverly. Coolidge said no. Wetmore secretly purchased land on the other side of Coolidge’s plot and announced plans to build a ten-story building that would block light from anything Coolidge would build. The brinkmanship worked, and Coolidge agreed to the ten-foot setback.

In 1898 Randolph Hall, named for his grandmother, the Monticello belle, opened for business. It surpassed anything else on the Gold Coast. Randolph spread across a seven-acre lot with Queen Anne turrets, pitched roofs, sharp bay windows, red-brick Flemish gables and an open quadrangle facing the eighteenth-century Apthorp House. Coolidge performed the role of the master in residence when he moved into Randolph 4, a first floor double suite with an arresting mural done by Edward Renfield adorning the higher reaches of the walls. Each of Randolph Hall’s fifty rooms had every luxury of the era, including electricity, hardwood floors, open fireplaces and good ventilation. They rented for $300 to $650 a year, the highest in town.

A decade later Randolph drew closer to the Oxbridge model, when Coolidge built a large athletic building on the other side of the quad, off of Linden Street. The facility, designed by Joseph Coolidge at a total cost of $60,000, had a tennis court, swimming pool, racquets court and two squash courts. (Wetmore, ever the rival, then put in a squash court in Claverly.) Racquets gained hardly any adherents on campus besides the Harvard football coach, Percy Haughton, who had been national champion in 1906. Squash did better. Hewitt Morgan won the Massachusetts state championship in 1917 while still an undergraduate, and Randolph Hall entered a team in the local squash league. The pool at Randolph perhaps had the most lasting (or lascivious) reputation. The 1937 Harvard yearbook reported that, “Many undergraduates develop the dip habit after exercising, and ponder, as they loll in the soothing waters, the thought-provoking tradition that here once bathed the famous knees of Ann Pennington.”

Court tennis did not need the famous knees of Miss Pennington or anyone. The beautiful court, finished with Bickley cement, had a first-class electric lighting system and a clerestory or upper gallery above the royal dedans that gave the court accommodation for a hundred spectators. Coolidge opened the court with an exhibition between the world champion, Peter Latham, and the soon-to-be world champion, Jay Gould. (Latham won.) In March 1909 Jay Gould & Joshua Crane faced off against Tom Pettitt and Alfred White in a doubles match. The professionals won 6-2, 1-6, 9-7, 9-7.

White was Randolph’s first tennis professional. An Englishman who had been in charge of the court at the Duke of Fife in Sheen, White stayed for just two years before moving to the Racquet & Tennis Club, then Lakewood, before returning to Hampton Court. After White came a man named Clark, and then in 1911 Alfred Kirton arrived from Myopia. Assisted by Rowland Dufton, Kirton tried to increase undergraduate interest in tennis.

A few players of court tennis had their start at Randolph. Suydam Cutting, Fulton Cutting, Norman Prince, Edward Pickman and Hewitt Morgan used the court. In 1925 Suydam and Fulton became the first brother combination to win the national doubles and a year later Suydam replaced Gould as national champion. In 1921 Suydam lost in the finals of the British championships. (Suydam went on to fame as a explorer in Asia, becoming the first Westerner to be invited to Lhasa.) Morgan was probably the best Randolph player in its history. He won two national tennis championships and two Gold Racquets.

Randolph Hall was still a failure because it was too pricey. On a chilly March night in 1911 a fire gutted the third and fourth floor of the dormitory.  “Students Driven From Beds in Frosty Air at 3:30am, Damage to Building $25,000—In Fur Coats Over Pajamas and Bath Robes,” read the headline in the Boston Globe. But only twenty-four fur-coated students were affected by the fire, indicating that half the rooms in Randolph were empty. Harvard began building its own dormitories and student enrollment plummeted after the start of the First World War, ensuring that this experiment in private dormitories was doomed. In 1916 Coolidge exchanged Randolph Hall with Harvard’s College Hall, a neglected building on Harvard Square that housed law school students (Coolidge, soon the founding editor of Foreign Affairs, stayed in Randolph almost until his death in 1928).

Although Harvard did not find use for the dormitories at Randolph until it was incorporated into Adams House in 1930, it immediately seized upon the athletic building with vigor. During the war the building was used as a gymnasium. In 1919 court tennis officially ended its brief collegiate encounter when Harvard tore down the tennis and racquets courts and built seventeen squash courts in what was now known as the University Squash Courts.

In 1921 Harvard hired Harry Cowles, a former assistant of Tom Pettitt in Newport. Cowles created the Harvard squash dynasty that dominated intercollegiate squash for the rest of the century. In 1938 the squash program relocated to the new Hemingway Gymnasium at Harvard Law School, and the courts were used by physical education players. In time a few of the courts were turned into office rooms for undergraduate societies like the Harvard Wireless Club. In the mid-nineties the university gave the University Squash Courts to its Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and in 1998, at a cost of $1.6 million, seventeen of the courts were turned into art studios. In some you can still see evidence of the old squash courts, but nothing remains from the era of court tennis play.

Today Randolph Hall is used by undergraduate art majors. Coolidge had hoped his creation would be popular among Harvard students and provide a place for the expression of man’s noblest spirit. With oil and canvas instead of racquet and ball, perhaps it does again.