Friday, March 22, 2013

Kenneth Murchison, The Mastermind Behind The Forest Hills Tennis Stadium

Rego-Forest Preservation Council, a longtime advocate of the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium and supporter of the late great architect, Kenneth Murchison, takes pride in sharing....

Kenneth Murchison, A Prominent Architect Who Left His Mark In Forest Hills
by Michael Perlman, Columnist of the Forest Hills Times/Queens Ledger

Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, a foremost public building architect & artist
An aerial photo of Forest Hills Tennis Stadium from 1929

Last week, this column noted that the West Side Tennis Club will host the first annual NY Open from July 4-7 as part of a series of summer events to commemorate the club’s 100-year Forest Hills operation.

President Roland Meier hoped the anniversary events would lead to a gradual restoration and revitalization of the iconic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, which once hosted the U.S. Open, Davis Cup, Wightman Cup, and singles championships, in addition to the annual Forest Hills Music Festival.

“I believe we can hold quality tennis events, ice hockey in the winter, and a few classical and modern music concerts on a small scale which our club can associate with,” he stated.

In response to the stadium’s influential history and 90th anniversary this August, one may find it difficult to grasp its lack of use for nearly 15 years. Despite minimal maintenance and recent extreme weather, its condition is not as poor as some people claimed when condos were proposed for the site in 2010 and then rejected.

Recent engineering assessments by the club address likely needs such as sealing cracks and upgrading sewer lines, and the president speculated a cost of less than $2.5 million in repairs.

Now is the time to rediscover and honor the prominent architect behind America’s first concrete tennis stadium. His name is Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison (1872-1938), and the Forest Hills tennis stadium is a testament to his cultured life and legends that were born.

In November 1917, the NY Times referenced Murchison as part of the West Side Tennis Club’s nominating committee, which presumes why he was commissioned to design the stadium. Within 10 years of the West Side Tennis Club’s success in Forest Hills, the temporary grandstands surrounding the perimeter were inadequate.

The club and the United States Lawn Tennis Association partnered to finance the 14,000-seat stadium, which cost $150,000. Construction began in April 1923 and was completed that August in time for the Davis Cup, where an American victory took center court.

To help finance the expense, the NY Times reported on May 22, 1923, that 900 out of 1,500 choicest seats have already been taken under a 10-year subscription plan for $100, where the subscriber would have their name affixed to a metal plate, guaranteeing their seat for major events.

The Massachussetts Institute of Technology published “The Technology Review” (November 1922) which read, “America’s Tennis Stadium, now under construction at Forest Hills, Long Island is to be ready for the Women’s Nationals on August 13th and for the Davis Cup Challenge Round on August 31st. The West Side Tennis Club sought a general contractor whose record and facilities guarantee trustworthy workmanship and speed of construction without sacrifice of the economy. The Foundation Company was chosen to do the job.”

The firm specialized in superstructures and substructures, and built in Paris, Rio De Janeiro, London, Montreal, and Chicago. An authentic stadium plaque bears names of the architect, builders, engineer, Stadium Committee, and Board of Governors.

The horseshoe-shaped stadium’s concrete façade features a distinctive colonnade of archways, which appear golden at sunset, and allow spectators to walk underneath. The upper portion of the façade is embellished with cornice detail conveying understated charm, glazed terra-cotta shields which bear the West Side Tennis Club logo, and Moderne eagles which brace vertical flagpoles. Authentic concrete and wood grandstands face the tennis courts and the Tudor clubhouse designed by Grosvenor Atterbury in 1913.

Today, Kenneth Murchison’s descendants live in Rhode Island, New York, California, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and London. Lynne De Wardener-Burris, Kenneth Murchison’s great-granddaughter who lives on Long Island, expressed interest in volunteering to preserve the stadium, as well as other descendants.

Murchison’s grandson is Hays Browning of Washington, D.C., who visited the stadium at age 11. Based upon family stories, he described his grandfather as a good tennis player. In a detailed interview, he spoke of his grandfather’s accomplishments. He stated, “We’ve always been proud of his career, and he left buildings behind as evidence of his work.”

Murchison studied at Columbia University and Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts. That was where he befriended John Russell Pope, who designed Washington, DC’s Jefferson Memorial, National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives. Murchison worked with Realtor Douglas Elliman to design New York City’s first cooperative apartments at 39 East 79th Street for friends including Mrs. James Roosevelt and Emily Post.

His other New York residential projects are his family’s residence at 49 East 63rd Street, where Maxfield Parrish once painted, and his residence at the Beaux Arts Apartments at 307 & 310 East 44th Street, which is regarded as a major Art Deco work. His patriotic contribution can be found at Staten Island’s U.S. Marine Hospital.

“Large projects did not deter him,” said Browning. Some of his great public works are Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, Jacksonville’s New Union Station, Buffalo’s Lehigh Valley and Lackawanna terminals in Buffalo, Havana’s Terminal Station, Hoboken’s Delaware-Lackawanna Station, and Jamaica’s Long Island Railroad Station.

On a more personal scale, he founded and designed the Dunes Club in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where his family summered, and he also designed the once affluent Sands Point Bath and Tennis Club of Long Island. North Carolina’s famed Orton Plantation was the Murchison family’s winter retreat, and examples of his work were additions to the Manor House and the Luola’s Chapel designed in his sister’s memory. It remained in their family until recently. Also in North Carolina, his name is memorialized in Wilmington’s Neo-Classical Revival Murchison National Bank Building.

Besides architecture, Murchison furthered his artistic talents and was an individual of high society.

“He founded the Beaux Arts Balls at Hotel Astor, which benefitted architects during The Great Depression,” said Browning. “He was a talented musician of 14 instruments, was excellent on the piano, and he conducted New York’s Mendelssohn Glee Club.”

In Bryant Park, he stood in the footsteps of George Washington and dressed in his attire to participate in a pageant commemorating the 143rd anniversary of Washington’s inauguration.

Pati de Wardener of Exeter, Rhode Island is the wife of Murchison’s grandson, Max de Wardener. She echoed Browning’s pride, and emphasized how Murchison’s legacy is evident in her family.

“His grandchildren and great-grandchildren inherited his work ethic, sense of community, humor, and style,” she said. “Some are business owners, photographers, electrical engineers, and teachers. Everyone inherited his love of music.”

His 1916 Broadway musical comedy, “Come To Bohemia,” was one example of his expertise as a composer.

After examining stadium photos, de Wardener explained, “Even with its age and scars, it exudes a grace that is timeless. The stands, although wood and not limestone, transports one back to the beautiful amphitheaters of ancient Rome and Greece. I see an ice skating rink in the winter, rollerblading, a jogging track, a dog park, a space for arts & crafts festivals, and an inviting sidewalk cafe nestled under the shade of arches where neighbors would gather.”

Robert Rauschenbach, a 50-year Forest Hills resident who grew up around the stadium, feels enriched. He enjoyed acts including Frank Sinatra, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, Olivia Newton John, and Bette Midler, as well as the US Open and the Robert F. Kennedy Tournament featuring politicians playing celebrities.

“That stadium needs to be embraced as a shrine,” he said. “Without Forest Hills, there would be no US Open or Arthur Ashe Stadium.” He continued, “Forest Hills is a true icon in the classic sense of what a tennis stadium should be. It was built to last, and with some TLC, it will last hundreds of years.”

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