Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Tribute To 126 Years of Tennis History at the West Side Tennis Club

By Michael Perlman

Dinner on the lawn facing the stately Clubhouse, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Heritage Day” is a newly launched tradition at the West Side Tennis Club (WSTC) in Forest Hills, which follows the success of last year’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium Party & Sunset Dinner that commemorated 125 years. On August 25, the Club celebrated 126 years of tennis history at an elegant and festive affair on the Tudor Clubhouse’s terrace and posh lawn. 

Past WSTC President James Frangos with Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Highlights included speeches by influential tennis figures including a surprise visit by the first African American NYC Mayor, David Dinkins. They led the unveiling of three banners which mark the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Open Championships, and are planned to be displayed at Forest Hills Stadium. They read, “West Side Tennis Club – Home of The First U.S. Open, 1968,” “Virginia Wade, First U.S. Open Women’s Singles Champion, 1968, U.S. Open Women’s Doubles Champion 1973, 1975,” and “Arthur Ashe, First U.S. Open Men’s Singles Champion, 1968.” 

Unveiling of banners commemorate US Open's 50th anniversary, Photo by Michael Perlman
Live music then filled the air and guests enjoyed a multi-course dinner buffet and mingled at candlelit tables, complete with tennis balls. Topping off the night was dancing to tracks by a DJ who played everything from today’s pop tunes to Sinatra.

On April 22, 1892, thirteen initial members organized the WSTC and rented ground on Central Park West between 88th and 89th Streets, which was followed by a move to 117th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Heights (1902 – 1914) and 238th Street and Broadway (1908 – 1914), prior to acquiring its Forest Hills home from the Russell Sage Foundation at $77,000 in 1913. The Clubhouse was designed by Grosvenor Atterbury, and then ten years later, America’s first tennis stadium, Forest Hills Stadium, was designed by Kenneth Murchison, and gave birth to a number of firsts in tennis history, with the addition of its role in music history as of 1960. 

Todd Martin, Photo by Michael Perlman
Todd Martin, the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, earned a Davis Cup title over Russia in 1995, and was a U.S. Open finalist and a no.4 world ranking in 1999. At the podium, he explained, “When the sport became ‘Open,’ it developed a power, and from that came a boon in the growth of the sport. It wasn’t long after the Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Agassi… started to dominate the sport. It was those steps 50 years ago that led to momentous occasions of Virginia Wade winning the first U.S. Open at Forest Hills. It was those bold steps that led to Arthur Ashe winning the first U.S. Open. It represented progress, growth, and power, and is reflected in our society today.” He continued, “Tennis before 1968 was a child, and tennis since 1968 has been in its adolescence. We have a lot of maturing to do as a sport…We have 7 governing bodies fight with each other for property, but have yet to be able to unite.” He then stated, “Be appreciative of what you have. WSTC is a spectacular historic place, and one that will be part of tennis history forever.” 

Donald Dell, Photo by Michael Perlman
Donald Dell, a 1961 quarterfinalist in Forest Hills and the only undefeated Davis Cup captain in American history, is a forerunner in pro tennis who played a major role in founding the Association of Tennis Professionals and represented legends including Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. He explained,”When Arthur Ashe won that match in four sets, ironically it was on the American Davis Cup team assigned to the Davis Cup captain for that year to play, and he was an amateur, and could therefore not accept the prize money. The first prize that year was $14,500, but it went to Tom Okker.” He continued, “Arthur always believed that he was far, far more than a tennis player, and he cared a great deal about humanitarian problems. I took him to South Africa in 1973, and in 1974 he went back and visited Nelson Mandela who was in prison at the time. His spirit, his tenacity, and human values continue to live on.” 

Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Regarded as Great Britain’s tennis legend, Virginia Wade achieved her first Grand Slam title in 1968 at the WSTC, and accepted prize money for the first time. She won two additional Grand Slam singles titles in Australia and at Wimbledon at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. When a friend of hers a few days ago questioned her playing for no prize money before 1968, she responded, “We played because the game was amazing, you wanted to win, and you had esteem and glory if you did well, and determination and all those qualities are the same on the court today, except the game is different. 1968 was an amazing transformation from amateur to professional, and they gradually got the women’s prize money up even.” 

Mayor David Dinkins, Photo by Michael Perlman
Mayor David Dinkins, one of tennis’ closest friends and a past USTA director stated, “I am delighted to be here, and I’m happy to see so many friends. Tennis is a wonderful sport, and more and more children are playing these days, and I say it’s making better people because of it.”

Johnnie Ashe, brother of the late Arthur Ashe, Photo by Michael Perlman
Johnnie Ashe is the younger brother of Arthur Ashe, winner of the first U.S. Open Men’s Singles Championship in 1968. The Hall of Famer passed away at 49 from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. J. Ashe is often praised for his selfless decision to take a second tour of duty in Vietnam, so his brother’s tennis career can flourish. He stated, “I would like to thank all of you for keeping the history alive of this hallowed ground. You would be surprised how little today’s players know about this place, and the difference it made to tennis.” He continued, “The U.S. Open gave Arthur the opportunity to transition from athlete to ‘citizen of the world.’” He recalled his brother’s words after he finished playing; “I’m a champion now, and people will listen to me.” He continued, “Tennis was a vehicle to Arthur. A lot of people don’t think of it that way, but look at the number of kids that have gone to college due to a tennis racquet, and a lot of that was due to change agents Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe.” 

Todd Martin, WSTC President Angela Martin, Johnnie Ashe, Donald Dell, Virginia Wade, Photo by Michael Perlman
Virginia Wade with Johnnie Ashe & his family, Photo by Michael Perlman
Guests also felt inspired in various ways. “It’s nice that my children can witness history and see the legends in person,” said CT resident Ben Sturner, the CEO & founder of Leverage Agency. “It was very memorable how Johnnie Ashe discussed the progression of tennis, and how Forest Hills laid the groundwork for everything.”

“WSTC’s preservation of charm and character of its architectural structure is second to none,” said Manhattan resident Mindy Sue Sherry. She continued, “The heartfelt speeches from Mayor Dinkins as well as the family of Mr. Ashe touched everyone’s heart, and unveiling the banners was truly beautiful. I was also struck by the history of the many iconic photos of decades of tennis history within the hallways.”

“This event moved me to tears, since I always knew Forest Hills was special, but it is even more special to people than I realized,” said native resident Helen Fernandez Murphy. “It was amazing to be in the presence of such history, having the opportunity to listen to Johnnie Ashe’s poignant words, particularly about standing in hallowed ground, and Virginia Wade’s discussion about pay parity for women. Most intriguing was that the tournament before 1968 only involved amateurs, and how many sacrifices were made to play for the true love of the game.”

Glenn Gilliam, executive director of Strategic Partnerships for the “Althea” documentary film project, and a former Forest Hills resident, explained, “Being able to share that day, which happened to be Althea Gibson’s birthday, 8/25/1927, with other African Americans like Mayor David N. Dinkins and Arthur’s brother Johnnie Ashe was the most memorable, as we, much like Althea and Arthur, couldn’t have been members back when they won their Championships. Being able to watch that commemorative banner unveiled and share stories with some of the members, most of whom are still mostly white, is a positive sign, but there’s still a lot of work to do and barriers to break.”

Gilliam highly anticipates Heritage Day 2019. “I hope the WSTC will raise a banner to the person who broke the color barrier in tennis and golf, Althea Gibson, which will coincide perfectly with the unveiling of a commemorative statue on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center during next year’s U.S. Open.” 

Female guests pose in front of banners, Photo by Michael Perlman
To the dancefloor, Photo by Michael Perlman

A similar version of this story has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Story Behind The Grover Cleveland Mural Restoration in Forest Hills

By Michael Perlman

Restored Grover Cleveland mural, Photo by Michael Perlman
In an age when architectural and artistic beauty is often replaced with the mundane, one co-op board in Forest Hills engaged in a unique effort to restore a classic mural in their lobby. Coming home to The Grover Cleveland at 67-38 108th Street offers a regal experience and a lesson in American history. In a lobby distinguished by wood-paneling, terrazzo, marble, window seats, and classical furnishings and carpeting, the eye is further drawn to a mural which reads “October 28, 1886 Statue of Liberty ~ Dedication By Grover Cleveland.” The work is complete with American flags, families in period attire, and sailors in rowboats saluting. 

The stately Grover Cleveland with its cherub fountain, 67-38 108th St, Photo by Michael Perlman
This Colonial meets Art Moderne building, recognizable by its curved corner brick terraces, a circular driveway alongside a cherub bird bath on a lush landscaped lawn, inner gardens, and florid lattice-work leading to sleek brass and glass doors, was designed in 1949 by an award-winning duo, architect Philip Birnbaum (1907 – 1996) and developer Alfred Kaskel (1901 – 1968), president of Carol Management. It is part of the series of “presidential buildings” that line 108th Street and Yellowstone Boulevard, and is nearly a twin of the adjacent George Washington Apartments, which once featured a mural of its namesake, rumored to be concealed. 

“The board felt our mural was part of The Grover Cleveland’s history, so when we redid the lobby, we made the mural the focal point, decorated accordingly, and even the decorators were impressed with the restoration,” said board president Leslie Siegel. Unfortunately, it was neglected and vandalized, so six years ago, the board appointed Jack Kupersmith Fine Art Restoration, and today the mural remains in pristine condition. Siegel proudly expressed, “He removed the areas that were damaged with markers, such as Lady Liberty’s eyes, took off years of dust and dirt, and filled in missing areas.” 

Restored Grover Cleveland mural in an elegant Colonial lobby of The Grover Cleveland, Photo by Michael Perlman
Among the residents who are also pleased is Michael Buscemi. “Nine years ago, when I saw the lobby and the mural, I knew I wanted to live here. I love how the mural shows the president for whom the building was named after, and it is a nice panorama of the old New York. Every city has new buildings, but the historic ones give our city its strength and individuality.” 

Fine art restoration specialist Jack Kupersmith in his studio, Photo by Shana Schnur Photography
For Jack Kupersmith, who works with high-end galleries and private clients, and whose expertise includes the restoration of murals and antique paintings to modern art, sculptures, watercolors, and wood panels, restoring The Grover Cleveland’s mural was a two-week project. “Preservation of the mural is important from a historical and artistic point of view, and it makes me feel proud that I was able to bring it back to its original state,” said Kupersmith who is grateful for his trade. “My father owned a restoration studio and taught me everything I know. I worked for him for 25 years, and when he retired, I became president of the corporation.”

Kupersmith recalled the restoration’s behind-the-scenes aspect. “The mural had to be cleaned, filings had to be made where details were missing, and filings had to be caulked down and isolated. At that point, I was able to in-paint and match the colors and details of the mural. Once the in-painting dried, I was able to varnish it with a medium shine finish.” He also recalled how cleaning the mural was an act of precision. “I couldn’t use any harsh cleaners, but only very soft ones, since I did not want the painting to be skinned.” 

Builder Alfred Kaskel & Architect Philip Birnbaum, 1st prize building award by Queens Chamber of Commerce, Courtesy of Daniel Kaskel
In addition to efficient apartment layouts, murals and carefully landscaped areas are among the tasteful design features that architect Philip Birnbaum is remembered for. “My father's vision yielded a truly exemplar design that would yield elegance to posterity,” said internationally recognized artist and producer Dara Birnbaum. “He was proud of his achievements, as he came from a very impoverished situation in a Lower East Side tenement, but he really raised himself by his bootstraps and got through Columbia University's College of Architecture.”

After learning about the Grover Cleveland mural’s restoration, memories continued to surface. “My father was very close to muralist James Seeman, whose expertise was in painting large scale landscapes and scenic murals.” 

Featured in the New York World-Telegram & Sun, June 13, 1963
Mina Seeman, wife of the late James Seeman (1914 – 1994), who was regarded as a foremost American muralist, was also impressed by its restoration. In Austria, he attended the Realschule, and was the recipient of art and engineering degrees. He immigrated to America from Vienna in 1938, fleeing from the Nazis. Then he continued to study art at Pratt Institute.

She reminisced, “He was once asked when he started to paint, and replied ‘I don't remember ever not wanting to paint.’ As a very young child he sat by the window and painted. He said that he was first inspired by what he saw; a landscape, flowers, old interesting houses with age and charm. He said he would paint in his mind at night, and jump out of bed, run into his studio, and begin to paint what was in his mind.”

He originated with oils and progressed with watercolors. She recalled his paintings as analogous to how a poet writes. “He was a master in color. They were subtle and clear. He loved painting skies and oceans, which showed his talent in color and movement.”

Mina Seeman remembers him as a quiet, serious, and strong gentleman. “In his obituary, in a wall covering magazine, he was described as a gentle giant, and was that in stature and in his life's accomplishments.” In 1952, he received the year's outstanding wall covering design, and some of his works are exhibited at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

James Seeman once told The Knickerbocker News, “Americans are hungry for beauty” and “They say it is so refreshing, exhilarating to walk into a room that has personality, and not just four drab walls.”

Looking ahead, Kupersmith expressed interest in restoring other local murals, and said, “I would have to see the condition that it’s in before committing.”

Coming home to fine art in an elegant lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman
A historic attraction in a warm & welcoming lobby, Photo by Michael Perlman

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sterling National Bank To Close Longtime Branch August 28 - Preserve The Original Home of Forest Hills Masons!

By Michael Perlman

Forest Hills Masonic Temple & Boulevard Bank in 1929, Courtesy of Michael Perlman

One of Forest Hills’ earliest commercial buildings houses Sterling National Bank at 108-01 Queens Boulevard, which was erected in 1920. However, as plans are underway to close its longtime location, the future of this classic Greek Revival style building may be in jeopardy, and merits a tenant that will preserve the building. 

According to Consumer Banking President Brian Edwards, the consolidation date for this branch (with Astoria Bank) will be on August 28. He explained, “Sterling is proud to serve this neighborhood by aligning dedicated relationship managers with the credit, deposit, and banking needs of the local community. While this branch is consolidating, we maintain two other locations within a mile at 63-72 108th Street and 97-33 Queens Boulevard.” 

Sterling National Bank, 108-01 Queens Blvd, August 2018 photo by Michael Perlman
As buildings that offer character are being lost in the name of progress, it is time to rediscover the site’s long yet forgotten history. The former tenant was Boulevard Bank, and nearly a century ago it was home to the Forest Hills Masonic Temple, which was considered a major achievement in a community that was named only fourteen years earlier. On October 9, 1920, a cornerstone was laid for Forest Hills Lodge No. 946 of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York by Grand Master Robert H. Robinson. A parade led up to the ceremony with a marching band, and the Knight Templar lodges of New York City escorted the Grand Master. On November 16, 1920, the Masons moved into their new site after previously meeting at Arcanum Hall in Elmhurst. The organization was granted a dispensation on December 18, 1916 by Most Worshipful Grand Master Penny.

In early 1919, for less than $10,000, Forest Hills Lodge No. 946 acquired a 64-foot frontage on Queens Boulevard by 150 feet on what was originally known as Gown Street. Stone Doric pilasters along with a stone frieze, quoins, and lintels provide contrast from the red brick fa├žade with its large arched and rectangular windows, and were meant to offer charm and prominence on a highly visible intersection. Plans called for bowling alleys among other amusements and a kitchen in the basement, an auditorium and community hall on the first floor, and the Forest Hills Masonic Temple on the second floor with ante-rooms and lockers. One of the most engaging features would be an up to date organ in an organ loft.

Forest Hills residents provided assistance to Lodge No. 946, and Forest Hills Community Hall, Inc was known as the holding company. The Masons would undertake the financing of the property, including the temple, which would represent an investment of over $50,000. The charter committee consisted of Dickran M. Sarkisian, John Miller, Robert Whyte, J.M. Pahl, Andrew Galbraith, Adam Treu, and V. E. Engelbach. As of 1924, membership increased to 187.

Throughout the decades, the building was home to an array of community engagements. Early on, “Scandals at the Shore” was presented by the Lehbog Circle of the Silver Cross Day Nursery, and attendees compared a local show to the season’s best musical comedies. The entertainment group consisted of thirty active and six associated female members. The Forest Hills Choral Club, led by Bruno Huhn, offered a concert at the Masonic Temple in December 1923.

In the Forest Hills Theatre, over 400 participants attended the Fashion Revue and Frolic of the Forest Hills Masons on a single day of a two-day event in December 1928. A bridal tableaux displayed a $5,000 wedding gown. A ballroom dance session at the Masonic Temple followed, and proceeds helped furnish the temple. In September 1932, Forest Hills Jewish Center held High Holiday services on site. On a more humble scale, the Bath Sheba Chapter, Order of Eastern Star coordinated a Dutch supper and card and games party in 1945. That same year, the Trinity Triangle, Daughters of Eastern Star held the Annual Barn Dance. All expenses were paid by the brothers of the Forest Hills Lodge annually when it came to organizing a Thanksgiving dinner and a moving picture show for children of a local orphanage.

In 1928, it was announced that on February 1, 1929, Boulevard Bank and Trust Company of Forest Hills, which became a member of the Forest Hills Board of Trade, would share the building, and D. M. Sarkisian of 30 Jewel Street would be the founder and first vice president. Sarkisian, who was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and a WWI Army Captain, was also a trustee and elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Forest Hills.

On May 14, 1948, the Sterling Safe Deposit Company was granted authorization to open the Sterling National Bank & Trust Company on June 1st. A vintage ad read, “In the past six years, Sterling National Bank has been serving thousands of residents and merchants in Queens through its office at (95-38) Queens Boulevard near 63rd Drive. Our new office will enable us to extend our services over a much wider area of this important section of Long Island.”

Forest Hills Masonic Temple remained for decades at its original site and relocated approximately fifty years after its founding to 101-01 Metropolitan Avenue.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Back To The 1980s At Forest Hills Stadium

By Michael Perlman

On a warm summer night at Forest Hills Stadium, it was the closest that concertgoers may have come to the 1980s. The over four-hour engagement on July 28 evoked nostalgia and a new sensational experience of some of the era’s most memorable headliners. It opened with Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey followed by The B-52s, and Boy George and Culture Club, calling for one large celebration, where attendees were dancing the night away, occasionally into the aisles, and large smiley balloons with handwritten messages bounced around, offering a beat of their own. Although decades have passed, most concertgoers felt that the artists, with resonant vocals, rhythms, and wit, have not lost their spark.

Emoticon balloons add to the character, Photo by Michael Perlman
Boy George & Culture Club, Photo by Michael Perlman
Culture Club’s Boy George, the pop band’s lead British singer and songwriter remains distinguished by his blue-eyed soul and androgynous fashion. He is an international icon, and is the 2015 recipient of the Ivor Novello lifetime achievement award. Founded in 1981, the band’s sales have exceeded 50 million records. Their set, with a full band included classics such as “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie cover), “It’s A Miracle,” “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” “Time (Clock of the Heart)” and “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” Another highlight was new music that he proudly introduced such as “The Truth Is A Runaway Train.” It continued with a 3-song encore including favorites “Addicted To Love” (Robert Palmer cover) and the ultimate classic sea shanty “Karma Chameleon,” which fans continued to sing after the concert.

Boy George & Culture Club, Photo by Michael Perlman
“Everything is about attitude and intention, so as long as the intention is there, and there’s a whole lot of attitude, we’re off to a good start, people,” said Boy George, whose rapport largely struck a chord throughout. When he performed a song with “a hint of magic realism,” he asked the audience if they wanted to be loved, and in turn, they exclaimed “Yeah!” He then said, “You have to open yourself up to the possibility of that happening. You have to ‘Let Somebody Love You.’” There was a mix of old and new tunes. He said, “We hit you with something unfamiliar and then we reward you with something familiar. It’s kind of like a form of musical mind control, honed over years and years of practice.” Before performing “Time (Clock of the Heart),” he was grateful to their artistic influences, and said, “This particular song was the beginning of us really going, ‘Uh okay, I think we got a sound.’ All those of years of listening to Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye finally paid off.”

The B-52s, Photo by Michael Perlman
New Wave and dance-rock band The B-52s originated in Athens, Georgia in 1976, and with over twenty million album sales, they are regarded as “the world’s greatest party band,” as proven at the stadium. Their set featured “Mesopotamia,” “Private Idaho,” “Roam,” “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster.” Once known for bouffant hairdos, The B-52s consisted of Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, and Cindy Wilson.

Thompson Twins' Tom Bailey, Photo by Michael Perlman
Tom Bailey performed some of the most memorable hits of the Thompson Twins, the British pop, new wave, and synth-pop band originating in 1977. The program consisted of classics including “Lies” “Lay Your Hands on Me,” “Doctor! Doctor!” and “Hold Me Now,” with Tom Bailey on vocals and guitar, and his exclusively female band, comprised of Charlotte Raven and Amanda Kramer on vocals and keyboards, and Paulina Szczepaniak on electronic drums.

“Music has the power to bring you back in time, and you think about friends that a particular song reminds you of,” said Forest Hills resident Steven Grimando who attended with his girlfriend Lisa. He recalled a great summer when “Hold Me Now” was released, and another highlight was The B-52s’ “Roam.” “Gotta dance to that one awesome song!” He praised their voices and stage presence and said, “Taking into account that none of us are youngsters anymore, they still have it.”

A fan sporting a bouffant hairdo poses with Bari Cohen, Courtesy of Bari Cohen
“What better way to relive teenage years than the great outdoors at Forest Hills Stadium in my backyard,” said Bari Cohen. She continued, “From ‘Roam’ and ‘Love Shack’ until the end with ‘Karma Chameleon,’ it was a sing-along the whole night, and the artists unified the stadium, where strangers became friends, and the audience was full of love and good energy.”

Sarah Lyons commuted from Long Island with her husband. She said, “My most memorable moment was looking around at the crowd enjoying a beautiful Saturday night at the stadium, a perfect summer venue.” Her main draw was Culture Club, who she praised for their iconic songs such as “Time,” her personal favorite. “I have always loved that song and loved hearing it in person. I also loved how Boy George and company engaged the crowd. He seemed to be having as much fun as the audience.”

Rockland County resident Josie Paz, who turns 60 on July 31, knew how to celebrate! “It was fun, danceable, and relevant as it was in the eighties. The best parts were dancing like I did in my twenties, as I leave my fifties behind, and seeing my peers and younger folks loving the 80s.” She continued, “Although I am a huge B-52s fan, I was joyfully surprised at how wonderful Boy George was; not only engaging and charismatic, but his voice was amazing, and having Tom Bailey sing all my favorites from the Thompson Twins was the icing on my birthday cake.”

Rego Park fan Lara Frater attended with her sister-in-law and a friend. “I really enjoyed how The B-52s threw in ‘Low Rider’ in the middle of ‘Love Shack.’” It made her reminisce her circle of friends in the 90s, when ‘Love Shack’ was their theme song. She found their act to be quirky, as evident by Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s dresses. Furthermore, she said, “Culture Club and Thompson Twins took me back to Friday night videos on ABC, and when The B-52s performed ‘Party Out of Bounds,’ it reminded me of WLIR, the 80s alternative radio station.” Frater was proud of Culture Club’s opening tribute to David Bowie with ‘Let’s Dance’ and she admired Boy George’s witty banter, such as when he told the audience to “just get off social media for a few minutes and listen.” As for the encore’s “You Give Me Life,” she said, “It was a sweet ballad, and I liked how everyone used cell phone flashlights instead of lighters.”

One of many fans wearing band t-shirts, Photo by Michael Perlman

An alternate version of this feature has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: