Hidden behind a high brick wall stands a forgotten masterpiece of American architecture, designed by the same firm responsible for New York’s Pennsylvania Station and the Boston Public Library.
The Germantown Cricket Club, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the few surviving structures in Philadelphia designed by McKim Mead & White.
It is a strange juxtaposition, indeed: one of the nation’s oldest country clubs situated in an dense, inner-city environment.
When Germantown Cricket Club was built in the 1890s, the surrounding area was a fashionable suburban district, popular with commuters and summer residents seeking clean air and green space. What better place for traditional country sports?
Cricket is, of course, a British import, and an ancestor of modern American baseball. During the mid-19th century, Philadelphia was an American mecca of this quintessentially British game, and it’s “elevens” were competitive with the best teams from the other side of the pond. One of Philadelphia’s greatest cricketers was Germantown founder William Rotch Wister (1827-1911), who actively promoted the game to a broad American audience after watching English immigrant millworkers play it during their precious off-hours. He was also the uncle (and father-in-law…) of novelist Owen Wister.* Wister, along with a group of well-connected Philadelphia sportsmen, founded the Germantown Cricket Club in 1854. The club first played on a crease in the Nicetown section of the city — conveniently close to the Wister family compound — until 1891, when the current clubhouse was constructed on Manheim Street.
The clubhouse is most likely the vision of Stanford White, the most creative and visionary of the McKim Mead & White partners.** White’s residential architecture, especially in New York, tended towards the theatrical, with plenty of rich materials and ornamentation. He also had a hand in designing resort structures such as The Casino in Newport, Rhode Island, which used Japanese architecture for inspiration. But perhaps in the spirit of appeasing his conservative Philadelphia patrons, White tempered his architectural language, giving Wister and his friends a staid, symmetrical, red-brick Georgian composition that harkened back to Philadelphia landmarks such as Independence Hall and Christ Church.
In the best Beaux Arts tradition, White created an efficient floor plan that revolved around a central axis, in this case a long hallway that ran the entire length of the first floor. Since the club would be most heavily used in the warm-weather months, creating enough cross-ventilation in the fierce Philadelphia heat was a real design challenge. White’s response was to place a double-tiered veranda in the center of the building. This feature not only allowed fresh air to circulate throughout the main public rooms (including the barrel -vaulted ballroom on the second floor), but gave members a shaded viewing stand for watching the matches on the crease below. Brightly-colored striped window awnings, fixtures on homes throughout the city during the summer, also helped keep the building cool.
At Germantown, Wister’s cricket boosterism worked for a while — in the first decade of the twentieth century, thousands of people took the train out to the suburbs to watch the matches. Yet there were some fundamental problems with American cricket, especially as the pace of life quickened with industrialization and corporate consolidation. First, it was a slow game, and matches could last for days. Few spectators, let alone players, had the time to devote to such a leisurely sport. Second, women were excluded by custom from elevens teams. Above all, more Americans found cricket just plain boring, especially compared to collegiate football and nascent professional baseball teams.
By the 1910s, a new sport took over the grass creases of Germantown Cricket: lawn tennis. It not only provided vigorous exercise in a short period of time, but also allowed female participation. It was at Germantown Cricket that William T. “Bill” Tilden II honed his skills as a boy and became America’s greatest tennis player. The tennis craze even spread to the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt, America’s greatest exponent of physical fitness in the early 1900s, frequently played with a group of advisors that came to be known as the “Tennis Cabinet.” Yet as an advocate of contact sports such as football and jujitsu, Roosevelt adamantly refused to be photographed in what he considered to be effete tennis whites.
During the middle of the twentieth century, cricket declined as Philadelphia became a tennis mecca. The city produced not just Bill Tilden, but also Wimbleton champion E. Victor Seixas Jr. In the early 1920s, Germantown hosted the U.S. Open. So great was Philadelphia’s place in tennis lore that Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell wrote an entire book about it – Sporting Gentlemen – in which the author lamented the supplanting of amateur players by professionals.***
Today, Germantown Cricket has been carefully restored and modernized, and its membership has diversified considerably since the days of Tilden. It now boasts programs not just in tennis and squash, but also an outdoor swimming pool and bowling alley. And occasionally, the tennis nets are removed and two sets of “elevens” engage in a cricket match on the close-cropped grass courts.
Yet Philadelphia’s most active cricket field is not surrounded by a high brick wall, but is open to all. During the summer, on the fields in Fairmount Park, teams composed largely of immigrants from the Caribbean and Pakistan play every weekend, keeping a distinctly Philadelphia tradition alive and well.
*Obituary for William Rotch Wister, Wednesday, August 23, 1911: “The Philadelphia Press.” The former William Rotch Wister estate is now the site of La Salle University.
**In 1906, Stanford White was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw on the rooftop garden of New York’s Madison Square Garden. Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit had once been White’s mistress. The murder (and all its salacious details) was dubbed the “Crime of the Century.”
***E. Digby Baltzell was godfather to Whit Stillman, director of Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Damsels in Distress.
- William Rutherford Mead, Charles F. McKim, and Stanford White. Image: www.fineartamerica.com