Inconspicuous Consumption and Philadelphia Aristocracy‘s Last Preserve

Racquet Club, 215 South 16th Street. February 20, 1908. (PhillyHistory.org)

“’Everybody’” belongs to the Philadelphia Racquet Club, proclaimed Nathaniel Burt more than half a century ago.  And by “’everybody’” Burt meant the subjects of his classic Perennial Philadelphians, the subtitle of which is our obvious tip off: “Anatomy of an American Aristocracy.

One might have expectations that their clubhouse, designed by Horace Trumbauer, the go-to architect for over-the-top client expectations (a recent monograph is titled American Splendor) would be something of an opulent, urban sports palace. After all, Trumbauer created crenelated “Grey Towers” for the sugar magnate William Welsh Harrison, the 110-room “Lynnewood Hall” for streetcar baron P. A. B.  Widener and the lavish”Whitemarsh Hall” for investment banker Edward T. Stotesbury. But when it came to making a statement at this 16th Street sporting and eating refuge for old-money Philadelphia, Trumbauer chose the muted Georgian revival, which blended right in with old, original red-brick, white stoop Philadelphia.

Nothing on the façade telegraphed the fact that the clubhouse foreshadowed modernity (it was one of the city’s first reinforced concrete structures) or that its above grade swimming pool was among the world’s first. Nor did the building reveal that inside, members competed in “the sport of medieval French kings” on a “literal indoor reproduction of the original palace courtyard.” There was nothing else like it in the city, and only a few like it in the country, this court tennis court, “with all sorts of antique penthouses, windows at odd intervals.”

Court tennis only vaguely resembled the much more popular (and derivative) lawn tennis. By comparison, this court is “immense: 93 feet long by 31 feet wide… 15 feet longer and 4 feet wider than the standard lawn-tennis singles court.” The “crimson-trimmed net was two feet lower in the middle than at the ends.” Dimensions vary. England’s Hampton Court “is some 24 inches longer and 19 inches wider than the two courts at the New York Racquet Club.” (That’s right—New York has two.) In Britain, the “walls are rougher, which means that the ball will bounce off them at a steeper angle.”  The slope of the penthouses running along three of the walls can be different, although the window-like openings at odd intervals appear the same.

Racquet Club, 215 South 16th Street. February 20, 1908 (PhillyHistory.org)

One way players score in this complicated game, is to hit the heavy, hand-sewn, lopsided ball into these holes at speeds approaching 150 miles per hour. Yes, the esoteric rules and hard-acquired skills take years to master.

The history and lore of the game is actually far more interesting  Word has it that the young Henry VIII brought the game to Hampton Court in 1530. “His second wife Anne Boleyn was said to be watching a game when she was arrested and the king was playing tennis when news was brought to him of her execution.”

“Shakespeare mentioned the game in six of his plays. … Chaucer, Erasmus, Edmund Spenser, Rabelais, Pepys, Gower, Chapman, Rousseau, Ben Jonson, John Locke, Montaigne, and Galsworthy are among the men of letters who made mention of tennis.”

“Proper tennis” had been played by royals and wannabes for about three-quarters of a millennium before it arrived on American shores. Whether it first landed in Boston in 1876 or New York in 1890 or Chicago in 1893 is a matter of prideful debate. But one thing, pointed out by Burt, seemed clear: the game was imported “during the Gilded Age as a piece of extremely conspicuous consumption.”

And for the longest time, and perhaps still today, the Philadelphia version of the game is a “preserve of the aristocracy”—albeit inconspicuously as possible.

[Sources: Nathaniel Burt The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; originally published in 1963); Sandra L. Tatman, Horace Trumbauer (Philadelphia Architects and Buildings; The Athenaeum of Philadelphia); Allison Danzig, The Royal & Ancient Game of Tennis: A Short History; Robert W. Stock, “The Courtliest Tennis Game of Them All, The New York Times, March 6, 1983; James Zug, Introduction to Court Tennis, A Guide to Tennis.]

 

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