Lost Courts of America: Chicago Athletic Association
by James Zug

In January 2001 James Zug began a series of articles in The Dedans about court tennis facilities no longer in use or existence with a look at the Buckingham Street court. Since then, he has written on the Boston Athletic Association in May 2001, Myopia in August 2001, the 1656 court in New York in April 2002, and Harvard in August 2002.

Of all cities off the Eastern Seaboard, none can compete with Chicago for a rich history of involvement with obscure winter racquet sport games. The Windy City was a very early proponent of squash tennis and squash racquets, with courts for the former appearing before the turn of the 20th century and courts for the latter in 1909. Many of them were of strange compositions. Some consisted of Bickley cement (commonly used for tennis courts); others were wood painted red. Chicago was also an early proponent of feminism: in 1924 Mrs. F.C. Lett won a women’s handicapped squash tournament at the Racquet Club of Chicago, the first open women’s tournament in the country.

A surprising total of eight racquets courts have been built in Chicago: two at the Chicago Athletic Association, one at the Illinois AC (you entered through a trap door in the floor), two at the University Club (you can still see the tell-tale outline of one of the racquets court in the club’s fitness center), and one at the University of Chicago. Only the two at the Racquet Club are still in use today. Harold McCormick, the national champion in racquets in 1909, built the U. of Chicago court.
It was tucked under the west bleachers of Amos Alonzo Stagg football field. During World War II, the Manhattan Project took over the court. In December 1942, 40 people sat in the cold gallery and watched Enrico Fermi split the atom. The court and the stadium were torn down in 1957 and a Henry Moore sculpture marks the spot today.

Court tennis goes hand in hand with racquets. The Chicago Athletic Association, “the club where business belongs,” is located at 12 South Michigan Avenue, at the corner of West Madison, in the Loop and overlooking the new Millennium Park and Lake Michigan . Founded in 1890, the club won the national football championship in 1896, sponsored a man who set the national canal pole vaulting record, and gave its distinctive logo—a cherry red C in a blue circle — to the Chicago Cubs when CAA member William Wrigley bought the team in 1915.

Henry Ives Cobb designed the original 11-story CAA clubhouse on Michigan Avenue, which opened in time for the 1893 World’s Fair; in 1907 the CAA added an adjoining 18-story building on Madison. (Cobb, a Harvard man, designed the University of Chicago campus, the Union Club of Chicago, the observatory at Northwestern, and the Presbyterian church in Lake Forest.) The original clubhouse boasted billiards rooms, bowling alleys, and swimming pools. The ninth floor, which was the highest in the building, was reached by an elevator. Under giant skylights were lounge rooms with dining tables, dressing rooms, markers’ apartments, two fives courts (sometimes used for squash tennis), two racquets courts, and in the back of the building, a court tennis court.

The court at the Chicago Athletic Association now functions as a boxing gym. The court was opened in September 1893. Henry Boakes was the professional. A Queen’s Club export, Boakes had worked as a racquets pro at the Quebec Racquet Club off Grande Allee Avenue, the last of the many 19th-century racquets courts in Quebec City. Known by the nickname of Judy or Harry, Boakes was the North American pro racquets champion from 1883, when he beat Robert Moore, until 1893, when he lost to George Standing. In 1883 he played Joe Gray, the world racquets champion, in a best-of-seven racquets match for £1,000 at the 26th St reet court of the Racquet Court Club in New York. Boakes grabbed the first three games by hitting short drives on the return of serve, but Gray, adopting Boakes’ dropshotting technique, came back to win the last four and the match. Many Canadians, Kenneth F. Gilmour wrote in 1930, “have many kind recollections of his unfailing good humor and his exceptional usefulness as a coach.”

The Chicagoans at the CAA apparently did not appreciate that humor and usefulness as much. Even with the assistance of Eddie Rogers, a Canadian, William Joyce, and Jim Fellman, the racquets courts and tennis court never took hold at the CAA. Under the skylights, it grew hot on summer days and  cloudy skies often made play impossible in winter. 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 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 CAA newsletter 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 “a round the court nearly as rapidly as an ice wagon in August.”

Court time was not that expensive. The CAA charged 25 cents an hour per player and six cents a ball for racquets; for tennis it was 50 cents an hour per player (the equivalent of $11 in 2005). Boakes charged 75 cents for a lesson. There was some good fun at the courts and one day, after Bill Feron and Bill Hulbert played a match for a case of wine, the club newsletter 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 gave W. H. Cohen, a player from Prince’s in London, 15 each game and lost in two sets. Cohen, who only served the bobble, developed blisters on his hand and, in a rematch with the handicap at half-15, Boakes beat him 3-0. Boakes played a court tennis and racquets test match against George Standing in January 1895 at the CAA, beating Standing in tennis but losing 3-0 in racquets. At year’s end Boakes traveled east to New York and reprised the test. On Christmas Day 1895, Boakes, receiving five points, lost 15-12 15-14 18-17 in racquets. On Boxing Day, Boakes and
de Garmendia lost to Standing and Fred Tompkins in tennis 3-1, but Boakes then beat Tompkins in singles 8-7 6-4 6-2. On the 30th, Boakes and Tom Pettit beat Standing and de Garmendia 3-2 in tennis.

In 1896 Boakes went to Boston to square off against Pettitt, who had just resigned his title as world tennis champion. Boakes lost in both racquets (3-1) and tennis (6-3 3-6 4-6 6-1 6-4), despite the fact Pettitt conceded a handicap of half-30. Boakes told the CAA newsletter that “Pettitt has lost none of his old-time skill, and when with a quick ‘look-out!’ he plays a ball for the dedans, there is little chance to attempt to return, and his opponent can only devote his attention to keeping out of the way of the ball.” Boakes wowed the Bostonians with his retrieving ability and his crisp backhand. A return exhibition in Chicago was held the following year.

In 1901 leaking skylights and non-interest led to the conversion of the court tennis court to bowling alleys. The upper story became male staff dormitories. Racquets soon deteriorated and one of the courts became a squash tennis doubles court. In 1909 Boakes left the CAA to become head pro at the brand-new clubhouse of the University Club. In future years, the space became squash courts and a boxing room, with an official 10th floor added. After just eight years, the shortest tenure of any court tennis facility in the United States, tennis was gone from the ninth floor of the CAA.

James Zug, the former editor of The Dedans, is the author of Squash: A History of the Game, published by Scribner in 2003 and now in its second printing.