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Restoration: Courtly Gestures

Project: The Casino, Georgian Court University, Lakewood, NJ

Architects: Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects, LLC, Priceton, NJ; Michael J. Mills, FAIA, Partner-In-Charge; Katherine Mcdowell Frey, Project Manager

General Contractor: Massimino Building Corp., Newton, PA

Architectural Conservator: Integrated Conservation Resources, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

During the first quarter of the 20th century, tennis players worldwide trembled at the thought of matches against George Jay Gould II. The socialite grandson of a railroad robber baron, Gould had learned the game from staff pros on his family's 1899 estate at Pine Barrens in Lakewood, NJ. Even at Olympic contests, he "made it practically impossible for any amateur to 'live' in the same court with him," wrote sports historian Allison Danzig in 1930 history of racquet games. Gould wielded, Danzig noted, "one of the most perfectly executed and absolutely deadly strokes that ever cut down a ball."

Gould mainly played a rarefied, ancient version of the game: court tennis. Invented sometime in the 1100s, it has gone in and out of fashion for centuries. It was all the rage among Belle Époque aristocrats, like those who flocked to Lakewood. Regulation courts for the sport are enclosed and concrete, with protruding shed-roof galleries and a cement buttress at ground level that provides opportunities for strategic ricochets. The racquet is pear-shaped and lopsided, and balls are handmade from bundles of white cloth strips. The game in fact is so different from standard lawn tennis that it has its own lingo. Court tennis masters speak, for instance, of strokes named giraffes, poops and railroads.

For the few thousand modern-day enthusiasts of court tennis, ten courts survive in America, mostly at private clubs. Last fall, the most historically significant of them all reopened after a faithful restoration: Gould's childhood training ground.

Since 1924, his family's property, named Georgian Court, has served as the campus for a Catholic women's school called Georgian Court University. The Goulds' sports facility (which originally contained bowling alleys, dozens of guestrooms, a Turkish bath and a polo ring) is the university's gym and auditorium. The court tennis space, after decades of disrepair and idleness, is receiving rave reviews again and is becoming an essential part of the school's curriculum.

On and off for nearly a decade, preservationists at Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects LLC, in Princeton, NJ, have been working on the sports building, which the Goulds dubbed the Casino. It was designed, like the rest of the National Historic Landmark site, by Manhattan architect Bruce F. Price. In contrast with Price's Georgian mansion and balustraded terraces around the 155-acre property, the steel-reinforced Casino is somewhat industrial-looking. Throughout the 280x176-ft. building, exposed and riveted trusses loom over exposed red-brick walls and tongue-and-groove wainscoting. But terra-cotta and marble ornament here and there are delicately sculpted, as befit the Goulds' substantial budget. Charioteers tame wild steeds over the arched entryways, and lion heads overlook the polo ring.

Grants and university operating budgets have allowed Farewell Mills Gatsch to prepare a master preservation plan, replace the Casino's metal roof and skylights, stabilize its brick and stucco skin and conserve terra-cotta sculpture. The 2005 tennis court project cost $367,000, largely funded by the New Jersey Historic Trust.

In the clerestory windows along the court's gabled roof, Farewell Mills Gatsch replaced plexiglass sheets and fake muntins with wood sash and metal louvers. Wherever roof trusses bear structurally onto the black-tinted masonry walls, says project manager Katherine McDowell Frey, "we excavated to scrape off and treat corrosion and to make sure the bearing capacity was intact."

In the shed-roof galleries along three sides of the room, water-damaged tongue-and-groove ceilings required extensive patching. Andrew Massimino, head of the Newton, PA-based contracting firm, Massimino Building Corp., recalls that when the first gallery ceiling was opened for inspection, "the workman got covered in sawdust. The areas above the ceilings turned out to be filled with sawdust. But we don't know why: maybe it was meant to improve the bounce of the ball, or maybe to deaden the sound of a ball hitting a hollow roof. In any case, we replaced the sawdust with sound insulation."

Along one tongue-and-groove ceiling, newly varnished, a long-faded inscription has been re-painted in heavy-serif black lettering: "Silence is requested while the ball is in play."

Court-tennis clubs and university teams, mostly from the East Coast, have been flocking to Georgian Court's historic treasure. "It's getting heavily used," reports Cathleen Sage, a project specialist in the university's Office of Finance and Administration. "The people who are interested in the sport are very, very enthusiastic. They walk in here and can't wait to start playing. Our students have been fascinated to watch how the players strategize, and use all the walls and the roofs. The U.S. Court Tennis Association will be sending pros to teach here, our tennis coach has been to some court tennis workshops, and our tennis team has trained with the Princeton court tennis team. Local tennis clubs have shown interest in learning the game, too. There's so much potential here."

Just outside the viewing gallery at the Casino's tennis court, Sage has filled a glass-fronted trophy case with artifacts: photos of Gould, USCTA newsletters and a worn cloth ball that was found in the rafters during renovation. Clarence McGowan, a board member of the USCTA, says that he's played all the surviving courts in America but still gets a thrill at Georgian Court. "The sense of history gives a game played there a special feeling," he says. "I'm trying now to reinstitute an Ivy League championship, and Georgian Court will be the perfect place for that." TB

 

 

 
 

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