The Wapsi Valley Tennis Club
By Megan McKinney
Pay no attention to the logo on her tennis sweater—the club up on Foster Avenue has nothing to do with the court she’s on. And, yes, that’s the Water Tower looming behind her. Look more closely. If the near building to the left is the Water Tower Pumping Station, the fence between them is screening out Michigan Avenue’s busy traffic.
Voilà! It’s the legendary Wapsi Valley Tennis Club and she’s playing on courts that will be soon replaced by a revolutionary new vertical shopping mall, Water Tower Place.
Nobody knows how or when the Wapsi Valley was launched in this unlikely location, except that it pre-dated the First World War, and a mid-century member recalled his father working out on the courts during weekends as far back as 1911.
We all may know people who played on the composition courts in the 1960s and who remember when membership was held at 50 members—up to 68 for a while—and who paid a $35 initiation fee, plus $150 annual dues. The club was charged $500 for use of the land, but nobody seems to have known how often or by whom.
The greatest mystery of all is who put in the original courts, with the rumor that it was a member of the Potter Palmer family who long ago installed clay courts—later changed to composition. Well, why not—as Palmer House executive Ken Price reminds us—the Palmers once owned all the land in this area.
A billboard, similar to that above, was placed near what would be the entrance to the American Girl Place portion of Water Tower Place. And, whether intentionally or not, neatly located to obscure Wapsi club fencing. The woman standing in front of ths billboard is Mrs. John V. Farwell III.
The tennis courts were accompanied by a little garden of petunias, some well-cropped grass, high poplars, aluminum-tubed chairs, an ice-filled soft drink cooler and even a prefabricated garage as clubhouse—but no washrooms. Many members lived in the neighborhood and the obliging Pearson Hotel was nearby.
If you study the image below, the back of the billboard facing Michigan Avenue is visible at center left. Across the Avenue are the buildings of Fourth Pres and down Chestnut Street is the Tremont Hotel.
Notice the messy construction site directly across Chestnut Street from the club? That’s the beginning of what will become the second tallest building in the world, Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan’s John Hancock Center. Wapsi players complained that the messiness increased with the building’s height, when winds carried debris from workers’ bagged lunches further afield and into their games as the behemoth grew.
Note the Wapsi Valley courts, small in the distance and growing smaller . . . till you can barely see them.
Mid-century club members included lawyer Raymond Smith, who hosted his annual tennis party two weeks ago at a more formal club, but he well remembers playing regularly at Wapsi Valley with architect Charles F. Murphy in the club’s heyday. Philosopher Mortimer Adler occasionally broke away from Great Books to play a few sets. Elizabeth and Bill Kernahan were members, as were Patti and Shelly Kaplan, Joyce and Quincy White, Myriam and John Bransfield, the Philip Dunnes, and Frank and Nancy Klimley. Some of these photos were an informal gift, handed to us by Nancy Klimley down the street at Cricket’s one day more than three decades ago; her daughter, Lisa Malkin, continues to remember the club with fondness.
In addition to tennis—with the enforcement of white on the courts—there was a schedule of social events beginning in April with a working party, which involved furniture painting and introduction of new members, along with consumption of hot dogs and beer.
Fourth of July and Labor Day were properly celebrated. And scattered through the calendar were a picnic, a cocktail party and a black-tie dinner dance. But the annual event remembered most vividly was the September party on club grounds featuring “Wapsi Valley Hopple Popple,” a German concoction made of frankfurters, eggs, mushrooms and onions.
In fact, members would be looking forward to going out there tonight for the end-of-season ritual, Hopple Popple, washed down with cold beer from the soft drink cooler. They would be anticipating a soft equinox breeze off the lake and rotating illumination from the Lindberg Beacon atop the Playboy Building after the sun goes down.
It would be the last time.
The billboard, which we had originally written was located where the American Girl Place portion of Water Tower Place currently stands, was on a site now occupied by 910 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Photo Credit: Tennis Magazine of the Racquet Sports
Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia
Author Photo: Robert F. Carl