Berman: Lawn tennis club takes root in Pontiac
The Wessen Tennis Club, like the land of Oz, is awash in emerald green. With 24 grass courts, meticulously groomed and framed by plantings of white petunias, a glittering Olympic pool and elegantly casual clubhouse, the place is also a fantasy land, plunked improbably a few blocks from downtown Pontiac.
Three years ago, the 10-acre site was the glass-and-trash strewn, forsaken Hayes Jones Community Center, named for an Olympic sprinter and slated for demolition. Even so, Pontiac residents didn’t initially welcome a bid to turn abandoned city-owned land into a private club. But William E. Massie, Cranbrook’s architect in residence, would not shake the vision in his head.
He’d already built a trial grass court near his Pontiac office, keeping his dream so secret even his wife Amy didn’t know something was up. But this week, as 300 tennis players and spectators arrive from around the country for a United States Tennis Association seniors tournament, the secret is an acknowledged accomplishment — a breakthrough for Pontiac, for tennis players who couldn’t find grass courts, and something more. It’s also an experiment in bridging the gap between an elite, private oasis and the community surrounding it.
“Who would have thought this could be in Pontiac?” says Joseph Sobota, the Pontiac city administrator, who says the club has raised property values and enhanced the neighborhood.
But Pontiac is surrounded by affluent communities, including Bloomfield Hills to the immediate south and Rochester to the east. Massie believed the location — and his vision — would ultimately triumph. He sank his own money into the project (“It was very risky,” he admits), taking the advice of a developer friend to buy as much surrounding property as he could — all of which he hopes to develop.
Amy Massie says she has learned to accept her husband’s creative visions. “We’ve survived this one, barely,” she laughs. “He’s always been this way.”
In 2012, as the city prepared to spend $75,000 to raze the building, Massie saw a way to use blighted land and benefit the surrounding residential neighborhood. As a tennis player, he saw a way to create an oasis for tennis and socializing.
“I saw this beautiful, 1919 building, about to be torn down, smack dab in the middle of a residential area.” He imagined an unstuffy club, one without founders’ portraits on the walls or cream on chicken, and that reached out to the community. Private, yes, “but permeable,” and creating a verdant, manicured landscape to replace blight.
He got to work, planting grass, building some of the club features, even climbing on the clubhouse roof to reorganize and replace the original terra cotta tiles. The old building, with its brick exterior, was opened up to reveal iron trusses, and redesigned with sliding doors that open to a large deck, creating a breezy, summer porch feeling inside and out, with views of the grass courts.
“Many residents first had an adversarial view,” of the plan to create a private club there, says Ahmad Taylor, executive director of the Pontiac Housing Commission. But nobody else had “that vision, or any vision, for that area. Now you can’t think of anything else being there.”
That’s partly because Massie reached out to the community, launching a tennis camp for 16 local children this summer, outfitting them with shoes, clothing and lessons from tennis pros for three weeks.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for kids in Pontiac to get involved in a sport other than basketball or football,” says Taylor. “He knows there’s talent here. Next year we hope to have as many as 30 kids.”
Massie, who constructed his trial grass court while his wife was out of town, did much of the work for himself. A native of the Grand Rapids area, he was trained as an architect in New York, winning awards for daring, contemporary designs, before returning to Michigan to serve as architect-in-residence and eventually head the architecture degree program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Wessen Lawn Tennis Club opened officially last summer. Only 18 of its $5,000 founder memberships are available, and its reputation within the tennis world is growing, as players discover the first lawn tennis club developed in a century.
“These look to me like the best grass courts in the country,” says Ken Thomas, who traveled here from Palm Desert to play in the tournament and broadcast it on radiotennis.com, his satellite network. “Just to build a tennis club here is an amazing call.”