When the doors open at the fourth floor, the sense of remove from the world outside is underscored. While the color of the marble is the same as downstairs and the building feels majestic up here, too, the space feels somewhat off-kilter. A handful of extra-large, bulbous Formica armchairs sit pushed up against one wall, in an area that seems to indicate they were abandoned here. Beyond the armchairs, a miniature staircase and toddler-sized doorway serves as an apparent gateway to some portion of the building’s roof. Sitting on one of the hard chairs for a moment, I notice that there is a credit union across from me, completely dark inside, with a cheerful “We’re Open!” sign hanging on the door.
Through trial and error, I find the entrance to the tennis club, marked by a paper sign taped to the window. I reach for the buzzer but a maintenance worker walks past me and pulls the door open, telling me it’s rarely locked. In front of me is the first indicator of what lay ahead: a wall of chipped orange paint and a small white sign embossed with an arrow and “Vanderbilt Tennis Club.” So far, the font is the only thing fancy about this place squirreled away in New York City’s crown jewel.
Navigating another passageway, I emerge in the reception area of the club, which isn’t a club at all, I am told. The fact that most people think it is helps to keep the masses away. “People assume it’s private, with a name like Vanderbilt,” says Dadi Zvulun, the club’s head tennis pro. That it’s incredibly difficult to find doesn’t hurt either.
I look around and notice the place is nearly empty — Zvulun says he likes it this way. Of course, Vanderbilt has only one tennis court to its name, if you don’t count a small, loft-like practice area above the main court, so there’s no reason to pack people in. The only crowds one sees are the occasional tour group passing through.
To play tennis here, clients book the court for a standing time slot over a season. Anyone can join, but the schedule is not overrun—there’s generally no waiting list. The furnishings are simple: a front counter whose finish has rubbed away over the years, a small display with souvenir t-shirts and tennis accessories for sale, a handful of old tennis racquets on the wall in place of lobby art. The place doesn’t seem to be built out much more expertly than the makeshift bedrooms of my ex-boyfriend’s hipster loft in Bushwick.
A glimpse through the plexiglass window that divides the reception area from the main court gives me the one and only reminder of the grandeur among which this all dwells. An arched leaded glass window stretches across one side of the main tennis court, from ceiling to floor at its midpoint. It is faceted like a jewel, and is breathtaking, despite its need for a window washer. I look out through the two thick layers of glass separated by what looks to be a wooden walking plank, and can barely make out the street below.
The tennis court sits directly atop the Vanderbilt Gift Hall, which places this window at the front of Grand Central, looking straight down Park Avenue, on the south side of the building. Every Christmas season, Grand Central’s large holiday wreath is hung on this window. As I wait for my lesson, two building workers arrive to begin the labor intensive process of taking out some panes of glass so as to climb outside and prepare for its installation.
For all the ways this club seems obscured from the world, it did not manage to hide from Donald Trump — there was a time in this town that nothing seemed able to. In the 80s, Trump took over the space after discovering it while building the Grand Hyatt. Incomprehensibly, he had the perimeter of the tennis court covered with thick velvet curtains, blocking the iconic window. Trump operated the club on a cash-only basis, and it was eventually run into the ground, said Zvulun.
This wasn’t the first time the space had been altered by its owners. Long before it was a tennis club, this section of Grand Central Terminal was used as an artist’s cooperative gallery associated with the Grand Central School of Art. With the natural light streaming in from the arched window and oval peekaboo windows next to it, the large, high-ceilinged room was particularly suited to painting and exhibition of art. In the 1950s, CBS television studios took over the lease, and for a while Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow read the evening news from here. Eventually, the volume of trains entering and exiting the terminal began to create vibrations that proved problematic for the cameras. The 1960s saw the first attempt at making it a sports center, when a former Olympic coach who had fled Hungary during the revolution installed tennis courts and added a ski slope with a toothbrush bristle-like surface, for skiers to practice on.
Today, however, for half an hour this glorious court on which Serena Williams has practiced is all mine. (The surface, by the way, is the same surface as the official courts.) Zvulun has agreed to give me a lesson, and by lobbing balls into the rafters, off the walls, and into the net (not on purpose), I mark the achievement of being the most terrible player to play on a court also used by Serena. I don’t care about my lack of skills, because every thonk of the ball is exhilarating. Every swing I miss and serve that doesn’t make it over the net is an experience of this strange and wonderful building and its place in New York’s crazy history. This city that puts a tennis court in a train station and leaves it up to you to figure out how to find it.
The club stays open every day until 2 a.m., which also feels very New York, because where else in the world do people play tennis after midnight? Zvulun tells me that it’s never been a problem to get players in the wee hours. “Do you think on any given day in this city of millions I cannot find two people willing to play tennis?” is his response to my incredulity.
Of course, now that he mentions it, what could be better than sliding on up the elevator, tennis racquet sticking out of my bag, after an evening at the Oyster Bar in the basement down below? I begin to wonder if there is a way to live the rest of my life within the walls of this building – working, exercising, dining, drinking. Zvulun goes on to assure me that no drunk tennis takes place under his watch, but as he takes pains to show me how to correct my forehand, he reminds me again and again that the “finish” is a motion not unlike pouring a cocktail over the shoulder. Unsure whether I’ve ever poured a cocktail over my shoulder, my mind wanders to The Campbell beneath us, contemplating a post-tennis drink to reinforce the muscle memory.
Instead, when the lesson is over, I go into the small locker room and change back into my street clothes — it is only noon, after all (not that the bar isn’t open at noon). As I gather my things in the lobby area, a woman with a Southern accent breezes by, calling out to the front desk person to “charge it to my card, dear.” The racquets that decorate the lobby wall span the eras — wooden to begin with, evolving with technology over the years. But this pocket of the terminal has remained remarkably free of the ravages of technological progress. The club has no app, there’s a simple website. They hand out photocopied green paper flyers with price lists, and when the phone rings, desk manager Katherine Hamilton picks up a receiver from a multi-line RCA landline telephone I think I last saw in the 80s. “Tennis is like that,” Hamilton tells me. “It’s just kind of old school.”
The club also gives the feeling that it hasn’t yet been dragged out of New York City’s semi-recent past. It’s a past not quite old enough for anyone to care about preserving, but which we can sometimes be lucky enough to find lingering around. This place is a hold out from some midpoint in the timeline of Grand Central’s rise, and fall, and rise again, a counterpoint to the bustle outside in the train station, with its newly replaced digital train schedule signs, commuters careening through the concourse hunched over phones, and the blank white Apple logo’s assault on the senses. Upstairs at the center of a maze sits a relic never sufficiently ruined to be restored, difficult enough to find that it hasn’t yet been colonized by luxury. Not that it isn’t expensive—with rates ranging from $90 to $315 per hour it is much more than I can afford—it just isn’t luxurious.
Tennis in iconic buildings, or unusual spots around the world isn’t that unusual. There’s a tennis club at the top of a 100 story building in Dubai, Zvulun tells me. There are tennis clubs under bridges in New York and courts on apartment rooftops. Still, this one feels pretty special. As I leave the club and enter the elevator, I discover that exiting is even more perplexing than entering. With no clue of how to get down to the subway level, I scan the columns of letters and numbers on the buttons, confident that this building rewards the brave seeker. I press them all, knowing that I may just find something else hiding within the walls of this great building, if I only wander.