The word renaissance tends to get tossed around pretty casually in the world of New York real estate development, though in the case of Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, the lofty descriptor might just fit.
Built in 1923, the stately, open-air coliseum hosted some of the city's most memorable sporting and cultural events of the 20th century — serving both as the longtime home to the U.S. Open, and as a music venue graced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and more. But then the U.S. Open left the courts in 1977 and (despite its 14,000-seat concert capacity and famously good acoustics) the stadium was essentially abandoned.
After decades of disuse, longtime owners West Side Tennis Club recently put some money and time into restoring the decrepit venue, which reopened for a handful of shows back in 2013. Since then, the stadium has undergone a series of renovations, many of them intended to evoke the rich history of the place. "It still feels like it could be 1923 when you're in there, we worked pretty hard to keep that alive," promoter Mike Luba told us last year.
Throughout this comeback, a man named Bill Sullivan has served as a sort of renaissance artist of Forest Hills Stadium. His purview, we're told, is "the entire visual identity of the place," though his most recognizable work is the series of delightful concert posters he designs for each performance. Prior to this weekend's Interpol show, we caught up with Sullivan to chat about re-designing the stadium, the challenges of making art for Bob Dylan, and the Vignelli subway map.
How does one get the job of all-purpose artist for a stadium undergoing a historic revitalization? What does that entail? I'm an artist that comes out of the art book world. So when I started becoming fascinated with the actual stadium and its history, I set about to make this kind of image book that would parallel the history of abstraction and painting and identity of the place as it existed from about 1920 through the 1970s. In the process of doing that book, I literally just looked at every visual of the stadium for the last 80 years — matchbook covers, how it's used in advertising, the visuals for the tennis players, all the period stuff. And I started mapping out the whole grounds, down to the last tree, the way it existed in the 20s and how that tree would've grown over 70 years. Right around that time the stadium people came across the book and were like: "Can you make the place look like your book to some extent?"
I had kind of fleshed out the color, the identity, and how everything works through time. They also wanted to do this great poster series that would parallel how the Fillmore West does a poster for every show. We settled on this basic identity of the overhead of the stadium that we took from the book, where this horseshoe can become anything. And in the book it shows it change from a grass court, to a clay court, to a concrete court, to more seats, to less seats, and how the whole thing gets reconstituted.
In the beginning it began with that, and then they were like, "Oh, can you do a lit bit of signage." So the first year I just put these big signs up. And each year it just kind of doubles. Last year it was literally everything. The ushers' uniforms, every bit of signage, all the food carts, and now we're kind of going back inside the stadium and putting the gates on that used to be there at all of the entrances. They took out all of the floor seats to return the actual horseshoe shape and opened up all those fantastic rooms that are there. It's one of the defining characteristics of the place.
The stadium in May 2016. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
In terms of your artistic philosophy, how do you strike a balance between pulling from the old stadium's design and doing your own thing? To some extent, I'd be happy if it all felt like it was from the 1940s. I do think in the posters we go contemporary and some of the new stylings we're taking a different departure. I guess it's the same way that Disney Land becomes modern, but it's still Disney Land. It's still somehow rooted in this Walt Disney of the 1920s. I think everything we do, where we might clean it up or make it slightly more modern, it always somehow has to feel like that lineage that came back.
There was a piece in Racquet Magazine where Craig Finn of the Hold Steady said that the reason Forest Hills may not be remembered as one of the city's historically important music destinations is because of the lack of continuity over the years. Is building that continuity something you consider when designing the posters? Yeah. We'll do a poster for every show as kind of a way of marking the history of this place. But first we have to reestablish the past that was broken. A lot of what we're doing with the heads and the plaques that we put in is renewing the continuity for all the people that played there originally — people like Diana Ross who played there four decades. This year we did these twenty plaques for tennis and music greats that played there. So we'll have Chris Evert next to Ray Charles and Jimmy Connors next to Diana Ross. We're trying to build a bridge to that period of time where music and tennis was lost.
But it's an interesting thing because the experience is quite different. What we're doing now is turning into a real spot for music, primarily. And when they put shows there in the '60s — and they put a lot of shows there, like 16,000 people for the Beatles — they didn't even have anyone sitting on the floor. So you'd have Bob Dylan playing to an empty expanse of grass, same as the Beatles. That's another thing we're doing, filling in the whole experience with the floor, with the rooms, with the whole concourse. This year was kind of remarkable, with the astroturf and the whole concession village that we put out there.
A plaque in the stadium connecting tennis players Helen Wills Moody and Althea Gibson to The Rolling Stones
Compared to last year's nostalgia-heavy lineup of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Dolly Parton, this summer's leaned more contemporary, with shows by The xx, The National, even The Chainsmokers. Does your poster-making approach change by performer? Is it harder to do the posters for the music legends? Yeah, I think it is, for different reasons. There were four versions of the Bob Dylan one we did, just because everybody was kind of scared to do the wrong Bob Dylan poster. So you'd have one and it'd be like,"Oh, this is good, but you can't show Bob's face." There are just certain restrictions that happen, the larger the person.
Dylan was the most challenging poster? Totally. Yeah, that's the one so far. Tom Petty was tricky too. The longer their careers, the bigger they are, the more complex their identities become. What I really try to do with the posters is to some extent make it about who they are now. With the Dylan one, he was doing the American Song Book thing, so I was trying to check the 1940s musical feel that he's about instead of doing the classic Milton Glaser poster. I think that's the tricky thing.
Sadly, Leonard Cohen didn't come. And everybody was excited about Leonard coming, because he'd come earlier. He would've been a classic example of how do you do Leonard now versus Leonard then. I think that's the most challenging thing about the bigger names — their identity is more complex.
Do you have a favorite? I think the Louis C.K. one. Because it's a map of New York. It's based on this great subway map from Massimo Vignelli in 1972 that I've always wanted to use.
I think it's a really useful poster too. It's one of the challenges. We're really putting Forest Hills back on the map of people's heads — that's probably the next stage of where we're at now. As an identity, the visual thing, that's kind of the classic challenge: How do we get somebody who's in Manhattan to put it on the subway map of their brain?
This interview was condensed and edited.