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Tennis, for Anyone? In the Bronx, the Answer Is Yes

Thursday, May 4th 2017.

One of the city’s best new works of public architecture sounds like a perk for the country club set. And it is. Partly. Tucked into Crotona Park in the Bronx, the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis & Learning is anchored by a modest two-story concrete-and-steel clubhouse, all sleek surfaces and sharp angles, overlooking a competition-worthy pair of exhibition courts.

Devised by Gluck+, the New York architecture firm, the clubhouse and courts are stylish in the way that somebody with disposable income would regard as money well spent.

That’s money well spent in another way, too: The center provides after-school tutoring to homeless and other underserved young New Yorkers. In large measure, Cary Leeds was conceived for them — as a spot that should feel the opposite of second-rate or make-do for children who often are expected to be satisfied with hand-me-downs.

More than a decade in the making, it came about through a public-private collaboration between the city and New York Junior Tennis & Learning. Aside from the new clubhouse, the project includes 20 resurfaced tennis courts, replacing Crotona Park’s old, decrepit ones, with half of the new courts enclosed during cold months by a bubble for indoor play. They’re like the rest of New York’s public courts, open to city residents.

The city and New York Junior Tennis split the $26.5 million construction costs. The courts and clubhouse were finished in phases. A ceremony the other day celebrated the completion of the last phase: the two exhibition courts. They make the site a prime spot to stage tournaments.

Excavated and terraced, the two courts are rimmed by seating for hundreds of spectators. The architects dug the courts below ground, as they did the lower story of the adjacent clubhouse, partly to preserve sightlines within the park and to take advantage of natural geothermal heating and cooling. On one end is a raised viewing bridge with a perch over the city, and on another end, a balcony.

The whole site reveals itself as a lively complex of layers and platforms only after you have passed through the clubhouse onto the balcony, a sequence of compression and release by the architects to enhance the drama and make the center feel like its own precinct or enclave. That aptly suited New York Junior Tennis & Learning.

A nonprofit founded nearly half a century ago by Arthur Ashe and Lewis Hartman, New York Junior Tennis feeds underserved children and teaches them to read and multiply as well as to scorch a topspin serve. Partnered with public schools, it works with thousands of children in all five boroughs.

The Cary Leeds Center provides the organization with a flagship home. The other morning, I came across dozens of public school gym teachers from around town taking lessons so that they, in turn, could help students with their backhands before the children hit the books. Gleeful elementary school students played in the park, waiting for their chance with the fledgling instructors.

Some 30,000 children live within walking distance of Crotona Park, 3,000 of them in homeless shelters. This stretch of the Bronx is one of the country’s poorest congressional districts. New York Junior Tennis chose to settle here for a reason. Mr. Hartman told me, “The growing homeless population can more specifically become our focus here.”

Peter Gluck, the principal architect for the project, explained, “For our part, the goal was to make a place as luxurious as possible for kids who are not used to luxurious places.”

The 12,600-square-foot clubhouse acknowledges neighbors’ concerns that the building not overwhelm the park. It reads from outside as a low single-story pavilion, clad in bluestone.

But inside, an asymmetrical layout with curtain walls of glass and lots of speeding planes yields a sunny, open space. The shifting tectonics play off the orthogonal grid of courts. Diagonal columns support a triangular roof with a point as sharp as a stiletto. A small shop and offices share the upper floor with a lounge. Downstairs, glassed-in classrooms for New York Junior Tennis spill onto a wedge-shaped courtside patio.

It helped that Gluck+ is a design-build practice, handling the construction end of projects, too. This kept the clubhouse budget from skyrocketing and the plan on track. The building ended up costing $500 a square foot, even including a premium for underground construction and waterproofing.

Mr. Gluck asked a fair question: “Why should architects need a rich museum willing to pay $2,000 or $3,000 a square foot to design an exceptional public building?”

They shouldn’t.

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