Old Traditions, New Beginnings
A Brief History of the St. Paul Tennis Club: 1912-2021
Updated June 2021 by Patricia McMorrow
This brief history of the St. Paul Tennis Club, first assembled in the 1960s by members Jean Gehan and Otis Godfrey Jr., is updated on an ongoing basis with bits and pieces of information gleaned from conversations with longtime members and neighborhood residents, newspaper clippings, photo archives and many fond memories. As some of the information may possibly be inaccurate or need additional detail, please feel free to add to the story by contacting us.
‘Promotion of the Game of Tennis’
The St. Paul Tennis Club was incorporated August 21, 1912. Its Articles of Incorporation, registered with Minnesota Secretary of State Julius Schmall, state that the club was organized for “the promotion of the game of tennis, and the affording of facilities to members of the club for the playing of said game, including the requisition by lease, purchase, gift, or devise of any and all property, real or personal therefore.” The names of the incorporates were: John Hersey Wheeler; John S. Dodson; Aldred G. Norris; Donald P. Haynie; Martin P. Coonan; Howard W. Kingston; and Joseph Thomson. The incorporation document was among the possessions of Myra McGee, whose late husband, John McGee, was one of the tennis enthusiasts who helped build the club. The land on which the four tennis courts and the original clubhouse were built belonged to a man named Walter Coller. Tradition has it that he donated the land to the club. After the title to Coller’s land was obtained, master clay-court builder Arnt Grindheim created the courts. Upon completion, Arnt, who happened to live in the house directly west of the club, became a vigilant caretaker. Every day, the courts were rolled with a hand-roller, dragged and relined. No one stepped a foot on the courts until Arnt gave the go-ahead.
The original clubhouse was a one-story clapboard structure that included a shower and toilet for the men. Minimal facilities for women were added later. A screened porch furnished with a few tables and chairs ran across the side of the clubhouse facing the courts. This provided a social center for people waiting for courts, and a pleasant space for the younger set to play cards and argue over the finer points of tennis form. Arnt kept a supply of cold pop in an ice locker in a small area where he also strung racquets. If Arnt was in a festive mood, he provided shaved ice as a treat. The clubhouse was later rebuilt, and somewhat enlarged. During this period, about 1920 to 1940, the club flourished. After work and on weekends, men played tennis in long, white pants and long-sleeved white shirts. Slowly, styles changed, and a few brave souls began to play in white shorts, including Joe Goswitz, known as a fashion trendsetter in his day. Some of the names from this era include: Pegs Albright, Marguerite Davis, Myron Hutchinson, Wells Farnum, Charles Britzius (father of former club pro Glen Britzius) and Joe Armstrong.
State Tournament Action
The big event of each summer was the State Tournament, during which the club fences were covered with canvas and admission was charged for spectators. A small grandstand was erected along Court 1 for the finals. The most colorful player to enter the tournaments was John Hennessey, who seemed to win every time he played. Hennessey’s credentials included competing on the Davis Cup team with George Lott, and a legendary victory over Bill Tilden, who was ranked No. 1 in the world for seven years during the 1920s. Hennessey would show up for the State Tournament finals wearing several sweaters that he shed, one at a time, as his matches wore on. He used a large, wooden racquet that looked like an antique—even in the 1920s. In those days, even the best players had to maintain amateur status to participate in big tournaments. This meant many top players were dead broke, and had to rely on the good will of tennis fans for sponsorship of housing and travel expenses. Much of the top talent landed in St. Paul for the State Tournament, and club members witnessed many exciting matches on the clay courts.
Days of Davis & Kesting
Not many women played tennis competitively in the club’s early days. This made Marguerite Davis even more spectacular to behold. She first won the women’s singles division of the State Tournament in 1911, at the age of 21. And she won every consecutive year until 1933, when she lost to Elizabeth Kesting, also a member of the club. Davis’ nephew, John Harrison, said his aunt was once ranked No. 12 in the United States, and she played against the legendary Helen Moody in 1921. Davis and Kesting were both later inducted into the Minnesota Tennis Hall of Fame, now called the USTA Northern Hall of Fame. (Davis in 1987 and Kesting-Harris in 2002.)
More on Marguerite Davis
Fondly known as “Mugs” or “Mugsy,” Marguerite Davis was born in 1890. She was a student at Mrs. Backus’ School for Girls, at 586 Holly Ave., where she met her friend Alice O’Brien. Their wartime adventures as American Red Cross volunteers in Europe are captured in the 2017 book, “Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien,” edited by Alice’s grandniece and club member Nancy O’Brien Wagner. Mugsy was a generous supporter of the club, and also of 1959 Wimbledon doubles champion Jeanne Arth, whose family, like most, was not in a financial position to manage the expenses of national and international competition. Mugsy, who never married and ran a travel agency in downtown St. Paul, continued to play on the clay, often on Sunday afternoons, well into her later years. After her death on March 16, 1963, Mugsy’s family donated to the Minnesota History Center a sterling trophy from the 1907 Minnesota State Lawn Tennis Championship for women’s doubles and a woven cloth trophy from the 1919 Northwest Lawn Tennis Championship.
Pandemics of 1918 & 2020
In 1918, Mugsy and Alice were among a group of school friends who traveled to France to serve as mechanics and hospital and canteen workers during World War I. Mugsy returned home to St. Paul in January 1919, after the surrender of Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, to find Minnesota being ravaged by the mis-named “Spanish Flu.” Between September 1918 and January 1919, more than 10,000 Minnesotans died of influenza—1,180 of them St. Paul residents. In the 2018 book titled, “Minnesota 1918: When Flu, Fire, and War Ravaged the State,” Curt Brown, a longtime Osceola Avenue resident, wrote that St. Paul was more resistant to imposing public-health restrictions than Minneapolis. But a citywide order on Nov. 6, 1918, closed schools, churches, bars and many businesses. Public gatherings were banned, except for work related to the war effort. The outbreak tapered off in early 1919, and by the time the club opened for the summer season, it was business as usual. That was not the case, though, with the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which affected SPTC operations in many ways. Following health and safety guidance from the Office of the Governor and other sources, club manager Gary Grey and the SPTC board of directors implemented social-distancing, mask-wearing, cleaning and programming protocols. With reduced capacity in the pool and on the courts to minimize virus spread, it was a summer where flexibility and patience came into play. The typical season staff includes about 20 college and high school students, but in 2020 a “Gang of Four” (Tor Cox, Emily Hite, Rory King and Gracie Munson-Regala) kept the club running in alignment with pandemic rules, as directed by Gary. This small team, all SPTC members since they were young kids, was central to reducing virus spread by keeping staff numbers low. When state health guidelines permitted opening of the pool in late June, a few more lifeguards were added to the roster. SPTC never had to close in 2020 due to staff exposure or to contracting COVID-19. Many other clubs were not as fortunate. One major change in response to the pandemic was launch of an online reservation system to reduce contact, abruptly ending the longstanding practice of “calling the shack” to book a court.
The Olympic Skating Rink
In the 1940s and 1950s, the club’s tennis courts were flooded-and-frozen in winter, transforming the red clay into “The Olympic Skating Rink.” Members and friends remember ice skating out under the stars to songs like “Mr. Sandman,” by the Chordettes, and other favorites, played over a loudspeaker rigged to the clubhouse. Michael E. Murphy, who lived at 1069 Fairmount Ave. from 1941 to 1976, re-creates this magical time in his 2106 collection of poems, “Songs of Crocus Hill.” In “Winter Dreams at the Club,” a copy of which is on display in the clubhouse, Mike writes of club manager Ted Dwyer, “taking our quarters for the skating, our dimes for the pop and candy, his half-smile a reminder he’ll throw us out into the black night for fighting or cussing.” Another poem in the collection, titled, “Mr. Grindheim” is a tribute to the man who built and cared for the clay courts for decades. Mike also has fond memories of Radisky’s Linwood Sweetshop—now a duplex adjacent to Court 4—and in “Yo-Yo Wayne” memorializes a yo-yo salesman doing tricks with a Duncan on the wide stoop in front of the shop. For many years, members from this era enjoyed an annual “Old Clubbers” luncheon at The Lex. Attendees almost always included: Mike, the Arth siblings (Tom and Jeanne), Bob Haugh, Hezzy Burke, Gus Metzger and Danny Dwyer, son of the legendary club manager. Beautiful images of The Olympic are also captured in Patricia Hampl’s 2018 memoir, “The Art of the Wasted Day.” An internationally acclaimed writer, educator and MacArthur and Googenheim fellow, Trish grew up across the street from the club. In one lovely passage, she writes, “We’re skating separately, boys zig-zagging on their blunt hockey skates, practicing slap shots with their sticks, girls treading along in white boots whose slim blades have toe picks that look as if the metal were cut with pinking shears. We skate, five girls in a row, holding hands.”
On the “back rink,” site of today’s swimming pool, around 1948, are future Wimbledon doubles champion Jeanne Arth, left, Gus Metzger, Bill Hunt, Louie Peterson (taller boy), Mike Keenan (front), Mr. Aaron Lipschultz, unidentified boy, and Mr. Lipschultz’ son.
The Arth Era
A decline in club membership began in the mid-1940s, likely associated with the World War II climate. Although membership continued to dwindle in the 1950s, it was nevertheless a hugely proud decade for the club because of the incredible talent of Jeanne Arth. Celebrated as one of Sports Illustrated’s 50 Greatest Minnesota Sports Figures of the 20th Century, Jeanne grew up at 1083 Osceola Ave., just west of the club. She and her sister, Shirley, learned to play tennis under the watchful eye of club caretaker and instructor Louie Soukup, and were supported and cheered on by many members of the club through the years. Court 1 was dedicated to Jeanne in 2010, with a plaque on permanent display featuring a picture of her in pigtails and holding a racquet nearly as big as she was. Jeanne’s most recent visits to the club were in July 2018, to share stories at a “Wimbledon Breakfast,” and in August 2020, for filming of a documentary on her career by club member Bobak Razavi, a teacher and tennis coach at St. Paul Academy, and his students. The event was coordinated by tennis director Greg Hiers, who remembers meeting Jeanne soon after he came to the club in 1997. She had given up tennis for golf by then, but Greg remembers thinking how amazing it would have been to have a chance to hit with a Wimbledon champion. Read more about Jeanne’s tennis achievements and why the club will always hold a special place in her heart.
Jeanne Arth, right foreground, and her doubles partner, Darlene Hard, just after winning the U.S. Doubles Championship in 1958. In background are Althea Gibson and Maria Bueno.
The First Renaissance
While Jeanne was leaving her mark on the tennis world, a long series of events and benign neglect had reduced club membership to six by 1959: Ted Dwyer, who had served as president for about 20 years; Marguerite Davis; George Evens; Mrs. Fred Weyerhaeuser; and Harry and Dick Ryan, who ran the St. Paul Milk Company. It seemed there had not been a membership meeting or election of officers since before the start of World War II. But on the evening of Aug. 20, 1959, the tide turned. John Greenman was elected president, and the newly elected board voted to hire an architect and develop plans for a new clubhouse and a pool. An enthusiastic and successful membership drive launched early in 1960, with 100 individuals and families added to the club membership. Plus: Arnt Grindheim came out of retirement to serve as club manager, maintaining the courts he had laid down himself in 1913. By spring 1961, all 300 shares of stock in the club had been sold, generating sufficient capital for improvements. The board also entered into delicate negotiations to purchase the lot directly west of the club, on which the Grindheim home was built. The plan included relocating the Grindheim home from Osceola Avenue to the north side of Fairmount Avenue, between Victoria and Avon Streets, where it still stands. The spectacle of moving an entire house was imagined, with a few artistic liberties, in a Michael E. Murphy poem titled, “A Second Crossing,” that is included in “Songs of Crocus Hill.” In the fall of 1961, members hosted a “farewell party” for the old clubhouse. Some in attendance described the event as “joyous, raucous or even out of control, but no arrests were made.”
1960s: In the Swim of Things
With the new pool and clubhouse—which included showers!—the club was again the place to be in St. Paul. Joe Raymond became club manager and the first swim coach. He soon developed swimmers who became inter-club champions, much to the dismay of clubs with year-around swimming. Tennis activities likewise increased, in volume and quantity of play. Club news was regularly covered in the sports and society sections of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and St. Paul Dispatch. Photographs from the 1960s feature members in tennis whites, sitting in canvas chairs, casually enjoying cigarettes. Popular names from the 1960s include the Corrigans, Greenmans, Gehans, McCartneys, McGees, O’Briens, Plunketts and Suttons. One fun photo published in the Dispatch on July 15, 1968, captures the “Second Annual Lawn Social” hosted by Karl V. Klein, who lived at 1056 Fairmount Ave., across the alley from the clay courts. Karl dressed in coat-and-tails and top hat to entertain his guests, a group of women who were regular players at the club. The photo caption reads, “The luncheon was given with the blessings of Mrs. Klein, and both guests and hosts agreed it would be an annual event.” In the 1960s, witty club members also produced a hilarious newsletter titled The Racqueteer. Snippets from the May 1963 edition include recipes for cocktails named, “The Half Volley” and “Half-Gainer,” and an “Ask Sadie” advice column, seemingly for the lovelorn. An annual awards list included:
- Crabbiest at the Pool: Joe Goswitz
- Most Effective Serve: Pat Corrigan
- Most Happy-Go-Lucky Irishman: Mike O’Brien
- Least Distracting Serve: Jean Baker.
Olson & King
Leonard “Bucky” Olson was lured from the plush surroundings of Town & Country Club to the friendly confines of Osceola Avenue in the 1960s, and is remembered as one of the club’s favorite tennis pros. Bucky’s widow, Shirley Olson Graham, who died at age 95 in December 2020, said many of her family’s happiest memories were from the club days. Bucky loved tennis, Shirley said, but he loved the friendship and fun of the club just as much. Shirley kept a cartoon from a 1970s edition of one of the St. Paul newspapers, showing a player with a panicky expression on his face being carried off the court. The caption reads, “He’s been stiff like this since he learned he’s gotta play Bucky Olson in the first round.” When Bucky died unexpectedly, St. Paul Pioneer Press sports columnist Don Riley wrote, “The world lost a friend in tennis pro Bucky Olson. He had a sensitivity to peoples’ needs that far exceeded the domain of his courts and schoolrooms.” Bucky’s legacy lives on, though, with his son, David, working as a tennis instructor. In fact, David was featured in the Highland Villager newspaper in July 2011 while coaching a program on the Bucky Olson Tennis Courts at Central High school. John King, a contemporary of Bucky’s, is another proud credit to the club’s history. John was a teaching pro at the club, but is perhaps more well known for developing urban youth tennis programs in the Twin Cities. In 1970, he teamed with Jack Thommen and Bob Speed to launch the Minneapolis Urban Tennis Program, and in 1989 started the St. Paul Urban Tennis Program.
Gary Grey: Club Manager, Hawkeyes Fan
When Eisenhower (Hopkins) High School teacher and swim coach Gary Grey responded to an ad in the Sunday newspaper in 1984 for a “club manager and swimming coach,” he thought it might be an interesting summer position. He and Pat Brynteson, club president at the time, agreed that Gary would accept the job in the short-term, and see how things worked out. That was millions of laps and hundreds of swim meets ago, with some of today’s SPTC swimmers the kids of those Gary nudged into the water in the 1980s. Over three decades of teaching and coaching Hopkins swimmers, Gary’s teams won four Minnesota State Titles and produced 22 High School All-American swimmers. He retired from the Hopkins School District in 2002, but continues to take great pride in his club swimmers, many of whom have performed quite respectably at the high school and college levels. Gary has been spotted cheering on his summer swimmers at countless section, district and state meets over the years, not to mention employing many as lifeguards and maintenance workers at the club. When you see the pickup with the Iowa Hawkeyes sticker parked out front, you know Gary is on the premises.
The Second Renaissance
While Gary and tennis director Greg Hiers have always taken excellent care of the pool and the courts, time and weather nonetheless take a toll. The pool that was new in the early 1960s had developed some cracks and leaks around 2010, and by 2015 the decision to repair or replace was becoming urgent. Dan Kennedy was club president at the time, and led what became a three-year, $1.7 million project to build a new pool, clubhouse, rooftop deck, office area and bathroom/shower facility. Members also voted to install an underground watering system for the courts, resurface the green har-tru and replace all fencing except the easternmost fence. (During this portion of the work, one corner of the original 1913 clay on Court 1 was glimpsed, with original lines intact!) The project was a tremendous undertaking for a volunteer board of directors and other members who generously gave of their time and expertise in areas including finance, law, architecture, engineering, design, landscaping and navigating building requirements of the City of St. Paul and its Heritage Preservation Commission. Naming all those who love the club and made the project possible would make for a very long list, but Dan, Eduardo Barrera (who today lives in the Arth family home), Mike Christianson, Robert King and John Tuttle may have managed a billion details among them. At the grand re-opening of the club on May 26, 2018, current members, past members and neighbors celebrated the dedication of the Gary Grey Pool as well Court 2 (The Kennedy Family Court, dedicated in honor of Dr. William and Marla Kennedy), Court 3 (The Doris Bernhard Thomas Memorial Court) and Court 4 (The Ferguson/Rinkoff Family court, dedicated in honor of Julia Ferguson and Richard Rinkoff).
SPTC lifeguards Emily Hite, left, and Annie Dillion, with Gary Grey in May 2018, upon dedication of new swimming pool named in Gary’s honor.
Today, Tomorrow & Beyond
In 1914, one share of St. Paul Tennis Club stock was valued at $15. In 1980, one share was valued at $200. Today, the value has grown ten-fold. And while club membership had declined to six in 1959, the wait to become a member is now three-to-five years long. Another development: As part of the 2018 reconstruction project, a capital fund was established, with an eye toward future maintenance and repair. The club foundations and traditions established in 1912 by John McGee and Arnt Grindheim are continued today by Gary Grey and Greg Hiers. We owe a debt of gratitude to generations of club members for the spirit that pervades the friendly neighborhood spot we call the St. Paul Tennis Club. Long may it continue.