Head for the hills: Forest Hills Stadium completes four-year renovation to revitalize historic venue

Head for the hills: Forest Hills Stadium completes four-year renovation to revitalize historic venue
Photo by Adam Macchia
By Tammy Scileppi

A lot has been happening behind the scenes at Forest Hills Stadium since its reopening back in 2013.

Over the past four years, the arena has undergone a massive overhaul to re-design, renovate, and update the iconic Queens venue. From the get-go, the objective has been to restore the historic stadium to its original glory, according to Mike Luba, the promoter and concert producer with Madison House Presents who led the rehabilitation project.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do here in Forest Hills,” said Luba. “This was a group effort from the beginning. From the West Side Tennis Club and the Forest Hills community, who did everything they could to save this historic gem, to the musicians and performers who saw this stadium for what it could be, to the fans that have spread the word about this special place … we’re here today celebrating the future because of them.”

While Team Luba is still putting the finishing touches on the restoration, this year’s summer season of concerts kicked off an exciting lineup of shows with two sold out performances by The XX on May 19 and 20, showcasing arena’s revitalization.

Luba said the latest projects — part of the second phase of renovations — include the new concourse redesign, which has opened up the space to twice its original size and given attendees the option to relax on a grassy court, or enjoy easier access to food and beverages from a variety of vendors. Additional upgrades include reserved seating in the club and bowl, and improved seating options for people with disabilities.

Another aspect of the multi-faceted face lift involved the reopening after 70 years of the area where the tennis courts used to be, so that people can stand to watch shows on the general admission floor.

In the interest of limiting disruption to the local community, the stadium brought in leading sound mitigation specialists and employed new technologies designed to lower the overall noise levels around the stadium during concerts. Luba said he wants to be “really sensitive to the neighbors.”

But one neighbor’s “noise” can be another resident’s free concert, as Luba learned when he started installing noise mitigation.

“We get more complaints now from residents who can’t hear the music anymore,” he quipped.

The most intriguing additions to the stadium are the unique “speakeasy” VIP party lounges, which were created from unused spaces recently discovered under the stadium after decades-worth of rubble and debris were removed. It was dumped there by contractors and others, from the ’80s through 2012, according to Luba. His team found janitors’ closets, storage areas, and weird nooks and crannies during their excavation of forgotten parts of the stadium, which closed as an active venue in the late 1990s.

Recently, five additional VIP lounges, bringing the total to nine, have been transformed into posh, invitation-only party rooms. Dotting the venue’s horseshoe interior and still hidden from view, these private rooms offer the best seats in the house, along with great views of the concert stage. And each has been distinctively decorated with a modern-meets-vintage style.

When the cleaning crew was clearing out the spaces underneath the stadium’s bowl, they found a raccoon living in the rubble. Although he quickly made his escape, he is celebrated with a mural in what is now the “Racoon Room” — one of the speakeasy spaces.

Performers have access to the lounges, as do their guests, but organizers said they have promised them total privacy, i.e. what happens in the speakeasy stays in the speakeasy.

One of the rooms can only be accessed through a fake port-a-potty located underneath the concert area, and all are accessed by a special combination of passwords and credentials, organizers said.

Built in the early 1920s as a sporting venue for the West Side Tennis Club, Forest Hills Stadium hosted the national tournament that would be become the US Open until 1978. The arena also hosted concerts by iconic artists such as Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who, and continued as a music venue for decades after the tennis tournament moved to Flushing Meadows.

After the late 1990s, however, when concerts stopped due to opposition by disgruntled residents, the venue fell into disrepair and became a dumping ground for construction debris. In a final indignity, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission denied the storied venue preservations status in 2011.

But in 2013, the West Side Tennis Club, which still owns the stadium, partnered with concert promoters to bring live events back to the neighborhood. The stadium’s ambitious restoration program, which required a first round of improvements just to make it fully operational again, sparked its transformation into a popular entertainment hot-spot in 2013.

After the success of their initial, short-term deal to rehabilitate and reopen the stadium with an inaugural concert in 2013 and three further summer concert seasons, concert producers entered a long-term deal with the West Side Tennis Club to fully renovate the arena and continue bringing shows to the venue.

Part of that first overhaul involved patching up concrete exterior walls, and removing the old seats. Back in 2014, about 1,200 new seats were installed in the lower portion of the stadium. In addition, a permanent stage was installed, designed by Mark Fisher, renowned for his sets for Pink Floyd, U2 and the Rolling Stones.

You never know what you might discover within an almost century-old stadium. Luba’s team unearthed two rusty, antique safes in a forgotten office. Then he and acclaimed artist Bill Sullivan, a Jackson Heights native, stumbled across another find that piqued their interest. It was a faded, vintage poster for a Ray Charles concert that depicted an architectural feature of the stadium that, over time, had been lost and forgotten — the black iron gates that used to hang over the venue’s interior arches.

Luba and Sullivan, who had been working on several projects at the stadium together, including those VIP lounges, felt compelled to recreate and re-install those special “mirror garden gates,” according to Sullivan, who said he helped create the designs included in the new blueprints for these structural additions, using old photos he had collected for his own artistic project about the stadium (See story Page 3).

You can see Sullivan’s artwork next time you visit the stadium. An installation of 20 large, abstracted portraits — 10 of tennis champions and 10 of the music superstars who played there over time — grace the walls as you enter.

“And on columns near these heads, are 20 plaques that I helped write on the history of these people and their connection to the stadium,” Sullivan said.

Plans are now in the works that could transform the stadium into a year-round destination with an ice skating rink. There are additional upgrades being planned throughout, according to Luba, who said he wasn’t sure when this would take place.

“Forest Hills Stadium’s recent renaissance has made a noticeably positive impact on Queens,” said Borough President Melinda Katz, who had visited the venue to see the changes. “Concert line-ups have brought A-listers to the borough, putting us back on the industry’s map and helping to increase consumer traffic for our local businesses. The recent renovations make it an even more attractive venue and are a boon for the borough.”

And getting back to those mysterious safes, one of them was the original safe from the US Open, according to Luba. He said that since the West Side Tennis Club is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year, they’re going to be opening it on the actual anniversary date. So, stay tuned.