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The Tennis House has been sold by the Ford Estate to long-time member Gene Kornmeier and his family who plan to keep it intact.

September 05, 2013
Oh, the well-served tales they could tell

It's that rather odd-looking building, tucked to the back of a wooded site next to Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms — it's modern exterior belying an interior steeped in tradition and local history.

The building that has been compared to a glass-walled bell curve is called simply the Tennis House. For three quarters of a century, it has stood as a testament to both a love for the game of tennis and a certain quiet gentility that the Pointes were long known for.

But a major change is coming to the Tennis House, and if its history as a quiet treasure in Grosse Pointe is any indication, the change will hardly be noticed.

Built in 1936 by members of the Ford family, the Tennis House is a private club that afforded a small roster of family and friends a place to play the game during the winter months, predating the building boom of indoor tennis courts by several decades. It has been owned and supported by the Ford Family Estate for several years, but stewardship of the facility was recently passed to long-time member Gene Kornmeier and his family.

"It's a jewel," said Gene's son, Matt Kornmeier. "We plan to keep everything as it was, but to run it with a renewed energy."

The Tennis House could serve as a metaphor for club life in Grosse Pointe. Charter members Edsel B. Ford, Wendell Anderson, Arthur Gardner, Ernest Kanzler, Mrs. Wesson Seyburn and Mrs. Allan Shelden, broke ground in 1935 with the first matches being played in 1936. The Tennis House has been operated since as a private club, with membership capped years ago at 100.

But it has been several years since that maximum of 100 could be reached, and the most recent count of members stood at 40.

"The Ford Family Estate began to talk about closing it," Matt Kornmeier explained. "There was discussion as to whether to tear it down or sell it. But many members wanted to keep it, including my father."

Gene Kornmeier discussed the possibility of buying the facility with his sons, Matt and Steve, and all agreed it would be a perfect match for the tennis-loving Korn-meiers. Gene and his wife, Nancy, are regular players during the summer at the Country Club of Detroit and during the winter at the Tennis House.

"Our dealings with the Ford Estate on the sale were very cordial, and could be described as being done on a hand-shake," said Gene Kornmeier. "It's not just about buying the building, it's about the history."

And what a unique history the building has.

Many people are surprised to learn the club has just one clay court. At one time, according to long-time members George Nicholson and Bill Mackey, reserving that court required both tenacity and a strong dialing finger.

Court reservations had to be made the day before a member wanted to play, but no reservations were taken before 8 a.m. Court times were so in demand members wanting to play would dial the first six digits of The Tennis House's number at 7:59 a.m. and at the stroke of 8 a.m., dial the seventh last digit. Remember, this was way back in the days before call waiting.

Ladies and mixed double play were allowed Monday through Friday, but not on weekends, when the court was reserved for men. The club, like so many, operated on the assumption women didn't work outside the home so they had plenty of time to play during the week, leaving weekend court time to the men. Nonmembers were allowed to fill in for a doubles match if no members could be found, but only between 1 and 4 p.m.

And while many of the rules for members have changed in response to modern times, little about the actual building has changed, with the Kornmeiers promising to preserve the building as its original members planned.

Designed by noted New York architect Gavin Hadden, the building was planned and built with what Gene Kornmeier describes as "the best of the best."

Built of glass and steel with a wood roof, it had the first gas fired steam boiler in the area. The boiler was sized to accommodate a planned second court that was never completed.

Little has been done over the years to alter the interior of the building, and while there will be some fresh paint and some minor repairs, the Kornmeiers will be keeping much of the building in tact. The lobby area has a fireplace and a seating area, and some of the furniture appears to be original pieces. A small kitchen and bar area is off to one side, with the original ice box-style built in refrigerator.

The locker room areas, while updated, have not been modernized. The mens' locker room still features large, wooden lockers, while the ladies locker room, replete with white lockers and a large dressing table. There is also a bathtub, harkening back to the time when women didn't take showers because they didn't want to get their hair wet.

"We'll be keeping that," Matt Kornmeier said with a laugh. "It's part of the charm."

A small apartment is also part of the building. Long-time tennis pro Toby Hansen lived there for several years, and a local young pro is currently in residence. Part of his duties include maintaining the clay court.

The Tennis House is only open during the winter, a tradition the Kornmeiers will continue.

As the restoration work nears completion, the Kornmeiers are looking forward to a new generation of tennis players carrying on the traditions. They expect the facility to be ready for winter play, and will be welcoming members back with a reception in October.

"We spoke with other members and we just decided it was something we couldn't let go," said Gene Kornmeier. "There is something so unique about this property, we knew we had to preserve it."

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