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Original Issue

Shall we gather at the squash courts?

Once the old walls rang to the sound of hymns. But since a band of businessmen bought the church and converted it, there is a new sense of athletic mission. And, Lord knows, it's good for them

If given to name-dropping, don't bother adding the Silver Lake Athletic Club to your repertoire; the social cachet quotient of this particular organization is right in there with the Bayonne, N.J. YMCA and the Lincoln, Neb. Moose Lodge. But there is a far more important quality about the tiny upstate New York club than its impact on status-seekers. It represents a stimulating and original effort to introduce low-cost indoor athletics to the hinterlands.

The Silver Lake Athletic Club resides in the abandoned shell of the Universalist Church on South Main Street in Perry, N.Y., a placid, tree-shrouded village of 5,500 retired farmers and commuters to nearby Rochester. Perry is a routine example of small-town America—its streets are lined with gawky 19th-century frame houses, and a miniature business district features a pair of stoplights—but its athletic club gives it a certain air of distinction in the face of its fellow communities in the region.

For over 100 years the wooden walls of the old church resonated with the vibrations of its powerful, tracker-action pipe organ, but today the aged building releases other sounds—the thumps and bangs of bodies and balls bouncing off the pair of racquetball/handball courts that fill its insides. The windows have been filled in, giving the building's exterior a blind, white clapboarded facade. Its stained-glass windows and pews have been sold to antique collectors. The space once occupied by its sanctuary now houses the two game courts, a sauna bath/locker area and a card and billiard room.

"When the idea for a club like this first came to us, we had to find an old, unused structure with 20-foot ceilings. The church, which was for sale, was ideal," says Russ Clark, a prosperous, robust real estate developer, who ramrodded the club into existence. Clark and a group of friends had been exposed to racquetball during an adult physical education program at a nearby state university campus. Realizing that the school's crowded courts prevented the brand of serious play they desired, they informally discussed the creation of a club. "The more we talked about it, the more sense it made. This isn't a really rich area, so we had to design the thing so that it wouldn't be too big a burden on people's budgets. We finally decided to create a nonprofit corporation and to invite 50 members at $300 apiece, which gave them a two-year membership and a single share of stock. With $15,000 operating capital, we then obtained bank loans for another $24,000. The old church was purchased for $6,500 and we were on our way."

Obviously, no one can create a first-class athletic club with the kind of budget Clark and his cohorts had in mind. Several compromises had to be made, including the modified fabrication of the courts themselves. Ideally, handball courts are lined with matched hardwood boards that are extremely expensive. The Silver Lake Club had to settle for five-eighths-inch plywood sheets. The standard court dimension is 20 by 40 feet, but the odd shape of the old church building dictated court sizes of 22 by 38½ feet. Says Clark: "A couple of experts told us it would be impossible to play the game off plywood, but we had no choice. Actually, it worked out fine. A number of really fine handball and racquetball players have used our courts and they can hardly tell the difference. And the court dimensions don't seem to make much difference either. In fact, the slightly smaller area tends to keep the ball in play longer and makes the volleys more competitive."

By the time the sauna bath was installed and the construction work was nearly completed, the club had run through its initial funds. Its board of directors decided to admit another 25 members to gain additional capital. "We were flying blind in the whole thing," says Clark. "We tried to limit the membership on the basis of club usage. Actually, we've discovered that the facility can easily accommodate 100 members and we've just expanded the rolls to include that number.

"You could do what we did almost anywhere in the country," Clark adds. "Any vacant building would do; an old store, a warehouse, a deserted factory or barn—any structure that can be gutted to give you a space approaching 20 by 40 feet with 20-foot ceilings. The whole deal is flexible, fancy or simple as your particular budget requires. In our area we felt that 300 bucks a member was about the limit."

The Silver Lake Athletic Club has no full-time attendant or steward and the members do their best to keep the locker room policed themselves. Each member is equipped with a key, and court usage is simply controlled by sign-up sheets, meaning that the club runs without day-to-day supervision. Guests are admitted for a nominal fee, which provides an additional source of revenue. Total annual operating costs are about $6,500, including heal, lights and maintenance.

Because local zoning laws forbid alcohol on the premises, the Silver Lake Athletic Club has a limited social calendar. Aside from a few card games, or the occasional member fleeing the pandemonium of his own living room to watch a football game in silence on the club TV set, the place is used almost exclusively for racquetball. While the courts are satisfactory for handball and squash, racquetball has established itself as the favorite game. "It's not as strenuous as handball, and we've got a lot of middle-aged members," says Clark.

Can the Silver Lake Athletic Club realistically be duplicated elsewhere? Russ, Clark and his friends see no reason why hundreds of similar clubs can't spring up. "All you need is a few interested guys willing to pool their money, some kind of suitable building and a friendly banker who's willing to lend some money, either with a note or mortgage," says" Clark. "We do feel that an older building is essential, as opposed to construction of a facility from the ground up. Even with using the simplest materials like concrete blocks, etc. we estimate that we couldn't have built this size club, brand new, for less than $100,000.

"But with an older building and the use of volunteer labor, you can really cut costs. Local businessmen donated services, furniture and the television set, which meant that the group effort helped keep the budget in line.

"When we started to talk about this thing, most of the guys had never even heard of racquetball. You'd mention the game and all you'd get was a blank stare. But now we've got maybe 50 fellows who've really gotten serious about the game. There are three or four excellent players in the club and maybe another 20 who could handle themselves in any company."

So the Silver Lake Athletic Club is on its way, producing its own unique form of athletic competition, especially during the dark, grim winter months that shroud upstate New York. Men who once looked forward to nothing more strenuous than television tuning and card shuffling are now perspiring and flailing their way around the plywood courts of their newfound sanctuary. No one will know how many cardiac arrests will be blunted or delayed by their efforts. If the tiny club has no other value, it is the source of critical exercise for a group of comfortable gentry too often prone to overeating and underexertion. At one point one of the founders was trying to talk a businessman into parting with $300 for a charter share of stock. The prospect, a citizen of substantial girth, was balking at the price. "Look at it this way" said the club member, "in your case it'll be the cheapest health insurance you could buy."

The fat man signed up. So far, he hasn't lost a pound, but he's developed a backhand you wouldn't believe.