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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Charlottesville now home to world-class squash facility

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Posted: Saturday, June 29, 2013 9:00 pm | Updated: 6:40 pm, Wed Jul 3, 2013.

For those new to it, well, it’s one heck of an introduction.

There is an elegant facade composed partly of natural stone. A dramatic cathedral ceiling in the lobby. Large windows everywhere you look. 

Walking through a set of glass double doors, there are twin courts on either side of a spacious corridor. 

But the best is yet to come.

Around a corner are picturesque views of the nearby mountains with enough natural light pouring in to make you feel like you're in Alaska in July.

Suddenly, the crown jewel comes into view — a glass-encased court that is the only one of its kind in the United States and is just one of an estimated six in the entire world.

Welcome to the Yankee Stadium of squash facilities — and it’s right here in Charlottesville.

The brand new McArthur Squash Center at Boar’s Head Sports Club is the talk of the squash world.

The $12.4 million facility, which opened its doors in April — the official grand opening is slated for September — has nine singles courts, two doubles courts and, according to one of the consultants on the project, state-of-the-art features that cannot be found anywhere else.

“It’s one of the absolute premier facilities anywhere in the world,” said Tom Rumpler, the director of squash at the Midtown Athletic Club in Atlanta and the president of ASB SquashCourts, a company that manufactures courts. “They spared no expense. They made it the best.”

Conor O’Malley, the director of events for U.S. Squash, agreed.

“I’ve personally traveled to several facilities around the country and have had an opportunity to go around the world,” O’Malley said, “and it really is a world-class facility.”

So much so that McArthur recently won the bidding for the 2014 U.S. National Championships and U.S. Masters.

In addition, the 33,000 square-foot venue will host the Charlottesville Open professional tournament in September, plus three other events.

McArthur was built with a $12.4 million donation by Jaffray Woodriff, a UVa alum and squash enthusiast.

The facility itself is owned by the University of Virginia. The land on which it was built is owned by the UVa Foundation.

Construction, which began last July, took just nine months to complete and finished on budget, according to Fred Missel, the director of design and development for the UVa Foundation.

Missel said the only real challenge that arose during the process involved the boundaries between the Foundation’s Boar’s Head and Birdwood Golf Course properties, which had different zoning classifications.

McArthur needed to be located on Boar’s Head property.  

Luckily, Missel said, when Boar’s Head had previously added indoor tennis courts, some of the property at Birdwood had been “appended” with the idea that the space could be used for a future project.

However, the construction process did affect the No. 3 hole at Birdwood. 

“The greens and the T-boxes had to be relocated to accommodate this building,” Missel said, “but we did not have to do a rezoning.”

McArthur was designed by Bartzen & Ball and was built by Kjellstrom & Lee Construction.

Major input for the squash-court configuration came from Charlottesville native Francis Johnson, a St. Anne’s-Belfield alum and former standout player at Yale who now works for Woodriff’s foundation.

The nine international-style singles courts at McArthur equal the sum total of all the others in Charlottesville.

STAB has five; the downtown ACAC has two; and two courts are currently being built on UVa’s North Grounds.

When Johnson was coming up the squash ranks in Charlottesville, the only courts were at the old Albemarle Racquet Club.

Johnson says much of the inspiration for McArthur’s design stemmed from his college playing days. He says the two main focuses of the project were on player and spectator experience.

To that end, a mezzanine was built that allows players, coaches, fans and media alike to watch five courts simultaneously.

And the open floor plan and natural lighting give McArthur a spacious feel that is uncommon in other squash venues, which can often seem like bomb shelters or dungeons.

“There were days when I was younger and playing tournaments,” Johnson said, “and I never saw the sun.”

Often times, American squash courts are afterthoughts. That is, they are built or tucked into existing structures. However, the unique aspect of McArthur, according to Johnson, is that it was constructed specifically for squash.

One of the features that McArthur squash director Mark Allen appreciates the most is the “floating” surface of the courts, which were built out of premium-grade maple wood.

Some squash courts are built directly on concrete, which doesn’t provide any “spring” and can make it tough on joints.

“I’m 42 and my playing days are behind me, but teaching five hours a day on unsprung courts — my knees hurt, my back hurts,” Allen said. “The courts are perfectly sprung, perfectly heated, perfectly air conditioned.

“They’re state of the art.”

Believe it or not, heating and air conditioning aren’t always standard features.

Allen says the courts he used to teach on in South Africa were often too cold to play on in the winter and too hot in the summer. Allen also recalled sweltering conditions at summer camps at Princeton and Stanford.

Lately, Allen has given tours to prospective Virginia students and their parents and watched their jaws drop.

“Squash is traditionally a sport where you squeeze 50 or 60 people into a balcony,” said Allen, who has played and coached on four continents. “It’s come a long ways since then.

“When you see facilities like this, you appreciate how much the game has advanced.”

As you would expect, the whole facility has a UVa vibe to it. The lines on all the courts are painted Cavalier blue and orange.

Zach Starsia, the captain of the UVa team last season, can’t believe his bad luck — he graduated and will never get to compete collegiately in the facility.

However, the STAB alum still plans on spending a lot of time at McArthur.

“It’s definitely a diamond in the rough for UVa,” said Starsia, the nephew of Virginia lacrosse coach Dom Starsia. “The hard part for us is letting students know that the facility is open to them. That’s going to be the challenge for us going forward.”

According to Rumpler, the courts themselves are “proprietary systems” that were invented and fabricated in Germany and imported to Charlottesville. The walls, which have hidden aluminum profiles inside of them, are all freestanding.

“It’s the best technology that there is in the world,” Rumpler said.

Another feature that sets McArthur apart are the two doubles courts that have their own separate area and mezzanine at the back of the facility.

But the biggest wow factor at McArthur is the four-sided glass “show court” that is located smack in the middle of the facility.

It is believed to be the only permanent four-sided glass white-ball court in the United States.

The court, which sort of looks like a translucent Rubik’s Cube, has its own lighting system and seating for fans on all four sides of it.

Its main purpose, through the use of a special white-colored ball, is to make squash a more television-friendly sport.

With a custom AV system, McArthur is planning to stream matches live.

Allen says the court is his favorite part of the facility.

“It’s spectacular,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to that first event where we have 500 people in here and you’ll see what it’s really been built for.”

“It creates a center-stage atmosphere,” Johnson added.

The white-ball court also figures to give the Virginia teams, which compete at the club level, something of a home-court advantage since Trinity College is the only other program that plays with a white ball.

The “show court” was one of the big reasons why McArthur was able to win the bidding for the national championships and masters this coming spring. If all goes well, the facility has the option to continue hosting the events in 2015 and 2016.

“I certainly did not expect to get [tournaments] of this size so soon,” Allen said.

O’Malley, who manages the U.S. Open and national team activities, says McArthur’s layout is what made it attractive.

“It’s so conducive to putting on spectacular events,” he said. “That’s what really sets it apart from the rest of the field.

“Some facilities do a fantastic job of catering to the daily [player]. Sometimes they do a great job of catering to the major events. But to have the balance of the two is an art — and they’ve definitely struck that there.”

Boar’s Head manager James Neiderer says members have embraced McArthur. The club has been running an open squash night twice a month this summer that has brought in a lot of first-time players.

“That’s one of the things that we wanted to accomplish — introduce the sport to more people and get them involved,” Neiderer said.

Johnson is excited about the facility's future.

“It’s going to do nothing but help promote the sport and help grow it — not just here, but statewide, nationally and internationally,” he said.

“I think it can be a real poster child for the sport.” 

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