Heavy metal comes to squash: ‘Building a steel court is just the start of the dream – now we want to create an Iron Workers League to take squash beyond the Ivy League’
By ROBERT PACEY – Squash Mad Correspondent
The world of squash is waking up to an alternative lifestyle for the game. With the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in squash being labelled as a “high-risk activity” discussions are taking place all over the world about building open-air, outdoor courts.
Not only would they be “Covid-compliant” but they would also put courts in a setting where the game could be viewed by the general public – the opposite of the traditional pathway of expensive courts being built in expensive private clubs.
This historical tradition has led to barriers preventing newcomers and casual players from trying the game. It has also led to other sports, notably pickleball, stealing a march on squash with more than 3.5 million players in the US alone.
In New York City, not only has someone been talking about open-air squash, they have gone and built their own court!
I first saw it when it passed by me on Linkedin. It was a sky blue and black rusted abstraction and it caught my eye before I even saw that it was a squash court. Then I realized that it was an OUTDOOR squash court and that it was made of STEEL.
I needed to know more so I reached out to the fellow posting the teaser videos and photos. On Saturday, July 18, 2020, I had the pleasure to sit down for a chat with Robert Gibralter, of Maspeth Welding Arts in Queens, the face of the Steel Court. He Zoomed with us from his apartment in Midtown East Manhattan.
Interview with Robert Gibralter by Robert Pacey of Squash Republic
Tell me a bit about Robert Gibralter
I was a walk-on in Amherst College in squash and was ranked by the time I graduated. I was a fairly good player. From there I went on to business school and when I graduated I partnered with a buddy and created a venture called Amherst Pros. This was in 1978 when there was huge growth in the game of squash. It seemed like every Wall Streeter had a squash racquet and the game was growing beyond the elitist clubs. We had an arrangement with Park Avenue Squash Club and I began teaching squash. I joined the PSA at the time that Gordon Anderson, Clive Caldwell and Dave and Mark Talbott were running the PSA. I was the “next to last” teaching pro on the world rankings.
After that I found my way toward advertising and had an interesting career that saw me on Madison Avenue, Paris and later Singapore. I held a global marketing job at Avon and did a lot of teaching in marketing, strategy and creativity.
I’m still a work in progress and I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I consider myself very fortunate to be pursuing what feels like a natural passion. Looking back, and looking forward, being around squash, helping squash and playing squash, communicating with people who also share the same religion of squash is very centering for me.
I’ve found myself in a place I love. Near a squash court dreaming about squash business. Dreaming about expanding the sport that touched me when I was young.
What are you doing now?
For the last year and a half I’ve been working (or “playing”) as the artist-in-residence for a company called Maspeth Welding Arts. The owner, Jeff Anschlowar, is a dear friend and we’ve been playing squash together for 15 to 20 years. We played at the University of New York in white clothing as you did and then the years go by.
I was really into art as a child but became more commercially and management oriented later in life and the art kind of moved away from me. One day, when Jeff and I were playing, he asked me what I was doing and I said I was trying to reconnect with my art. I was taking classes, doing pastels and really interested in repurposing stuff. He said, “Why don’t you come out and see the warehouse space I finally took over next to my business. You might want to do some art there.”
After that conversation I started going through his scrap materials and creating an array of sculptures. I got to meet the people on the shop floor next door and this led me to try to find out more about his business. The space I was in had been cleaned out but he didn’t have a clear idea of what he was going to do with it.
Like a “marketing guy” I wanted to know his business inside and out and suggested an intern program. The idea was to have something like “Shark Tank” in Queens where we would bring in a multidisciplinary group of students to get together with a goal in mind.
We had an architect, an economics major, media and communications majors and I brought them in and we did a 10-week program where we visited branding people, artists, museums and the mission in the end was for each of them to present a concept for what we should do with this dream warehouse space.
The Queens Council for the Arts, one of the oldest non-profits of its type, caught wind of what we were doing and they thought it was really a unique thing to do in terms of creativity in the marketplace and the workforce. Manufacturing was hollowing out in Queens and I started collaborating with them on various workplace creativity. Maspeth Welding Arts started going through a “cultural transformation” with workers creating scrap metal art of their own using the skills sets they had from their own work.
So how did we get to the steel squash court?
Maspeth had been doing custom rehab and construction work in New York City on brownstones and hospitals and the like. And keep in mind, we’d been talking for years about building a court outside. “Wouldn’t it be great to play squash on an open barge where you can look out on the water and sip a little something when you come off the court and have open air?”
So now we have this great open space that might allow us the room we need to build that court. And as the thinking evolved we realized it would be a great wellness program for the company .
During the internship, I threw the concept of steel walled squash into the hot summer mix of ideas with the students along with a great list of scrap metal art, furniture, environmental projects, community art programs, a steampunk coffee house, steel furniture, and lots of other new product ideas.
Mike Palabasan, the architecture student, got into it, the squash idea, and started making models, interviewing and working with architect Sari Chang of Jacobs Chang – a collaborator in community art projects, our educational program, and the making of our steel court. Sari gave a great presentation and working session with the students in her office about a community art project on the East River.
Next thing you know we were full steam ahead.
What did the staff helping you build the steel squash court think?
Well for the whole time the court was being built no one really got it. Most of the people had basically never heard of the game before. They would all say “whaaaaaat is this?” Now, part of the dream is to create an Iron Workers Squash League to take squash beyond the Ivy League.
What’s happening now?
COVID and the restrictions on our game has made the guy with access to an outdoor court pretty popular. Right now I suddenly have a lot of “friends” and I’m getting calls all the time and everyone’s being nice to me!
In the time of COVID, everyone is reinventing themselves and rethinking their place. We’re having a lot of fun and we’re finding a lot of cause and purpose in this. There’s been a lot of spiritual satisfaction to the reaction. If you’ve been playing squash you’ve been pounding the pill indoors against wood walls in closed courts with bad circulation. There’s 5,000 courts in North America and 99% of them are indoors. Our court is outside in the fresh air.
Who’s playing on the court and what do they think?
Right now it’s mainly pros. There are so many of them in NY and we’re only 30 minutes away. People should know that as the pros are coming here, we’re being really clear with them: Come here with someone you feel comfortable with. We’re very concerned about safety and health. We are following all the same COVID procedures that we do with the construction company.
People get on our court and say, “It’s a Tesla. No, it’s a Maserati.” The pros like Jonny Smith and Campbell Grayson are playing on it now and the interest in this is growing. The slow-mo video of Jonny’s backswing has been viewed 10,000 times! The world doubles number one came over the other day.
When people come out to Maspeth they’re surprised by the art and architecture of the court. They take in the location, the rust (we love the rust!), the whole feeling, and then they get on the court and you’ve got four months of pent-up energy.
They’re coming off the court as if they’ve just gotten off a ride at Disneyworld. Manek came off the court the other day and said, “Just don’t overthink it. It was a really enjoyable experience.”
Jonny Smith said it was like finding himself again. He was able to do something he’s so good at but had been denied for so long.
What about the business of the steel court?
When COVID hit Maspeth was like, how many projects are closed down? How many workers do we have and what are they going to work on? So while we had started collecting materials for the court last August, we pushed through and only recently finished.
Squash courts are a commodity not a brand and this one is a marketing dream. It really is. We’ve had sales inquiries from all over the U.S. We’ve had pros that want to put together groups to buy. I’ve gotten inquiries from Canada, Singapore, India, Malaysia and Trinidad and Tobago.
Our timing couldn’t be better, right?
Yes. Just before COVID, college squash was really taking off again. The number of colleges that wanted to have Division One teams was exploding! But then Stanford University and Browns University dropped their programs and now interest seems to be dipping. It feels like we’re doing a public service to just get people to think about squash again.
And it’s also a transformation of the mind. People have always said, “Well they haven’t solved outdoor squash yet.” But imagine if squash itself said, “You know, tennis has concrete, clay and grass AND sun in your eyes. Why can’t we have different surfaces and play outside?”
It’s very exciting right now. We’d like to support the growth of the game in the outdoors, which could bring the game to more people who would like the opportunity to find that little bit of happiness or escape on the squash court.
What’s the dream?
We’re trying to make our little area here conducive to pros playing and dreaming. There are 75-100 pros in the NY area without a place to do business. We’re trying to give them potentially a way to manage their future more than the club manages it for them. What if you were a suburban pro and you could have your own outdoor squash court on your own piece of land? You could put up a little pro shop and start a community. You don’t need a building!
We’re trying to facilitate the building of courts. We want to build courts. This could become a great business. Gordon Anderson? Start building some outdoor squash courts.
How do I get on the court?
(Laugh) We have neighbours here in Queens calling and asking how they can book the court but it’s not a public court. Maspeth is a construction company not a club and this court is more of a showroom. We’re just not set up for too many visitors.
How much is the Steel Court going to cost me?
We are costing it out at this point. We started getting materials last August and really didn’t start working on it until May and June. And each aspect has required fine tuning and we’re still testing various aspects of it.
The strength of it is the true consistency of length. You have never played on a wall, wood or glass, that is as TRUE as these steel walls are. There’s no ball that is going to shoot out imperfectly. It’s remarkable. And the floor is working like a dream! It absorbs sweat and even though the wood lay outside all winter, it’s perfect. The back wall is gorgeous and feels just like a fish tank.
Who else was involved in this project? Anyone you want to give shout outs to?
Well, obviously the “Man of Steel” and owner of Maspeth, Jeff Anschlowar. Need to mention him and his orchestra of internal and external experts in construction.
I mentioned her before but a major contributor was architect Sari Chang of the award-winning firm Jacobs Chang. She was in charge of the minimalist conception of this whole thing. She designed that amazing twisted steel ribbon fence that rusted on purpose. Did I mention that we’re in love with rust? (Laugh)
I also need to give thanks to the people of the company. The workers who built it, these wood, steel and iron workers are artisans. There were some key contributions from Tom Murphy, Gabriel Renz, Charles, Vera, Sharlene, Elton, Ernie, Mike, Manny, to name a few..
Anything coming up?
We’re talking to Jean Nayar about doing a family book signing on the court, if the public health situation is right, with Anil for her book Lucky-Anil Nayar’s Story: A Portrait of a Legendary Squash Champion which I heartily recommend. We are also looking at doing something special on 10/10/20 for World Squash Day!
*Book Review being published on Squash Mad later this week.
Any last thoughts?
I keep going back to the ideas of “finding your own spark” and “seeing things with new eyes” and the power of being out of your comfort zone. It’s really hard for everyone in the world right now to plot a way forward but just the idea of thinking about outdoor squash as a metaphor for how people can move forward with what they have is inspiring to me.
I’m happy to drive out to Queens today and do some pastel drawings while other people play squash. I’m going to open a little art and pro shop out there. Not that I’m going to be the pro but if someone needs a ball or a racquet I’ll be there. This is kind of my dream come true.
I don’t know where it will end but I’ll keep dreaming.
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Robert Gibralter can be contacted via email: [email protected]
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Follow Maspeth Welding Arts for updates on the courts and videos of the lucky pros getting to hit on the first Steel Court.
Maspeth Welding Arts on Facebook
Maspeth Welding Arts on Instagram
Queens Council on the Arts Interview with Robert Gibralter
Queens Council on the Arts
Pictures courtesy of Robert Gibralter