Philly Squash Elite Convert Historic Armory to Public Courts, Hoping to Democratize a Prep-school Sport

Philly Squash Elite Convert Historic Armory to Public Courts, Hoping to Democratize a Prep-school Sport

US Squash has created a country club setting for Philadelphia school kids, while finding a lively use for a dowdy historic building.

Inga Saffron | Columnist
Philadelphia Inquirer
August 30, 2021


Ever since America’s first national squash association was founded in Philadelphia (or, more precisely, Bala Cynwyd) in 1904, the sport has been played largely by a small and privileged set — “by whites, wearing whites,” in the words of Penn’s squash director, Jack Wyant. Students from exclusive private schools were inculcated into the game as if it were a secret society. Many went on to hone their skills in the fast-moving racket game at elite colleges and pricey membership-only clubs, where they developed relationships with fellow players that opened doors professionally and further cemented their social rank.

It’s a lot to ask a single building to change such a deeply inbred culture, but that is exactly what US Squash is trying to do with its new sports facility in Powelton Village. The organization, which had abandoned Philadelphia for New York a dozen years ago, decided to return to the city after Drexel University offered the group space in a historic armory on North 33rd Street. Along with providing the national team with training courts and a camera-ready showplace for international tournaments, US Squash quickly realized the venue could help expand and democratize the sport.

So, yes, there are two rows of pristine, white-walled squash courts nestled under the soaring roof of the old drill hall, designed in 1916 for the National Guard squadron founded by Benjamin Franklin. But there are also classrooms where Philadelphia kids can participate in an intensive mentoring program centered around squash and spa-like locker rooms available for use by Philadelphia’s school district teams. The Specter Center — named in honor of the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, an avid squash player — is also offering free access to the neighborhood’s low-income residents and affordably priced memberships for everyone else.