Tennis house a reminder of Margaret Phipps’ support of the game

Tennis player signatures on the wall of the Phipps tennis house

Tennis greats signed the wall of the Phipps tennis house soda fountain room. Photo: Jeffrey Haessler

Scrawled on the walls of the soda fountain room off the gallery in the Phipps tennis house are the signatures of some of the best tennis players of the 20th century.

The names are fading and some of the autographs have been crowded out by the scratching of newlyweds, socialites and Phipps family members who used the building over the last 80 years. But the discerning eye can still pick out evidence of national-caliber players who visited the building at the request of patron Margaret Rogers Phipps.

“The Phipps family often invited these players, helped pay their way, housed and entertained many, let them practice on the indoor court and helped them in many ways,” says tennis historian Rich Hillway, a state champion in 1968.

Shouting that history are the signatures of Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs and Ellsworth Vines — each a U.S. and Wimbledon singles champion — who visited the building in the 1930s and ’40s. Look closely and you can see the faint autograph of Don Budge, dated 1933, the year he was Colorado champion and five years before he became the first of only two men in history to win the Australian, French and U.S. championships, plus Wimbledon, in the same calendar year.

Also visible is the bold script of Hollywood playboy and 1931 Wimbledon finalist Francis Shields, the grandfather of actress Brooke Shields. His name is scrawled alongside those of Charlie Hunt, whose brother Joe was U.S. champion in 1943, and Peggy Welch, a top collegiate star in the 1940s.

Other important players who visited the Phipps tennis house include Tom Chambers, part of the famous Kramer-Riggs pro tour in the 1940s; Midge Van Ryn, ranked in the top 10 in America nine times in the 1930s; Virginia Wolfenden, fifth in the nation in 1939; and Josephine Cruikshank, a Whiteman Cup team member who was fifth in the U.S. in 1930 and ’32.

“Top West Coast players would travel by train to the grass court tournaments in the East, stopping in Salt Lake City to play a tournament, then in Denver, then on to Chicago and the East,” Hillway says. “And Mrs. Phipps was the heart of it all.”

The stream of Californians would have bypassed Colorado, Hillway speculates, without the help of wealthy patrons such as Phipps, who got top players to come to the state to play, teach and inspire. These include Dorothy “Dodo” Bundy Cheney, a top-10 American woman in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s whom Phipps recruited as her doubles partner, winning state titles in 1936, ’37 and ’41.

“Patrons in those days paid expenses to get there and under the table to help out,” recalls Tony Trabert, who was Colorado champion in 1954, the same year he won the French championship and a year before winning Wimbledon. “But it wasn’t much. You had to be frugal. One of the ways I survived was that people were nice enough to put us up in their houses.”

Margaret Phipps provided not only lodging in the mansion, but also weather-protected practice in the tennis house. Built in the early 1930s, the massive brick pavilion with a Spanish tile and glass-domed roof was a beehive of activity that included everything from Phipps’ reading group to day care for neighborhood kids. Mostly, though, the building was for tennis, and it was available to everyone from family members and neighbors to recreational players and talented juniors developing their skills.

“I saw the lights in the building on a lot when I was a kid,” recalls Phipps’ granddaughter, Sandra Dennehy. “There was always something happening over there.”

Trabert’s opponent in that 1954 state final was Gardner Mulloy, a Wimbledon doubles champion in 1957 and International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee who lost to Trabert in five sets. “I’m still tired from it,” jokes Mulloy, now 97.

An exercise class in the Phipps tennis house

Once used mostly for tennis, the Phipps tennis house later hosted wedding, parties and even exercise classes.

In 1956 and ’57, Mulloy worked for M.H. “Bud” Robineau, an oil company executive who needed a skilled doubles partner. He remembers the tennis house well. “We got permission to play there in the winter about every third day,” Mulloy says.

The building was a Denver landmark structure erected just prior to the Phipps mansion.

“It had a cork surface and windows that cranked out,” recalls Jack Cella, now 88 and a Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame inductee. “There were flowers, vines and butlers. It had an upstairs apartment, lockers and showers on the court level and a sitting room with a fireplace. You couldn’t have been treated nicer.”

Phipps gave the tennis house to DU in 1960, followed by the mansion four years later. The University covered the court surface and used the building for banquets, conferences and weddings, retrofitting the locker rooms to accommodate bridal parties.

“The [tennis] pavilion booked more weddings than the mansion,” says Lorin Fleisher, who managed the Phipps estate for the University until DU sold it in December 2010. “There’s something really quaint and wonderful about the tennis pavilion. It was meant to be a recreational, fun place and it was.

“And it’s unique. There are a number of mansions, but there are no tennis pavilions like this. None.”

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