Hackensack's Oritani Field Club to close, but memories remain
Monday, August 22, 2011
BY MARK J. BONAMO
Sitting on a high-fenced parcel of land adjoining River Street in Hackensack, the Oritani Field Club might be a mystery to non-members of the 124-year-old sports facility, as well as to casual passersby.
But for long-time member Teri Cerullo of Englewood, the impending closing of the club revealed something those who played tennis and swam in the pool behind its walls already knew.
"This place in the best-kept secret in Hackensack," said Cerullo. "This place has a special charm to it - it's different. Even though we have the noise, the fire engines, the police cars, we don't hear anything once we're here. We didn't want it to close. We're going to be saddened by it."
The tennis and swimming club, with its front door facing East Camden Street, was sold and will officially close at the end of 2015, according to Theodore Agen of Fort Lee, the president of the club's board. While Agen has not divulged the buyer's identity or the sale price, he believes that the purchaser will most likely redevelop the 2.3-acre site.
A redevelopment plan for the 140-member sports club would fit into the city's overall plans for the downtown. In June, the City Council designated the area as in need of rehabilitation, a move designed to facilitate residential, retail and office development, as well as infrastructure improvements.
Club officials and residents alike gave similar reasons for the club's closure: a declining and aging membership, reduced revenue and real estate realities. The club was recently assessed at $1.6 million, significantly less than the $2.3 million of last year.
Events in the club's history are touchstones in Hackensack's history - its founding in 1887; its naming after Oratam, the famed 17th century American-Indian chief; its move in the 1920s from the original site, where the Hackensack YMCA now sits, on land that stretched from Main Street to the Hackensack River; the fact that Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Arthur Ashe played on the tennis courts; that Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic champion and a cinematic Tarzan, graced the pool.
The membership itself voted to approve the board's decision to close the club. But Elisabeth Ries, the first female president of the club, noted that in the end, memories matter more than money as she placed a higher value on remembered elegance rather than on fading finances.
"I remember a black tie Governor's ball right here," said Ries, a 40-year club member, walking through the club's ballroom on an impromptu tour. "This dance floor was full, and we had a good time. I come here all the way from Suffern, New York, and I'm still coming."
"This was a very formal country club in the middle of Hackensack," said Jackie Muhlstock, of Teaneck, a member since 1968. "If you were in the bar after 6 o'clock, they rang a bell, and you couldn't stay in your tennis clothes."
"It was also very family-oriented. There were lots and lots of kids," added Muhlstock. "The lifeguards used to have to blow the whistle for an adult swim. My kids used to spot pins in the old bowling alley. My three sons grew up here, and I grew up here. You have no idea how much this is breaking my heart."
Business decisions often don't, or can't, account for sentiment. But for Teri Cerullo, the club will always have a piece of her heart.
"We don't have the million-dollar look that the other, more-expensive clubs have," Cerullo said. "But we have the people. This may not appeal to everybody, but it appeals to us. We made this place a home away from home."