December 10, 2010
Jose Bosch and Jim Weber run LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other campus nostalgia. Today, they look at the history of the defunct Downtown Athletic Club .
For over six decades New York's Downtown Athletic Club was associated with arguably the most celebrated award in sports. The club created the DAC Trophy in 1935, before it was known as the Heisman, and hosted the presentation every December for 66 consecutive years.
That changed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The DAC opened in 1930 in a 35-story Art Deco skyscraper at the southern tip of Manhattan near the Hudson River, originally planned as another nod to excess and extravagance at the heart of the booming financial district in the late '20s. The colossus had over 125 hotel rooms and accommodated all the latest sporting trends, including a basketball court, a boxing ring and squash courts. The swimming pool, located on the 12th floor, was reportedly the highest elevated pool in the world at the time.
The club's first athletic director was John Heisman, the Ivy League football star of the 1890s who went on to spread the fledgling game during coaching stops at eight different schools in the South and East over 35 years.
With the exploding popularity of the sport he helped develop, Heisman decided the DAC would award an annual trophy to the best college football player east of the Mississippi River. (Many would argue for years that it was still for players east of the Mississippi). Heisman had a trophy commissioned and ready to give away in a year's time. In December of 1935, the first Downtown Athletic Club Trophy was awarded to University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger.
Before the 1936 presentation, however, Heisman passed away from pneumonia at the age of 66, and the club renamed the award the "Heisman Trophy" in his honor. While the Downtown Athletic Club’s name was no longer on the award, it continued to be associated with the bronze statue by hosting the presentation ceremony – and it made sure its visitors knew it. On the awning outside the entrance to the building was the phrase "Home of the Heisman Trophy." When you stepped into the elevator, there was an "H" for the Heisman floor instead of a number 13.
And awarding the most prestigious award in college football only made the club look that much more exclusive. As the popularity of the Heisman Trophy grew, so did the profile of the club. The club ballooned to 4,500 members in the 1960s as the Don Drapers of the era roamed the halls: Luminaries that stayed at the club included Bob Hope, Joe DiMaggio and Muhammad Ali.
Once the ceremony hit television in 1981, the popularity of the trophy and the name recognition of the club began to take on a national scope. But even as the prestige of the Heisman Trophy continued to grow, the DAC – like so many private clubs in the city – ran into financial trouble in the early '90s.
The biggest blow came from Congress, which ended tax deductions for club dues in 1993. Patrons opted for newer and cheaper public health clubs instead, which allowed professionals to work out quickly instead of hanging around for drinks afterward – the real cash cow for establishments like the DAC. And as businesses spread out around Manhattan, members left with them.
[Related: Where are they now? All-time Heisman winners]
The DAC’s membership plummeted to around 1,300 in the late '90s. With a dwindling membership and back taxes worth approximately $3 million, the club was in danger of losing everything, including the Heisman Trophy presentation. In 1998, it was finally forced to file for bankruptcy.
Fortunately for the trophy, a Connecticut investment firm bought the building a year later and sold 13 floors – including the Heisman floor – back to the club. Under the deal, the Downtown Athletic Club could pay back all its creditors, including the city of New York, while the firm turned the rest of the building into a hotel. The move was a long shot for the long-term health of the DAC, as the private health club in New York City was dying.
Then came 9/11.
Just three blocks away from the World Trade Center, the club was instantly transformed into a triage that morning. Eleven members of the club lost their lives.
The upper floors of the building had been gutted before the terrorist attacks and the windows had been left open. When the debris cloud descended upon the building, dust and ash flooded the open rooms and air ducts. Cleanup would take over $20 million.
The Downtown Athletic Club never reopened.
The Heisman has become a journeyman since, with the ceremony shuttling through three different locations in New York before finally settling on a new home in 2005, at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square. Today, the building that housed the DAC is a luxury condominium called the Downtown Club, "the epitome of white glove hotel style services," boasting a 12,000-square-foot gym.
In other words, 75 years after the club introduced the most prestigious award in American sports, the building is now just another New York City high-rise whose illustrious history has been all but forgotten in just a few years. For generations of football fans, however, the Downtown Athletic Club and the iconic, stiff-arming hunk of bronze will always be synonymous.
- - -
Jose Bosch and Jim Weber run the site LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.