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Monday, July 21, 2003
Updated: July 22, 2:04 PM ET
New York landmark's closing leaves Heisman homeless

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The red awning still hovers over the sidewalk at 19 West Street, claiming this 73-year-old Art Deco building as the official "Home of the Heisman." But the canopy is dirty and faded. It's dwarfed by blue scaffolding. And the doors to enter the building are boarded up.

Around the back, under another discolored "Home of the Heisman" covering, a set of glass doors is accessible. But they're filthy, slathered in 20 months of dirt and fingerprints. Tentacles of cracks cascade down the soiled panes.

Downtown Athletic Club
Heisman portraits will be placed in storage, but for now lean against a second-floor wall.
There was a time when this address was the center of the nation's sports focus. One winter weekend each year, a handful of the best college football players in the country would hop out of limousines, walk into the building and hope to walk out with the most prestigious individual award in sports.

But that will never happen again.

At least not here.

Plagued by financial troubles since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks leveled the nearby World Trade Center, the Downtown Athletic Club turned over its mortgage last week to this New York landmark, alleviating itself of escalating debt but leaving the Heisman all but homeless.

There are now 60 days to clean up, pack 68 years of history into cardboard boxes and move out. It isn't easy. At the deeding of the property last week, DAC president Jim Corcoran said he nearly backed out of the mortgage deal.

"My attorney said, 'What are you doing?' " said Corcoran, who also serves as a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley. "This is what everybody agreed on. This is what we voted on. But it was hard to do. It felt like something was being torn out of my heart."

The award, of course, will still go on. Funded largely by the annual Heisman dinner and income generated by the award's presenting sponsors, its future is as strong as ever. The same Downtown Athletic Club personnel will be in charge. But the club itself, which opened its doors in 1930 and five years later created the award, will be all but gone.

Truth be told, things haven't been the same since Sept. 11. Though the Heisman still had a home, the DAC never reopened. Damage from the destruction of the World Trade Center towers forced the club to move the 2001 Heisman ceremony to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The Yale Club hosted the event last year and will do so again this December.

"It's kinda like going to high school somewhere and then going back 30 years later and there's a mall there," 1973 Heisman winner John Cappalletti said. "That's what it will be like. There's a lot of emotional ties to that place. Without that building, it won't be the same."

Downtown Athletic Club kitchen
The 73-year-old DAC building needs over $20 million in renovations.
Yet if anybody could see the 38-story building now, they'd understand. Paint peels away from nearly every wall in every room. Some ceilings are pockmarked by giant holes and brown watermarks, evidence of exploded water pipes. Other rooms, which have barely been touched in two years, smell musty and stale. The elevators only work sporadically, sometimes stranding passengers between floors.

The Heisman room itself shows little sign of change, except for the absence of the famed Heisman portraits. They lean against a second-floor wall in an old banquet room, waiting to be wrapped into black and white cloths and placed into storage.

"Every time I open another box or walk into another room, it's another flood of memories," said Rudy Riska, the director of the Heisman foundation and a 43-year employee of the Downtown Athletic Club. "That's probably what's the hardest."

When the club opened in 1930, it was designed as both a fitness club and a social club for the elite. Facilities included a 137-room hotel, seven banquet rooms, one dining room, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a gymnasium, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and squash, handball and racquetball courts. At the time, the 12th-floor pool was the highest elevated aquatics facility in the world.

The club peaked at 4,500 members in the 1960s, but has seen a 78 percent decline since. In 1999, the DAC narrowly avoided bankruptcy by selling the building to a Stamford, Conn., investment firm a day before it was to be put on the auction block.

The firm then turned around and sold floors 1-13 -- essentially the Heisman room, the athletic facilities and a couple of banquet rooms -- back to the DAC, allowing for a rebuilding plan to be put in place. But just when the club was about to finalize a deal with a club management company to run the facility, plans changed when terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center, which used to stand just two blocks away.

Downtown Athletic Club
Once a gathering place for the elite, financial trouble has forced the Downtown Athletic Club to close its doors.
At the time, the upper floors of the building were being gutted and all of the windows -- from the 14th floor to the 38th -- were open for added ventilation. When the two towers collapsed, dust and debris flooded the open rooms, overwhelming the building's air ducts.

The building escaped structural damage, yet still needed about $20 million to $30 million in renovations. It never reopened. And each month that has passed, Corcoran said, the club has lost about $100,000, falling further and further into debt.

The club solicited help from its members, but only 200 of the 900 letters it sent out were answered. Later, the club invited 500 members to a financial meeting to discuss the club's future. Sixty showed up.

"It's understandable -- people's priorities changed that day," said Rob Whalen, coordinating director of the Heisman Trophy and a former DAC athletics director. "Companies were leaving downtown. Businesses were closing. People were more concerned about losing loved ones and getting their lives back together than they were about membership in a club."

And despite the deep pockets of several former Heisman winners, the DAC had little interest in reaching its hand out and asking for donations.

"I think a lot of them associate themselves more with the trophy than the club," Whalen said. "And for us to ask any of them to just hand a private club a couple million just wasn't right."

So last month, in the same lobby that Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Hopalong Cassady and Herschel Walker once celebrated, 60 members of the club decided to turn over the lease to the mortgage holders, erasing all outstanding debts.

"For a lot of us, that place was like a second home," said 1969 Heisman winner Steve Owens. "Getting stuck in the elevators, hearing the radiators popping, sitting in that old bar -- that's what made it so special. But that place needed so much work; it was just too expensive to keep up. So it's time to look to the future."

For now, the four remaining employees of the DAC, who also work with the Heisman, have 30 to 60 days to vacate the building. Auctioneers and restaurateurs already are combing the facility, inquiring about everything from ice machines and dishwashers to dining room chairs and salt-and-pepper shakers. The club has donated thousands of dollars in exercise equipment to the Boys Club of New York and the New York Fire Department. Anything Heisman related is being packaged and put into storage.

Downtown Athletic Club
The DAC hopes its gym will host one final game to honor 11 members who died on 9-11.
Riska already has opened a Heisman office in a building next door. But before the club departs 19 West Street for the last time, there are hopes for one final game. Though the stairwells are dark, the paint is peeling and the club looks more like a haven for the homeless than a clubhouse for Wall Street execs, a handful of former club members want to organize a charity basketball game to honor the 11 club members who died in the World Trade Center attacks.

"If it's safe up there and we can get it done, that's what we're going to do," Corcoran said. "It just seems right."

There are even rumblings about someday opening a new club in Battery Park City. A place with state-of-the-art equipment and a Heisman museum. Perhaps the club will be part of the new construction right at the Trade Center site. Whatever the case, Corcoran is committed to keeping any new facilities in downtown Manhattan, where it can be a vital part of the city's post-Sept. 11 revitalization plan.

"You have to go to the bottom to come back again," Corcoran said. "So that's what we're going to do -- let's just say the Heisman is on a road trip for a couple years until we get it a new home."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.