Behind the Venue: A history of the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center
For six decades, the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center has evolved to set the standards for collegiate tennis and strengthen Yale’s tennis programs.
Anasthasia Shilov, Illustrations Editor and Zully Arias, Production and Design Editor
“Behind the Venue” is a series of feature-form articles that dives into the history, character and most memorable moments of Yale’s various athletic forums — from stadiums and fields to pools and boathouses. While not all articles in the series will resemble one another, all attempt to take a deeper look into how these places came to be and how they have fared over time. This article is the first in the series.
Until the Cullman Courts opened on Nov. 13, 1972, Yale was the only Ivy League institution without indoor tennis facilities. Thirty-six years and a renovation later, the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center would tie with the University of Pennsylvania for the most indoor courts in the Ivy League.
Portraits of Yale’s tennis teams — stretching back over 100 years on the men’s side — line the renovated walls of the Cary Leeds lobby. In place of the 1904 team, a sign reads: “A thorough search in 2008 was unable to locate a team portrait,” and several scattered sheets declare the absence of formal competition during the World Wars. Above the trophy displays and reaching across the lobby are rows of banners hanging from the ceiling featuring notable Yale tennis players. Those featured include recent graduates, players from the 19th century, all-American winners and Davis Cup champions.
“The history is very obvious when you go into the building,” men’s player Cody Lin ’22 said.
The center received its name after being initially constructed through a generous donation from Joseph Cullman III ’35 and then renovated through a donation effort led by Samuel J. Heyman ’60. The facility has served generations of Yale men’s and women’s tennis teams and hosted prestigious tournaments, both for collegiate and professional players. Lauded as one of the best collegiate facilities by architectural critics, coaches and players, it continues to play an integral role in the history of Yale athletics and serve as an amenity to the larger Yale community.
Commissioned through a matching donation from Cullman and bearing the name of his father, Joseph Cullman Jr., class of 1904, the original Cullman Courts complex cost $400,000 to build, nearly $2.5 million in today’s dollars. Herbert Newman designed the facility with functionality and cost minimization in mind as the University experienced financial issues. The project and donor were kept secret until a contractor accidentally leaked building details to bidders. Local newspapers and the News reported the information before the University made a statement announcing the complex’s forthcoming construction.
Prior to the construction of the center, Payne Whitney Gymnasium’s amphitheater and facilities in Bethany and Cheshire hosted indoor tennis play for Yale. The complex was built near the athletic fields, and for nine years it was Yale’s newest athletics facility until Reese Stadium opened in 1981.
The location of the center makes viewership scarce, however.
“Since the athletic fields are far from campus, we have a lot fewer fans than we could have, and we definitely have to keep encouraging people to come support. That’s always been a challenge for us,” Lin said.
On opening day in 1972, undergraduate students paid $1.50 or $0.75 for singles and doubles to play recreationally on the courts, while faculty and staff rates were decided by prime hours and could range from $2.50 for prime-time singles to $1 for non-prime doubles. During the venue’s brief opening in the fall of 2020, undergraduate students were charged $10 per court per hour, while staff, faculty and Yale Health staff were charged $40 per court per hour with no prime-time fees.
According to Lin, while the tennis teams only play on the outdoor courts for one to two months in the fall and occasionally at the end of April, there are currently 22 courts located outside.
After a wave of improvements in Ivy League tennis around the turn of the century, all of the member universities now have six indoor tennis courts, except for Brown, which has four, UPenn, which has eight, and Yale, which has eight.
“It was a different era of facilities. I played at a time when the Ivy Leagues were upgrading their facilities and Yale was pretty consistent with the rest,” recalled Christopher Drake, current Yale men’s head coach and former tennis player at Brown, from which he graduated in 2003.
Cornell opened the indoor Reis Tennis Center in 1994 just before Harvard opened the indoor Murr Center in 1998. In the spring of 2000, Harvard reopened the outdoor Beren Tennis Center after renovation, while Dartmouth inaugurated both the outdoor Alexis Boss Tennis Center and indoor Alan D. Gordon Pavilion in the fall. Two years later, Columbia’s six-indoor-court Dick Savitt Tennis Center opened in 2002.
Centerbrook Architects and Planners conducted the renovation of the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center. Mark Simon ARC ’72, the project’s designer, evaluated eight or nine plans for adding courts.
“Our charge was to see how we could get eight new courts,” Simon said. “We settled on building four new courts in an indoor structure [in addition to renovating the original four courts]. What you see now is what everyone thought was the best direction to go.”
Heyman led the donation effort for the renovation, raising around $13 million. The facility doubled in size to encompass over 70,000 square feet and added a canopied entrance, which evokes a variety of images from a tennis swing to a tennis racket.
To follow the suggestion of Yale officials who wanted to reference neighboring buildings, Simon decided on brick columns ornamented by Kent Bloomer ART ’61 in order to create a biophilic marriage of materials.
“Yale wanted this place to be lively. This meant that the front entry should be fun. People go to play tennis for fun,” Simon said. “By adding [Bloomer’s] structure and his ornament, it brought an intention to say that this is a long-lasting place worthy of this kind of effort.”
Inside, the renovated lobby, named after the late Laurence C. Leeds III ’79 as a gift from his father Laurence C. Reeds Jr. ’50, offers an elevated view of six of the eight indoor courts — the four newer courts, which spell out “Y-A-L-E,” and the two left courts, which make up half of the older courts. A seating cantilever accessible from the lobby opens directly above the courts, while a hallway below provides direct entry and wheelchair accessibility.
The original four indoor courts featured Dynaturf surfacing when constructed, but now all eight utilize DecoTurf — the same brand of surface used at the US Open and the Olympic Games — and have similar features to ensure fairness in competition. Simon said that the decision to install DecoTurf was also based on the use of the courts and the neighboring Connecticut Tennis Center for the former Connecticut Open, a “runner-up tournament to the US Open.”
“The center is really helpful with scheduling opponents. Other schools sometimes can’t invite strong teams because their facilities can be off-putting, but the [Cullman-Heyman Center] isn’t like that,” Drake said. “It’s not dark or gloomy.”
Additionally, Drake noted that the number of courts helps both the men’s and women’s teams stagger matches if needed and naturally “lends itself to recruiting.”
Women’s team member Chelsea Kung ’23 echoed this sentiment.
“I was blown away by the dedication that Yale Athletics has to tennis … It’s really enticing for future recruits to see that ‘Oh my god, tennis is a big deal here,’” Kung said during a Zoom interview.
For her teammate, Jessie Gong ’22, the center was not a deciding factor, but “more like an added bonus.”
The center is strengthened not only by its numerous newly renovated courts, but also by the facilities that it offers. The building contains locker rooms, a small gym converted from a children’s play area and offices for coaches. In 2010, donations to the facility from Donald Dell ’60, Robin Selati ’88 and Jonathan Clark ’59 funded a scoreboard system. Further changes to the facility include new HD live streaming and a transition from halogen to LED lighting.
Since its renovations, the center has drawn architectural praise, including the 2009 American Sports Builders Association Outstanding Indoor Tennis Facility of the Year Award and an Outstanding Facility Award from the U.S. Tennis Association. Such praise has drawn tournaments to the center.
“In years past, Yale has been able to showcase the Cullman-Heyman Tennis Center through hosting numerous ECAC and ITA Championships and bring individuals from across the country to compete at the highest intercollegiate level,” Associate Athletic Director for Facilities and Operations Danielle Upham said.
These tournaments include the 2009 Women’s Northeast Regional Championships, the 2009 Intercollegiate National Indoor Tennis Championship and the 2017 ITA Division I National Women’s Team Indoor Championship, in addition to professional tournaments such as the 2019 Oracle Challenger Series and men’s legends tournaments that drew players such as James Blake and Tommy Haas. An ATP-WTA pro event, the Pilot Pen Tennis, ran from 2005 to 2010. Then the center hosted a women’s only tournament in some form from 2011 to 2018 that drew Grand Slam winners such as Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitová and Simona Halep.
The center opened briefly this past semester for recreational tennis, although masks were mandated except during play and most facilities, including showers and lockers, were unavailable. Bookings were made through Bond Sports. During the center’s closure, however, a number of first years coordinated to play tennis outdoors at Wilbur Cross High School.
Despite multiple temporary closures over the past several months, the center still inspires awe in students yet to visit and interest from organizers. It pays homage to those who came before it and grows through the help of those who developed their skills there. The Cullman-Heyman Center has proven that it can keep pace with the evolution of its parent institution and serve as a physical testament to the care of generations of Bulldogs.
The tennis center is located at 279 Derby Ave., West Haven.
Hamera Shabbir | email@example.com