Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008

Sports Museum looks for a hit on Broadway

By Julie Shapiro

Listening to Philip Schwalb talk about sports is a lot like listening to an art collector talk about rare paintings.

“It takes people away from the mundane and the everyday,” Schwalb said. “They get to participate in or watch something really beautiful…. It allows for a feeling of transcendence.”

Schwalb, founder of a soon-to-open sports museum in Lower Manhattan, thinks sports are just as beautiful as music or art — but until now, there has never been a national museum celebrating athletes.

That will change on May 7, when Schwalb opens the doors of the Sports Museum of America at 26 Broadway. The museum will feature the history and achievements of athletes in 30 sports, ranging from football, basketball and hockey to bowling, fishing, rugby and lacrosse.

The museum will host a dedication ceremony outside at the base of the Canyon of Heroes next Tues., May 6 at noon. Forty famous athletes will attend the dedication, including Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who paraded up the Canyon earlier this year, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, ex-Rangers Rod Gilbert and Mike Richter, Mario Andretti, retired Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett, Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug and track-and-field Olympian Carl Lewis.

The museum’s galleries will showcase 600 sports artifacts, 1,100 photographs and 20 original films. Fans will be able to see Michael Jordan’s No. 9 “Dream Team” jersey from the 1992 Olympics and a boxing glove signed by both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier after they fought at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Schwalb devoted one gallery to breaking barriers of race, gender and nationality in sports.

The galleries for each sport will have three main components: videos, interactive computer programs and artifacts. In the baseball room, visitors will look into a periscope and at the touch of a button they’ll pull up videos of famous moments from baseball history, along with facts about what happened. Then, visitors can look at artifacts from the sport’s most famous players: Joe DiMaggio’s bat, Willie Mays’s glove, a World Series trophy and dozens of World Series rings.

The sports rooms will also have what Schwalb calls “touchables.”

“We didn’t want to create a museum where everything is behind glass,” he said.

Kids can take practice swings with Alex Rodriguez’s bat or shoot with Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick. The close contact with famous athletes will be “irreplaceable,” Schwalb said — but he estimates that the museum will have to replace the artifacts themselves every six months because of general wear and tear. Luckily, he has a long list of athletes signed up who are eager to donate.

The museum will also house the original Heisman Trophy, given each year to the country’s best college football player. From its inception in 1935 until 2001, the Heisman Trophy had a home a few blocks away at the Downtown Athletic Club, at 19 West St, and the club hosted a ceremony each year to present the new trophy. After 9/11, the Downtown Athletic Club closed and the ceremony moved to Midtown.

Schwalb built a whole gallery devoted to the Heisman Trophy, where visitors will be able to see and touch the 1935 original. Portraits of past winners will line the walls. Each year, the Sports Museum of America will host the trophy presentation ceremony, a televised event that draws the nation’s best college football players.

The museum is located at the southern tip of Manhattan, on the first three floors of 26 Broadway, the landmarked Standard Oil building.

“The location couldn’t be better,” Schwalb said. The building’s windows overlook the Canyon of Heroes, where triumphant athletes have marched in parades for nearly 100 years — most recently when the Giants won the Super Bowl this year. The museum will open 45,000 square feet of space next week, including 4,000 square feet of retail for sports merchandise and memorabilia and an 8,000-square-foot venue for special events. The museum hopes to eventually open an additional 25,000 square feet of space, possibly for a café or a theater.

Within America’s first national sports museum, Schwalb also built a gallery devoted to another first: the first women’s hall of fame.

Billie Jean King, the tennis player who defeated Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes,” founded the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, but it has never had a permanent home. Visitors to the hall of fame’s gallery in the Sports Museum will learn about inductees through interactive computer programs.

In June, the women’s hall of fame will hold an induction ceremony at the museum for exceptional female coaches and athletes.

Schwalb thought up the idea for the Sports Museum on Sept. 10, 2001, his 39th birthday. He was on an Amtrak train, returning from a trip up to Springfield, Mass. to see the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. A self-described “huge basketball fan,” Schwalb was disappointed to see only a handful of people in the two days he spent at the museum.

Then he realized that even as a longtime basketball fan, he had never been to the Basketball Hall of Fame before, mainly because of its location. Other halls of fame lie scattered throughout the country — like the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., or the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. — but their locations prevent them from attracting more visitors and gaining wider renown.

“People just don’t know about them,” Schwalb said.

So Schwalb had an idea: Why not combine the highlights of all the sports halls of fame under one roof, and put that roof in the heart of the biggest city in the country?

“Wouldn’t people just love that?” Schwalb remembered thinking, excited about his brainstorm.

The next day was 9/11, putting all such thoughts on hold.

But in the days and weeks that followed, as Schwalb heard politicians and community leaders call for rebuilding Downtown, he decided what his piece would be: America’s first national sports museum. He wanted to celebrate the beauty and grandeur of sports, while at the same time adding a new attraction to draw people to Lower Manhattan.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. signed on to his idea in May 2002, and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff added his support several months later. Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame was the first sports partner to join Schwalb in 2003, and other supporters soon poured in. Then Schwalb received $52 million in tax-free Liberty Bonds, just over half of the $100 million he needed to raise. Another $5 million came from taxable bonds and he raised the rest from private donations, which include personal contributions from the leaders of Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.

The museum is now partnered with 62 sports organizations, including every single sports hall of fame in the country.

Schwalb does not see his museum as competition for the many halls of fame, but envisions a mutually beneficial relationship. After years of conversations, the halls of fame agreed to loan artifacts for Schwalb to display, providing about 80 percent of the exhibits. In return, Schwalb has earmarked $2.5 million annually for the other museums. He also plugs the halls of fame in an exhibit called the “Hall of Halls,” which tells visitors where to travel for a more in-depth look at any given sport.

The Sports Museum of America faced several delays in opening, as Schwalb worked to get funding and exhibits in place.

As Schwalb developed the exhibits, he wanted to add more sophisticated interactive features, which took time.

One example is in the hockey gallery, an exhibit that Schwalb calls the “goalie’s nightmare.” Visitors put on what looks like a goalie’s mask but is actually fitted out with a virtual reality video screen. The museum spent months with the New York Rangers, sticking tiny cameras on the goalie and recording real footage of pucks speeding toward him at 120 miles per hour. Safe and warm in the museum, visitors will have nearly the same experience that professional goalies have on the ice.

“It’ll really blow people away,” Schwalb said. “That’s our goal: to let you feel and see and touch things you wouldn’t ordinarily see.”

The ticket prices are steep — $27 for an adult — reflecting the expense of creating and maintaining such high-tech exhibits.

The museum’s leaders expect to draw 1 million visitors in the first year, about half of them from the New York metro area. School groups will provide a lot of traffic — in fact, the first members of the public to see the completed museum will be a group of 1,000 New York City school teachers.

Schwalb also hopes to tap into New York’s 46 million yearly visitors. He imagines that a trip to the Sports Museum will round out a tourist’s visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Visitors will see the museum’s 24-foot-high windows as they exit the ferries and head north from Battery Park.

Schwalb considers himself more of a sports fan than a player, though he has coached basketball for the Jewish Community Center and the YMCA. Attending Duke University cemented his love of basketball, and growing up with two parents from New York made him a diehard Mets fan. Just last week, Schwalb threw the first pitch at Shea stadium, an experience he calls “mind-blowing.”

Schwalb admits a slight bias at the museum toward New York’s home sports teams.

“Our first obligation as the nation’s first museum of sports was to do a good and fair job covering all sports and teams,” Schwalb said. “We needed to be impartial, but it was kind of difficult.” The museum has extra artifacts from the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants and Rangers. “If you’re a New York fan, you’ll be a little happier,” Schwalb added.

Admission will be $27 for adults ages 15 to 59, $24 for students and seniors, $20 for children 4 to 14 and free for children under 4. Starting May 7, the museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The tickets are timed, and the last ones are sold 90 minutes before closing.


Julie@DowntownExpress.com





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