Shanin Specter, who met his wife playing squash, said his late father loved the racket sport so much that he often joked that nothing on his crowded U.S. Senate schedule was as significant as his daily hour on the court.
"He played for most of his life, nearly every day," Specter said recently during an interview in his Center City law offices. "When he was in the Senate he liked to say, 'I used to say squash was the most important thing I do every day. Now I say squash is the only important thing I do every day.' "
Now, six years after his death, the politician's name has been affixed to a $40 million project that supporters say not only will make Philadelphia the capital of American squash but will help democratize what traditionally has been an aristocratically-flavored pursuit.
On Drexel University's rapidly changing campus, a historic armory is being transformed into the Arlen Specter U.S. Squash Center. The goal is an October 2020 opening, in time to host that year's national championships.
The 40,000-square-foot facility, near Market Street between 32nd and 33rd Streets, will be the site of major tournaments as well as the national training center for a sport that could be added to the Olympic roster in time for the 2024 Games in Paris.
"If it's designated, and we believe it's very close, this will become the official U.S. Olympic Committee training center. That gives us the ability to fly the rings over the center," said Drexel president John Fry, himself an avid player and the former chairman of U.S. Squash's board.
Built 102 years ago on a site where in the 1740s Ben Franklin raised a regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, the cavernous building will house 18 singles and 2 doubles courts, the relocated headquarters of U.S. Squash, a Hall of Fame, a café, and spectator areas. It also will host a multifaceted urban squash program aimed at introducing the sport to West Philadelphia youngsters.
"For decades we've been asking: Can squash grow?" said Ned Edwards, a Penn grad, U.S. Squash Hall of Famer and the project's executive director. "Well, it is growing, especially among juniors. But this is a more democratic way for us to manage this growth. We can go to public schools in West Philadelphia and get across the socio-economic spectrum. There's an appetite for it."
According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, there are 3,700 courts and 1.1 million squash players in the U.S., many in Philadelphia where the sport's overseeing body, U.S. Squash, was founded in 1904.
Although squash is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, more than 40 colleges have varsity teams — including Penn, Drexel and Haverford. And squash's footprint is growing. While most collegiate programs are in the Northeast, schools like Stanford and Virginia recently added them.
Traditionally a fringe sport here, U.S. squash and its participants remain in the shadows of countries like Egypt, Pakistan and England, where it's far more popular. It's a gap officials hope the new center will narrow.
"We've got more junior squash players than almost anywhere in the world," Edwards said. "But our players can't get very far in [international] tournaments. The women are making inroads, but our men can't get past the second round. Countries where it's been a cultural thing for longer just crush us.
"American kids are nice athletes and know how to win. But there's been no leadership or mentorship. There's no one benchmarking their progress, no national coach to help. We haven't had the mechanism to get them further. This center is our chance to catch up."
Also, as part of an ongoing national initiative aimed at broadening its appeal in urban areas, the center will offer classrooms and tutors to look after the academic needs of neighborhood kids drawn to squash.
"They'll get lots of attention and care," Edwards said. "With 20 courts so close, they'll be exposed to so much squash. And it will be available year-round. They can have a meal, get help with schoolwork or college applications."
Specter, a trim, bespectacled 60-year-old, said the idea for the center was born in 2013. A joint project of U.S. Squash, Drexel, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and private donors, 96 percent of the $40 million funding is in place, he said.
According to Fry, the initial gift — "the largest in squash history," he said — came from Specter and wife, Tracey. Pennsylvania, which leases the facility to Drexel, authorized $12.5.million. The boards of Drexel and U.S. Squash approved the project.
"It's a big ask to put together $40 million for anything new," Specter said. "It's been a lot of work but there's been a great response in Philadelphia. Most of the money was raised here."
The project's key element was the vast and foreboding armory. Listed on the National Historic Registry since 1991, it had become something of a white elephant on the campus, its distinctive 16-foot windows cemented up.
"It looked like the kind of scary place where they stored nuclear material or something," said Edwards.
While a portion was used by a Pennsylvania National Guard unit, its primary function was as a venue for intramural sports. Had a 1998 Drexel study turned out differently, the building close to the Daskalakis Athletic Center might have been unavailable.
"Drexel was thinking about converting it into its new basketball arena," Fry said. "But a feasibility study determined they'd have to invest at least $90 million. And that was in 1998 dollars."
Now a pair of bubble arenas will be constructed on campus to house the displaced activities. The university has subleased the armory to U.S. Squash, which will operate it.
Currently, workers are restoring its striking façade. Work on the interior is expected to begin in March.
Eighteen glass-encased courts will line the armory's north and south walls. Two main exhibition courts and spectator seating will run down its center. A café, the Hall of Fame and U.S. Squash offices — both now in New York — will surround it all.
A U.S. Squash economic study estimated that the center will create 90 permanent jobs and $23 million in annual economic activity for Philadelphia.
Most of that would be generated by participants and visitors to the national and regional tournaments its creators envision. Those events, Specter said, typically have been held in cities where, because of a lack of sufficient courts and infrastructure, the activities tended to be spread over a wide geographical area.
"This is going to become the epicenter of squash in the country, and the economic impact on Philadelphia is going to be huge," Fry said. "There are going to be thousands of people coming in and out when there are tournaments. The train station is just down the street. The nearby hotels, the restaurants will be filled."
The hope, said Specter, is that the center's opening will add some distinctiveness to a city that could always use a little more.
"How many things do we do better here than anywhere in the country?" he asked. "There are a handful — the Curtis Institute, the Barnes Foundation, Children's Hospital. We really think that this will be something to add to that very short list."