In the decades that separated its brilliant past from its uncertain future, the Chelsea Piers suffered neglect and disuse.
The rusting steel buildings echoed with seagull cries and occasional oaths as mechanics struggled to save another truck in what had become a city Sanitation Department garage.
On spring days the smell of diesel, cigarette smoke and oily rags would waft across the West Side Highway into the streets of Chelsea. In the summer, pleasure boaters on the Hudson River cruised by the dormant piers and rows of blackened posts jutting from the water like rotten teeth.
To see potential in the broken windows and crumbling buildings took vision. To make it a six-block, 30-acre sports complex took $100 million and perseverance.
Today, Chelsea Piers is without peer in a city that boasts of being all things to all people. Visitors can play hockey, lacrosse, soccer or basketball, rollerblade, board, bowl, rock-climb, jog, bike, work out, swim, dance, bat, golf, dine or spa.
So, if you're going to be in town and think you might need a break from the hustle-bustle, grab your gym bag or your clubs and head west. If it's the weekend, a holiday or school vacation, be prepared for lots of kids, but if it's a weekday, the place might be pretty much yours.
There were only a dozen or so people waiting for public skating to begin on a drizzly Monday morning in March. A plaque outside West Rink (the one nearest the Hudson River atop Pier 61) says it is home to the Skating Club of New York, the second oldest skating club in the United States and one of the founding members of the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
The pair of indoor rinks has decent views of the Hudson River, and there are bleachers in East Rink for the hockey matches. It's also a good spot to watch skaters train with private coaches.
A tired skater sighed as her coach waved her over after a jump that didn't work just right.
"OK, that was good, but the next time, don't put so much weight on that back leg when you land," he told her. "Your arms were perfect that time."
Ice time, as in most cities (or suburbs, for that matter), is at a premium in Manhattan, and the need for it led an entrepreneur to explore the possibility of moving an indoor rink into an unused pier. The rest is a really long story (it's available along with a lot of other information at www.chelseapiers.com) that culminated in a new ice rink. Well, actually two new ice rinks. And a bowling alley, two roller rinks, a day spa, an 80,000-square-foot field house and a sports center the length of three football fields, a brew pub, a burger joint, a driving range and more.
Since its opening five years ago, Chelsea Piers has been called the "Miracle on 23rd Street" (Manhattan magazine), a "mega-mall of health and fitness" (The New York Times), "the most nearly complete sports and fitness center in the known universe" (Gourmet magazine) and "the ultimate urban playground" (The London Sunday Times).
Visitors are welcome to try one, a few, or all the sports options at Chelsea Piers. There are special rates and hours at each venue, or visitors can purchase a day pass, Silver or Gold Passport (at $35 and $60, respectively), which is good for admission to all venues for one day. The Gold Passport includes a day pass to the Sports Center, a state-of-the-art gym facility with a quarter-mile jogging track, extensive cardio- and strength-training equipment, fitness classes, rock-climbing wall, a cafe and more.
Vacationers might consider a day or afternoon at Chelsea Piers as a respite from sightseeing and a chance to stretch out. Its clean, wide-open spaces, water views and breezes contrast nicely with a city accustomed to doing most of its living, working, dining and playing in elevator-size spaces.
WALK THROUGH HISTORY
When the piers opened in 1910 they were heralded as "one of the most remarkable waterfronts in the history of municipal improvements" by The New York Times.
More than a dozen 20-foot-tall black-and-white photos depict Chelsea Piers -- then nine piers -- in its cruise ship heyday. Although the pink granite façades were removed in the 1960s, the piers still have a certain grandeur of design and spaciousness.
The piers were built to be a grand shipping terminus.
The luxury liners of the White Star and Cunard lines, including the Lusitania and Mauretania, docked here; immigrants caught their first glimpse of the new world here before boarding ferries for Ellis Island; and it was here that throngs awaited news of the overdue Titanic in 1912.
The wall-size photos that line the promenade connecting the piers also show soldiers leaving and returning from World Wars I and II, actress Gloria Swanson on a luxury cruise and Jesse Owens returning in triumph from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
"Then in 1958, nearly all trans-Atlantic passenger ship travel came to a halt, when daily commercial jet service to Europe began. After that, the piers were used almost exclusively for cargo handling until 1967, when the last big tenants, the Grace and United States lines, relocated to New Jersey. Chelsea Piers' shipping days were over," explains a page of history at www.chelseapiers.com.
The once proud piers became maintenance garages, storage facilities and abandoned buildings and remained so until the 1990s when a plan surfaced to bring the people back to the waterfront.
If you're thinking of visiting the piers, hop a cab, bus or subway to 23rd Street and the West Side Highway. Here's how the piers are laid out: