Chicago is no stranger to the pickleball scene, holding bragging rights to the Major League Pickleball Challenger Level Champion Chicago Slice. Last year, the entertainment company C3 Presents donated $500,000 to the Chicago Park District for the purpose of building new pickleball courts and refurbishing old tennis courts.
In 2020, a group of real estate developers purchased an old, unused structure and transformed it into an event space for weddings, parties, and pickleball. The building first opened in 1948 as a Catholic school for boys. When a new campus was built, the space was taken over by Walter Payton High School until 2019.
The following year, Luke Blahnik and several other developers purchased the building, located in Chicago’s River North section. Their original intention was to add a large hotel above the property. After the coronavirus pandemic put an end to those plans, they remodeled the building to be used for social and corporate events.
Now known as School House Chicago, the venue features 35,000 square feet of space. The classrooms offer a perfect place for meetings and other events. The former principal’s office serves as a restaurant featuring pizza, salads, beer, wine, and coffee.
There’s even a gallery containing a vast array of antiques from around the world collected by local art dealer Stuart Grannen. Known as the Patron of Salvage, Grannen’s collection is available for visitors to shop and explore.
During the renovation planning process, Blahnik and his group decided to convert part of the old gymnasium into pickleball courts.
“We were measuring one day, thinking we could put pickleball in the gym. Some of the partners on the project played pickleball, so we figured out that we could fit three courts sideways across the gym and we put those courts in. They’ve been in shockingly high demand.”Luke Blahnik, Owner of the School House Chicago
All three courts are climate-controlled and can be booked with pricing for peak hours, off-peak hours, and private events. The space is small (there’s two feet behind the baseline on each side before reaching a padded wall), and the floors are polished concrete. The idea is to create a social atmosphere rather than a competitive one.
“It’s not meant high-end end play,” Blahnik explained. “It’s more leisure. Because of our hospitality components, our drinks and food, most of our pickleball events and parties are paired with some sort of restaurant experience.”
Visitors can have food brought into the gym and eat on vintage Argentine sofas while playing. Instructors are on hand for those who want to learn the sport. Chicago Sport and Social, a club that hosts tournaments and leagues, offers pickleball leagues mainly geared toward young singles.
The courts have been in high demand since being installed. Blahnik estimates bookings are split 50/50 between hourly foursomes wanting a single court and groups reserving all three. Weekday evenings and weekend days are the most popular times for bookings.
The School House provides free parking and offers the use of paddles, balls, and nets. Players are asked to wear tennis shoes while using the courts. The venue has also partnered with Toss and Spin, a local racket provider, to host pickleball classes.
“This sport is still in such a phase of people being introduced to it,” Blahnik said. “If we can be the liaison between people and the sport, it’s really neat we can do that in an indoor environment.”
Of all its events, pickleball is fast becoming the most popular. Blahnik believes this is a result of the sport’s rapid growth and the ease with which people can come and play.
“From a budget standpoint, we’ve made (the events) approachable. We just want people to come enjoy the building and be exposed to the sport. It’s served a dual purpose. There’s a symbiotic relationship between us bringing people into a new building, exposing them to our hospitality offerings and people playing pickleball.”Luke Blahnik, Owner of the School House Chicago
A structure that was once an educational institution is now a unique blend of culture and social interaction. The fact that pickleball has become an integral part of the experience fascinates Blahnik.
“The space continues to change and become something new every time,” he explained. “People come back, explore happily over and over again. For pickleball specifically, it’s been interesting to see the diversity of user, age and appeal of the sport. It universally appeals to everybody.”
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