What do you save? That’s what Brett Abrams wants to know.
He’s a local historian and author of “Capital Sporting Grounds: A History of Stadium and Ballpark Construction in Washington, DC.” He loves old sports buildings even more than I do. Today he’s leading me on a tour of the city’s sports facilities, built and unbuilt, still standing and long gone.
Part of that tour finds us walking down W Street NW, between 13th and 14th Sts., trying to find something/anything that’ll match up with the Library of Congress image we have of Turner’s Arena. It’s one of the long goners.
But we know it was somewhere on this block. We’re not having any luck pinpointing the spot.
And that just seems wrong.
“They should have saved something,” Abrams says. “You have to save something with these places.”
Turner’s Arena was an important building. The wrestling empire known as WWE started there. Vincent J. McMahon, the father of the current rasslin’ impresario Vince McMahon, got huge in the 1950s by filming weekly shows and syndicating them throughout the Eastern Seaboard. A 1965 Washington Post article on the demolition of Turner’s Arena said that “every wrestler from Gorgeous George to Bruno Samartino” appeared there.
Mrs. Harry Truman was a big fan of the shows the elder McMahon filmed at Turner’s.
“The late Edward R. Murrow on his ‘Person to Person’ show once asked Mrs. Truman, upon her return to Independence, what she missed most in Washington,” reads the Post’s Turner’s obit. “‘Wrestling on television,’ she replied.”
It was the site of some of the first big integrated basketball games in the city. Elgin Baylor and his all-black club team, Stonewall AC, trounced teams of white high school and college stars, including Maryland Terp and future NBA vet Gene Shue. Patsy Cline appeared there with Connie B. Gay’s groundbreaking weekly country music revue show, “Town and Country Time Jamboree,” which began on WMAL-TV in 1956, when the building was known as Capitol Arena. Turner’s had the first black manager of a U.S. arena, James Dudley.
But, for all its history, there’s nothing obvious to let Abrams and me know exactly where it was. We both agree Turner’s Arena deserved more than to just disappear. I figure its disappearance is among the big reasons that Washington, DC gets none of the credit it deserves for being the home of modern professional wrestling. Sure, it was a niche form of entertainment back then. But, Nashville didn’t just tear down the Ryman when it became obsolete, did it?
When the wrecking ball hit Turner’s, they must have taken every brick off the premises. Finally, we match an alley in the Library of Congress photograph to an alley off W St. We match a building deep in the background of the photo to a structure that’s still standing. A-ha! We guess that the western end of Turner’s Arena was what is now the western end of the Anthony Bowen YMCA building now sits. But even that building is now surrounded by fencing and barbed wire; the YMCA is on its way out, too.
“So the sports building that replaced the sports building is already obsolete,” Abrams says.
I feel stupid for feeling sad about a building that I never even saw when it was around. But I feel sadder than stupid.