February 1, 2011

Look Better Naked: David Barton Gym by Studio Sofield

Anderson Cooper, Nate Berkus, and this reporter can’t all be wrong. The David Barton Gym rocks. And it’s not just the Kiss and T. Rex tracks the DJs spin at the latest New York location while the three of us are working out. . .separately. At 37,000 square feet of smoky mirror and amber lighting, this gym stands out in a city where health clubs often resemble health clinics. “So many other gyms are about fluorescents and Clorox,” Interior Design Hall of Fame member William Sofield­ says. Yes, he lifts here, too. Of his five David Barton Gyms in New York, Miami Beach, Chicago, and Seattle­, this one was always destined to be the most personal. He’s lived in the neighborhood for decades, and Studio Sofield is based here.

To David Barton himself, the new location—four levels in a venerable cast-iron building—suggested 1980’s punks squatting in an abandoned church. “I’m obsessed with scale and mood,” he says, pointing out the window to the rusting fire escapes and heavy black shutters of an ancient courtyard. “I hope they never fix that up.” Not that he and Sofield don’t continue to “fix up” the gym interior, an ongoing dialogue. One mural has already been repainted elsewhere for greater visibility, and a pair of highly stylized skeleton chairs disappeared to make way for a snack bar.

Sofield proposed the “bat cave” concept for the men’s locker room in the subbasement, where contractors ultimately removed truckloads of useless pipe and outmoded electrical equipment before painting some of the old brick foundation bronze and other parts brown. Both the men’s lockers and the women’s, on the next basement level up, are walnut-veneered and arranged in bays with vermillion-gelled fluorescents washing the ceiling and a tribal motif on the carpet. The glamour of onyx counters “undercuts the sleaze,” he notes.

Wherever possible, he avoids plain painted plasterboard. Asked for a boxing area, he instantly thought: flocked wall covering. “David smiled immediately,” he recalls. The fuzzy black-and-white brocade pattern also covers walls in the adjacent corridor, where a niche frames a life-size lawn sculpture of Michelangelo’s David. Flooring in most of the corridors is engineered wood with a surface of carbonized larch brushed to reveal virgin springwood. The same planks extend into the basement Pilates studio that Sofield describes as a “Zen dungeon.”

The David isn’t the only kitsch trophy. Almost all Barton’s gyms have a DJ booth, and Sofield suggested housing it inside a giant disco ball. “I don’t know why I never thought of that,” Barton replied. “I’ve got one in storage.” This relic of the Tuesday parties that his wife, “Queen of the Night” Susanne Bartsch, used to host at the Happy Valley dance club turned out to be the perfect size to park on a stagelike platform left over from the gym’s predecessor, Barnes & Noble. The platform is roughly in the center of the wedge-shape top level, by far the largest of the four.

One corner, the former children’s reading room, now features the bench presses and free-weight circuits that Barton calls the “clanking iron of World War III.” He explains that the steel ballet bar around the perimeter keeps the action a safe distance from the antique heating system set below the huge old windows: “So someone doesn’t sit on a hot radiator pipe or fling a dumbbell out.” Down the middle of the floor marches a row of structural columns supporting colossal mirrors with charred-looking Goth frames. Anyone standing in front of the mirrors benefits from theatrical spots that highlight every bulge, whether muscle or fat. “If you can’t see it, you can’t isolate and move it,” Sofield argues. Gelled fluorescents, meanwhile, imbue the ceiling with the mystery of black light, even though the actual paint colors are aubergine and smoky cocoa.

He chose high-gloss ultramarine for the ceiling in the lofty lobby. You might not immediately guess that the point of departure for the lobby’s industrial beaux arts aesthetic is the Park Avenue Armory, featuring interiors by Stanford White and Louis Comfort Tiffany. However, reverence didn’t stop Sofield from wrapping the lobby’s columns­ in hardware-store sisal rope or handing workers circular saws to widen gaps between 10-inch-wide oak floorboards reclaimed from a Virginia army barracks. Furnishings include an ornate­ antique sideboard from the Black Forest and a turn-of-the-last-century grandfather clock surmounted by a Russian vintage Father Christmas in a flowing red cloak. Year-round.

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