A Cornell-educated champion bodybuilder and fixture of New York's famed late '80s/early '90s club scene, David Barton reinvented the fitness industry at a time when going to the gym was uncool. "There was a backlash from the big gym scene of the '80s, with Jane Fonda and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect," he explains. "I loved the gym, but the people I knew from the nightclubs wouldn't be caught dead there. I wanted to make it okay for cool people to go to the gym again." By shying away from neon, leg warmers and pretension, Barton managed to bring fitness back to Manhattan's underground culture with the opening of his first Chelsea gym in 1992.
The highly successful David Barton Gym outgrew its former home on Sixth Avenue and 15th Street long ago, but the answer to expansion was right under Barton's nose all along — literally. "I've looked out at the Y from my Chelsea Hotel window across the street for year. I've always dreamed about doing something with that building." Now, the landmark McBurney YMCA that inspired the Village People (and once housed Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Al Pacino) celebrates its 100th birthday by welcoming a new tenant, which celebrates its grand opening September 28. At 30,000 square feet, the gym has more than triple the space of the old location. "I want my gyms to speak the language of the neighborhood and clientele, and this place definitely has a classic downtown Chelsea vibe," Barton says.
"I wanted to create a fantasy of what the YMCA could've been like by mixing the old and the new," Barton begins. Along with architecture studio Bonetti/Kozerski — most noted for their work with Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg — Barton exposed the bare bones of the building and added modern textures, but kept many of the original details. "It's basically the old YMCA on acid," he laughs. "I wanted an energy that would get your heart pumping before you even hit the treadmill. But at the same time, I wanted people to feel at home, relaxed, like they were in their own living rooms." If your apartment contains multiple plasma screen TVS and floors made from Italian shoe leather, he's more than succeeded.
Aside from skylit yoga and fitness studios, the main level features seemingly endless rows of cardio machines and Life Fitness treadmills with built-in TV screens. Around the bend is Pure Juice and Takeaway, a raw cafe and juice bar from Pure Food and Wine's executive chef Matthew Kenney, and a retail area selling David Barton's exclusive Look Better Naked exercise apparel. Home to the salvaged exterior YMCA sign, the lower level boasts an expansive collection of Hammer Strength weight machines and has a mezzanine devoted to free weights and dumbbells. Along with faux sun and moonlight streaming through the windows, a DJ and dramatic graphic projections offer a full sensory experience. Climb the 100-year-old spiral staircase to access the locker rooms, featuring dark walnut locker doors and dream bathrooms with travertine marble and oversized shower heads. Next to the immaculate steam room is Barton's favorite amenity, the co-ed Russian Baths. A more comfortable cross between a dry sauna and a soggy steam room, these baths feature a river stone floor, porcelain subway tiles and amber mood-lighting. This little oasis is also the first in town to offer Bumble & Bumble hair products and the Malin and Goetz skin care line.
Boys make passes at guys who takes classes
Along with state-of-the-art equipment, DBG also prides itself on the reputation of personal trainers who share Barton's passion for body-sculpting. "I only hire those who look at personal training as a career," he explains, "not just a pit stop between acting jobs." And you won't find aerobics instructors or corny theme classes like strip-aerobics here — "If you want to be a stripper, go dance on a pole and get paid for it" — just basic, focused cardio geared to improve the body. Barton, a yoga enthusiast, has also entrusted yoga guru John Kavanaugh to head a unique program that requires separate membership. With an impressive average of eight years experience, Barton's handpicked instructors are the first in New York to offer Forrest Yoga, a challenging core-focused practice that's currently sweeping the West Coast.
Representin' and keepin' it real
With locations in Miami and on the Upper East Side open since 1995 — as well as branches opening in Chicago and in Midtown's Hudson Hotel next year — David Barton Gym seems poised to take over the fitness world. But, just as he originally started out as an alternative to those big commercial chains, Barton still has no desire to be on every corner. "I can't be everything to everybody," he concedes. "I want each place to be unique and special. Places like NYSC offer convenience, but I believe in quality over quantity."
Despite such high standards, David Barton Gym is still surprisingly affordable. Barton explains: "I open gyms for people with more taste than money." Even so, you're likely to see chic celebutantes like Amanda Lepore perspiring — nothing so vulgar as sweating — beside the likes of Susan Sarandon, Calvin Klein, Isabella Rossellini and P. Diddy. You might even spot Barton's wife, notorious party promoter Susanne Bartsch, or their 10-year-old son Bailey working out beside his proud pops. But Barton insists that his gym isn't merely a place to see and be seen. "It's a serious gym. Working out is a social activity in and of itself, but there's no cruising on the machines and guys checking out the action." Um, really? "Okay, there's some. But it's not overt." Guess we'll just have to see for ourselves.
HX, October 2004.