(Female) Members Only pix
Powell/Kleinschmidt updates the country's first athletic club for women
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 6/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Robert Kleinschmidt, partner of Powell/Kleinschmidt, restored three floors of the century-old Woman's Athletic Club of Chicago.
A 1929 article in Good Furniture & Decorating hails the building's opening.
In the sixth-floor changing room, stile and rail maple locker doors and existing stools that have been reupholstered heed the building's historic character.
The landmark building was built in 1929 by architect Philip Brooks Maher in an adapted French Second Empire style.
On the fifth floor, Kleinschmidt opened up a series of smaller spaces to create the spa's manicure room, with maple floor, brass chandeliers, and existing oval-back chairs, also reupholstered.
A floating maple floor and raised ceiling with cove lighting accommodate one of the sixth-floor dance studios.
The spa's reception area.
A steel-and-glass staircase rises to the mezzanine level of the eighth-floor exercise area; the rubber floor continues on the stair treads.
A vaulted corridor, lined with spa products, leads to the manicure room.
"By ladies for ladies" is the design mantra at the Woman's Athletic Club of Chicago, the first club of this type for women in the U.S., founded in 1898. It's perhaps surprising, then, that the club's current officers turned to designer Robert Kleinschmidt, partner of Powell/Kleinschmidt and Interior Design Hall of Fame member, to revamp the interiors of three of the club's eight floors.
The club counts some of society's most socially and professionally prominent as its members; Mrs. Philip D. Armour, wife of meatpacking magnate Philip D. Armour, was the first president. In 1929, the club moved into its own Michigan Avenue building—designed by equally prominent architect Philip Brooks Maher—its limestone exterior in an adapted French Second Empire style. Designated a landmark in 1991, areas of the interior were not only worn but also outdated, prohibiting the club from recruiting new, young members.
Thus, Kleinschmidt, who's known for clean, modern interiors, wasn't asked for a faithful historic restoration. Instead, he and Powell/Kleinschmidt senior architect Art Cantwell brought the club up to speed with what its members—and potential members—expect today.
A warren of rooms on the fifth floor was opened up to create a spa, with manicure and pedicure areas, maple floors, and a sophisticated color palette. The sixth floor received an updated locker room, two dance studios, and formal men's and women's washrooms serving the ballroom above. Shock-absorbing black rubber covers the floor of the exercise room on the club's top level. Its new mezzanine provides space for rows of Lifecycles, Precor cross-trainers, and fit-ness balls, sure to keep today's women members fit.
What were some of the design issues that were specific to the club?
It used to be that people would join a single club. But now there's an abundance of country, golf, and athletic clubs, so we really had to make the club appealing through enhancements that would further the pleasure of the entire membership. At the same time, we focused on areas that would generate revenue, like the spa, as well as function rooms.
What were the needs of its membership?
Many of the most prominent women in Chicago are members. They don't want the club to feel like a retail spa. They want it to be personal and private. For example, the changing rooms are along a corridor that leads to the massage rooms so you don't have to go through the main space on the way to your massage. There's also a quiet room, where you can wait without having to see everyone if you don't want to. The showers are spacious, and the bathrooms all have full-height doors. Throughout we also used existing antiques to establish a character that conveys traditional club luxury.
You're known for a more modern aesthetic. What was it like to work with a historic building?
This project wasn't a historic restoration, but a historic renovation, the difference being that we were informed by the building, rather than replicating what was there before. When we work with a historic building, we always adapt to it.
How did that play out in this case?
We took cues from what the building said to us, and made our color, material, and stylistic choices that way. We employed warm whites for the interior, which coordinate well with the exterior limestone. We paid careful attention to the hardware—it's all in brass or bronze—and installed more traditional stile and rail doors, instead of flush doors, on the lockers. Yet our sort of minimalism comes in with things like simple edging details around the vanities and subtle recessed lighting. It's all very carefully integrated and edited and mixed without seeming out of context with the existing building.
The building itself must have required some work.
We were very much interior architects, not just decorators. A lot of mechanical work was needed, and some of the spaces had gotten so chopped up and piecemeal over time that they lacked graciousness. On the fifth floor, that required opening up a large social space where members could gather with friends, have a manicure, pedicure, and so on. The club has an art deco ballroom that's really beautiful, but the prefunction washrooms weren't up to par, so we worked on those. On the eighth floor, there was an old squash court and other facilities that we demolished to create an airy gym with a new mezzanine for the latest workout equipment.
Why blue for the gym?
We needed variety and an uplifting color. I liked yellow, but the club felt it wouldn't be a flattering color. Blue, at the top of the building, creates a celestial sense.
Was it hard to provide a "woman's touch," not being a woman?
Well, we had a colleague in our office, Jenny Miller, who helped. She bonded with the officers of the club. They even offered her a membership. In a way, she became a model for what they wanted.
And what's that?
She's in her mid-30's, bright, smart, attractive, with a strong sense of style. And she has a business sense—she's not just a lady who lunches.