Racquet Club happy to rub salt in its Sandy wounds

Photo courtesy of N.Y.H.R.C. The new saltwater pool at the New York Health & Racquet Club’s Whitehall St. location.

Photo courtesy of N.Y.H.R.C.
The new saltwater pool at the New York Health & Racquet Club’s Whitehall St. location.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  More than a year after Hurricane Sandy, there’s still saltwater inside the New York Health & Racquet Club on Whitehall St.

But it’s not East River overflow; instead, that water — along with swarms of happy members — now fills the gym’s beautifully renovated pool.

The 60-foot saltwater pool and its accompanying whirlpools, which reopened several weeks ago in their original underground area, were part of a $3 million-plus reconstruction that has marked the club’s many-faceted triumph over the trials of Sandy.

“It was kind of heartbreaking at first,” said Kim Manocherian N.Y.H.R.C. president and C.E.O., recalling the 20 feet of flooding that rocked the Whitehall gym — a disaster compounded by the fact that previous renovations to that location (one of the club’s nine total in Manhattan, and which first opened in 1987) had taken place just a year prior to the storm.

“But after Sandy hit,” she continued during a tour, “there was never a conversation over what we should do, or whether we should stay or leave. We knew we were staying, and we knew we just had to get started on rebuilding.”

Although the weights and workout machines on the upper floors had been left unharmed, that flooding badly damaged its three lower levels — not only the bottom-floor pool area, but also the ground-level locker rooms, and the sauna, steam room and showers just below. It was going to be a big job, but planning began almost immediately.

And before the actual rebuilding even took place, the center initially reopened its doors just eleven days after the storm, allowing members to continue their workout routines upstairs while using converted squash courts as temporary locker rooms. In addition, non-members who needed a place to charge their cell phones or laptops were also welcomed into the space.

“We did that because it’s a real community here,” said Debbie Newell-Antler, the Whitehall club’s general manager. “It was a great feeling for so many of the members to come here each morning, even after they’d been displaced from home or work, to see their friends and regain some sense of normalcy in their lives after the disaster.”

In the months following, the gym worked with architect Frank Denner — a frequent partner of the club, and one who has designed numerous other health clubs across the U.S. — to begin the long road to recovery, with Manocherian and Val Paese, the firm’s V.P. of facilities and construction, overseeing the job.

The locker rooms, sauna and steams rooms were completed this past May, with plenty of style and a number of fresh upgrades. But additional months of painstakingly detailed work went into the austere-yet-impressive, white-tiled pool area, which with Manocherian hoped to instill a “feeling of old New York.”

And the saltwater in the pool is certainly an upgrade as well, since it offers a more natural, less irritating experience than chlorinated water — and, fortunately for those fashionable New Yorkers with colored hair, it doesn’t bleach.

The pool finally reopened in January, to the delight of members. And for Manocherian, who carries forward the “members first” vision that first took root when her father founded N.Y.H.R.C. in 1973, putting in that extra time and effort was never up for debate.

“You either do it right, or you don’t do it at all,” she said. “There’s no in-between.”

And thinking ahead to resiliency against future storms, Manocherian — whose family also owns the 39 Whitehall St. building — said that the building has since invested in a $200,000 “Aqua Fence,” which can be deployed around the structure as a barrier against flood surges. Some other firms in Lower Manhattan, like the Howard Hughes Corporation, have pursued similar protective measures over the past year.

Meanwhile, the celebration of post-Sandy success isn’t over yet for the Whitehall club’s 5,000 members. The location will, in honor of the complete reopening, host a “Day at the Beach” party on Mar. 12, featuring food and other festivities.

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