By now, every lifestyle rag in the
city country world has written about Aire Ancient Baths, the 16,000-square-foot bathhouse at 88 Franklin, but I’ve been waiting till I could actually test the waters (pun intended). While it has some kinks to work out, it’s pretty spectacular. A friend used to joke about the tribathalon—sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi—and he’d be in a very wet heaven here. Start training for the heptabathalon!
Parent company Grupo Aire made a practice of seeking out historical buildings for its other three bathhouses in Spain, and PR rep Silvia Barnett said they only had a few neighborhoods to choose from when they decided to open here. The 1883 building they landed on was once a textile factory, and more recently, it was a gallery/studio. But the space required $10 million dollars’ worth of work: Everything was stripped away to reveal the brick walls, wood-beam ceilings, and cast-iron columns. The benches in the reception area—on the ground floor, along with the locker rooms—were made from beams that were removed during construction. Silvia says they learned that they came from scaffolding during the construction of the Triborough Bridge.
The second floor contains an area for rituals (fancier private baths with themes like wine or olive oil) and VIP massages; as a Self-Important Blogger, I did not venture there. The main bathing area is in the most glamorous basement ever. It’s one huge room, with ceilings that must be at least 20 feet high. Candles, many of which are in Moroccan lanterns, are everywhere.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First, you have to reserve. Go to the Aire Ancient Baths website to see which two-hour windows are available for a given date. If you opt for a massage, it’ll be sometime within your time window. (I asked once I was there when to expect my 60-minute massage—at the start? at the end?—but it’s not as if there are clocks everywhere so you might as well just relax and forget about it. They’ll come for you when they’re ready.) If you have a gender preference for your massage therapist, you’ll want to call, although they can’t make any guarantees. The scheduling system is computerized to maximize the number of people who can be in the facility without anyone feeling crowded. Silvia says the very maximum you might see in the main area would be around 30 people, which wouldn’t be an imposition unless they were loud. (Silvia said that because there weren’t many people there when I went, they didn’t ask guests to be quiet, but if it’s crowded they’d remind people upon arrival that bathing is a multisensory experience.)
You arrive. You check in. You’re handed a waterproof bracelet that locks your locker and indicates which treatment, if any, you’re getting. You’re directed to your locker room, where an attendant shows you around. You change into your swimsuit (they sell them, too), robe, and slippers. The slippers—a sort of stretchy terrycloth—are to be worn at all times, even in the water. You’re then handed off to someone who walks you downstairs and shows you around. It’s a lot of hand-holding for something that’s fairly intuitive—locker bracelets aside—but so it goes. The baths are all co-ed.
And then you go from pool to pool to pool. The “calderium” is 102 degrees. The tiny twin “frigidarium” pools are 50 and 57 degrees. The “tepidarium” is a body-temp-ish 97 degrees. The salt pool is divine for floating in. The glassed-in pool with jets is a welcome respite from the Middle Eastern music, but the water is like a Class V rapid. There’s also a glassed-in steam room and a bank of warm stones where you can sit and sip tea or water. Some people might hear the world “bathhouse” and think of activities friskier than towel-snapping, but nothing like that is going to happen inside Aire Ancient Baths. Black-clad staffers are everywhere. I wasn’t wearing my glasses most of the time, so they looked like Death Eaters hovering in the shadows.
I was lounging in one of the tepidarium’s lovely shallow areas when a Death Eater approached. “We’re ready for you now,” she whispered. I was led to one of the massage rooms in the main bath area, where another therapist awaited. (When Silvia realized I was coming, she had upgraded me to a “four-handed massage”—not my favorite thing, but what are you going to do?) The massage was more of the gentle-rub variety, but it was quite enjoyable even if being massaged while wet and wearing a swimsuit felt decidedly odd. Up till then, a hand or two reaching up my swimsuit only meant one thing….
All of that is neither here nor there, my own neuroses—and my particular need for something to write about—barging in on an otherwise delightful afternoon. I did mention kinks, however, and I bring them up in the spirit of either helping Aire Ancient Baths iron them out or to let you know what to expect. First, my wristband wouldn’t stay on, which became a stress point. During the massage, one of the therapists finally removed it—even she was annoyed by it. Second, the restrooms are up in the locker rooms, which strikes me as a substantial design flaw. Third, there was grit in the pools. Silvia said it’s from construction and normal at opening time, that the water washing over all the marble will take care of it very soon. It didn’t bother me—it never felt dirty—but I imagine others will feel differently. Finally, and I think this is most crucial because something like Aire Ancient Baths must be perceived as clean, nobody suggests that you shower before you get in the water. I’m not fussy about where I swim, but even I think pre-showering should be encouraged, or better yet, insisted upon. The facility doesn’t allow anyone under 21, but it’s not as if we all haven’t known some filthy adults in our time.
Aire Ancient Baths is at 88 Franklin (between Church and Broadway), 212-274-3777; ancientbathsny.com. Bathing sessions start at $75.
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