Rockwell Group and Colberg Architecture debut a tranquil retreat in New York, Bathhouse

Manhattan Oasis

light above bathhouse

In most of the world, people used to bathe together; it was almost unheard of to be wet, nude, and alone. In 21st-century New York City, it’s rare to be alone unless you’re in your bathroom. While the city does have a long history of bathhouses and spas, from the East Village Russian and Turkish Baths on East 10th Street to Korean jjimjilbangs like the much-missed Spa Castle in Queens, most have moved from the no-frills men’s club vibe toward buzzy takes on tradition. In the 1970s, gay men began populating traditional bathhouses from Harlem on down, turning them into sites of resistance for people tired of being told their bodies, and what they might do with them, are inherently filthy. But recently these spaces have become much more palatable for corporate tastes and takes on wellness and well-being.

angular archways to locker rooms in Bathhouse
Dramatic, angular archways lead to the men’s and women’s locker rooms (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

gray walls
The subterranean entrance sets the mood for the bathing experience (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

Sexy, if not sexualized, self-care is exemplified by Travis Talmadge and Jason Goodman’s Bathhouse concept. And it’s perhaps perfected at their first Manhattan location, for which the pair enlisted Rockwell Group to elevate the idea—or, given its previous life as a parking garage beneath West 22nd Street, take things deeper.

“In New York, going to spa requires a pivot and transition, because you’re in this very hectic environment,” said David Rockwell. After you check in on the ground-floor, a pair of illuminated arches signals your transition: a stairwell, surprisingly dark, descending to a floor offering labyrinthine men’s and women’s locker rooms. This level is also home to a cafe that accommodates both wellness and party vibes with a menu of toasts, juices, and cocktails. “I think those of us who work in cities find ways to embrace vertical circulation,” Rockwell said. “I’ve always been interested in stairs as delivery devices, but also as emotional things.” Here, the emotion is a kind of hushed wonder at what is to come, a not-inappropriate feeling for the moment before you get (mostly) naked with strangers.

baths
A 90-degree light makes for a futuristic steam room (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

red lights in sauna room
The dry sauna offers warm lighting and centers on a large bed of heated rock (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

An even further stairway leads to the heart of the place. Its quarter turns and changes in light do a lot of the lifting. “Working with a limited palette, just a shift in color temperature from slightly blue to very warm does make you feel like you’ve arrived at a destination,” Rockwell said. At Bathhouse, the destination is a thoughtful progression of six hot and cold pools, some illuminated by inverted pyramids filling the overhead space. On the perimeters, doors lead to ceremonial and infrared saunas, with recessed lighting that emphasizes their long cedar lines. There’s also a banya, whose beautifully simple stove forms a focal point; and an eerie steam room, where strip lights cause the 3D Danish tile to shimmer in the steam plumes, as if you’re sweating it out in a James Turrell installation.

bath is lit blue
Lit from above by pyramidal fixtures, each bath offers a unique gradation of both temperature and privacy (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

corridor to treatment room
The corridor for treatment rooms are designated with a warm, neon sign (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

It’s very razzmatazz, in its minimal way—very Rockwell. “The material palette is moody,” he said, “really just travertine, fluted glass, stone, concrete, and patinated metals.” Ancient in spirit yet speaking to the moment, Bathhouse flatters the very New York impulse to look inward and look good doing it, or at least do it in a good-looking space. To be sure, some elements need to catch up to contemporary NYC. On my Tuesday afternoon visit, the clientele encompassed wide swaths of gender expressions, physiques, ages, and levels of peacockery. Gender-binary bathrooms go back as far as bathhouses themselves and aren’t just an American hang-up, but hopefully before long they’ll seem as backwards as the Reduc-o-matic portable tub.

stove heating up the baths in Bathhouse
In the banya, room, a beautifully simple stove acts as the focal point (Adrian Gaut and Emily Andrews)

Soon enough, water may be a luxury in and of itself—not to mention the energy for the heating and cooling of that water. At Bathhouse Flatiron, the heat is provided via Bitcoin mining, which feels both ridiculously contemporary and a bubble as ready to burst as those pumped into the pools themselves. Best not to think about it, perhaps. It makes sense that we’re longing for quiet moments of contemplation, or maybe of avoiding contemplation, to gather strength for the pivots and transitions on the horizon. After a few hours of spectacular rejuvenation, it might feel like no sweat at all.