- Russian and Turkish Baths is a health club in New York City’s East Village neighbourhood.
- Open since 1892, the bathhouse serves as a meeting place for the city’s Russian and Jewish enclaves – and a hotspot for celebrities, millennials, businessmen, and tourists.
- For over 30 years, the Baths have been owned by two Russian émigrés who manage the facilities on alternating weeks.
Step through the tenement door on 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked through a time warp.
Open since 1892, the Russian and Turkish Baths is about as old New York as it gets. The institution has survived wave after wave of tumultuous change in the city, it’s grimy come-whoever spirit intact.
The baths have played host to New York royalty, including actor Robert De Niro and the late singer Frank Sinatra. More often, it has been a meeting place for the city’s Russian and Jewish enclaves. Lately, it has attracted a new crowd of adventurous tourists and Brooklyn millennials.
Since 1985, the bathhouse has been owned by two Russian émigrés, Boris Tuberman and David Shapiro, who run the business under an unusual arrangement. After the two men realised they hated running a business together, they decided to split the baths. Each month is now split between “Boris weeks” and “David weeks.” Besides sharing utilities and repair costs, the businesses operate separately.
Though the clientele has changed over the years, the bathhouse remains one of the few, true melting pots in the city. A day pass to the Baths costs $US48, while a three-month pass has a price tag of $US600.
We visited the baths on a recent Monday afternoon – on a “David week” – to see what we could find in the steam.
Originally called the Tenth Street Baths, the bathhouse has been open in Manhattan’s East Village since 1892. In the early 1900s, the baths were a popular place for the Lower East Side’s immigrant population. Few apartments had bathtubs at the time.
Tuberman and Shapiro purchased the building and the business in 1985 for $US850,000. Shapiro’s son Dmitry, who now runs his father’s side of the business, said the two were looking for a job where they could be their own bosses. Shapiro had spent the previous five years as a taxi driver.
The baths weren’t exactly an attractive buy at the time. The AIDs crisis was in full swing and the city was trying to shut down all the bathhouses, as many had become central to the gay swinging scene.
The Russian and Turkish Baths were a mess when Shapiro and Tuberman bought them. The building was falling apart, the roof was caving in, and there were hardly any clients left. But the men liked the fact that they were the only baths in town, Shapiro said.
“Everybody thought we were stupid,” the elder Shapiro told The Wall Street Journal in 1997.
Tuberman and Shapiro quickly found they had completely different philosophies on how to run a business. Within a few years, they decided to split the business and alternate weeks.
The split business produces some complications. Shortly after I arrived at the Baths, a young woman came in with a pass for a “Boris week.” Shapiro had to explain to the confused woman that she would either need to buy another pass or come the following week.
He said that happens from time to time and most people are understanding.
Because of their unusual management schedule, Shapiro hauls in his computers, his point-of-sale system, his merchandise, and his muds and scrubs, every other week.
Shapiro has also put the Baths on Groupon and other e-commerce sites to generate more business. But if someone tries to use a Groupon on a “Boris week,” they’re out of luck.
Tuberman still operates with pen and paper and refuses to do any promotion.
“It’s a very bizarre way to run a business. I don’t think anyone else would do it,” Shapiro said.
Like many New York institutions, the walls are lined with magazine features and photos of its most famous guests. The list is dizzying, including classic stars like Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, John Belushi, Mick Jagger, and Bill Murray, and current celebs like Matthew McConaughey, Shailene Woodley, and Sam Worthington.
Aside from some minor renovations and repairs, the Baths haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, when this flyer was put out.
The biggest change Tuberman and Shapiro enacted was making the spa open to both men and women, one of the first in the city to do so. For a while, the locker room was co-ed too, but that led to a lot of creative costume changes.
In the mid-1990s, the duo made two separate locker rooms to accommodate the growing female clientele.
As the interest in spas and bathhouses has grown, so too has the female clientele. Shapiro estimated that crowd is now split 60/40 men to women, necessitating them to build a second women’s locker room upstairs.
After entering, you’re given a locker key, a small towel, shorts, and a bathrobe. Don’t be expecting a terry cloth robe — the thin black cotton robe provided is about function, not luxury.
The baths are in the basement. Pick up some slippers — they come in two sizes, 9 and 12 — and head downstairs.
On my visit, the crowd is a mix of neighbourhood locals, longtime veterans, newbie millennials redeeming Groupons, and the occasional tourist. But the general atmosphere is welcoming and comfortable. “It’s very social. I don’t know how to not talk while I’m getting steam,” said Shapiro.
Brendan Lorbach, a day trader, started coming to the Baths eight years ago after getting hooked on bathhouses during a vacation in Europe. He’s been coming once a week to “sweat out the toxins” ever since.
Like most of the regulars I talked to, Lorbach said he doesn’t really care whether Tuberman or Shapiro are running the show – he comes either way.
When I asked the regulars the difference between the two operations, they said Tuberman’s crowd tends to be a little more old-school Russian. When one regular suggested that Tuberman makes the saunas hotter and the pool colder – a sentiment repeated ad nauseam in past articles – it precipitated a genial argument.
One regular leaned over to me and said, “That used to be true, but the heat was destroying the pipes so Dmitry had to ask him to turn it down.”
Dennis Gronim, a retired industrial tools distributor, has been coming everyday since a musician friend introduced him in 1989. “It’s the best place in New York,” he told Business Insider. “There’s no attitude.”
Gronim, who is also a popular YouTuber, said that when he first started coming to the Baths, the crowd was primarily “Russians and older guys.”
Now more than 25 years later, he said he’s seen the clientele change several times, but non-judgmental ethos of the place has stayed the same.
“You see tattooed guys, businessmen, college grads, Hasidic Jews, and Jamaicans all hanging out and talking with a level of respect. We accept each other for who we are,” he said.
Within a couple minutes of talking, Gronim offered me his homemade “salt scrub” — a mixture of kosher salt, table salt, grapeseed oil, olive oil, and coconut oil. He handed me the container as he left. “It will have you feeling soft as a puppy’s belly and smelling like a coconut cookie,” he said. I gave it a try.
But first I took a quick shower. The Baths draw a huge crowd of Brooklyn millennials on the weekends, according to Shapiro. He said he used to be surprised when the crowd came, but now he cultivates it with Groupons and a regular email newsletter.
There are five different rooms, all with varying temperatures and features. The Turkish Sauna is a steam room that uses radiator coils to prevent it from misting. The Aromatherapy Room, a recent addition, mixes steam with essential oils like eucalyptus and lavender.
The atmosphere during the week is peaceful. People pass from room to room, chatting with strangers or regulars, and take their time getting a “schvitz.” The weekends are much busier, according to Shapiro.
The Redwood Sauna is probably the most familiar for the uninitiated. Clad in cherrywood and heated to a high, but enjoyable temperature, the room is most similar to a Swedish sauna.
As I sat in the Redwood Room, a 20-something couple strolled in and began discussing their first years in New York, having moved to the city in 2013.
“I lived in Williamsburg, right after college in one of those brand-new buildings on the water. It actually had a sauna in it,” the woman said. “I never used it.”
“What a shame. I would have used it everyday,” the bearded young man replied. “But damn, you lived in that building right after graduating.”
“I thought I was ‘balling’ then. I realised shortly after that I wasn’t.”
In between jaunts in the rooms, you can take a dip in the plunge pool, which is kept at frigid temperatures for maximum shock effect.
The Baths used to have a jacuzzi, but they replaced it with this steam room. The small size of this room ensures that it gets misty very quickly.
The crown jewel of the Baths is the Russian Room, which is kept to a scalding 190 degrees. Two bankers ducked into the room as I snapped a photo. “We’re supposed to be in a meeting right now,” one said. “We’d rather not get in trouble.”
The Russian Room uses a stone furnace the size of a small room. The furnace is filled with 20,000 pounds of boulders heated overnight to give off a powerful steam. “It’s old school,” said Shapiro, noting it is rare for modern spas to use that system. “It’s almost a dead art at this point.”
While the baths offer Swedish massages, salt scrubs, and Dead Sea mud treatments, the signature is the “platza,” a Russian massage where a broom of oak leaf branches (a “venik”) is soaked in warm, soapy, olive-oil water and brushed (or beaten) on you.
The platza, which Shapiro likened to “Jewish acupuncture,” isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s usually given on the top bench of the scalding Russian Room, which is difficult to tolerate for more than a few minutes.
The treatment felt somewhere between relaxing and torture. The oak branches brush over you with hot water as you lay on the sizzling bench. Viktor, the masseuse, will douse you with cold water if you ask, but I was so near delirium that I just laid there and let him work. By the time Viktor was done, I was relaxed – and relieved.
He curtly told me to jump into the ice-cold pool. After the icy shock wore off, I felt very sleepy.
Platza has been a signature at the baths long before Tuberman and Shapiro took over. The previous owner, Al Modlin, supposedly died while giving a platza in 1981.
“Yeah, but he was the kind of guy who would give a platza while smoking a cigarette, so you know,” Shapiro said, trailing off.
The terrace is a popular place to hang out for a few hours with a drink during the summer, the Baths’ slow season. It was little chilly during my visit in January to spend much time up there — even after sweating in the Russian Room.
The Baths has a restaurant that serves Russian-Jewish comfort food, as well as a juice bar and a selection of drinks. They used to serve steaks and vodka, according to Shapiro, and even offered sushi for a time, but blini seemed like a better fit.
I ordered the red borscht, a tangy beet soup served with a dollop of sour cream and rye bread, and the Siberian Pilmeny, a hearty serving of beef dumplings. I went home warm and sleepy shortly after.
As I dressed in the locker room, an older man who told me only to call him Hoboken leaned over. “How am I doing for being a hipster?”
The man, a New Jersey real estate developer, said that he’d been coming twice a week for 30 years, primarily for the health benefits.
“My wife said I could’ve bought a jet with that money,” he said, laughing. “But who was going to fly it?”
He was soon showing me a Finnish study touting the connection between saunas and reduced risk for heart disease.
“This is the best sauna in the world,” the man said, explaining that sauna designers he’s spoken to have told him that the size of the Russian Room relative to the furnace produces a perfect steam.
As he left, he looked back and said, “You look like you just went to the beach.”