On a quiet afternoon, a handful of above-average-size men are pumping iron in front of a mirror. It’s like any other gym blasting EDM, free weights organized neatly on a rack and cardio machines lined up on the second floor. A familiar loud man-grunt can be heard among the clatter of stacked steel weights.
But a normal health club it isn’t. This is the newest of David Barton’s gyms, after all, located in none other than the Limelight on 20th Street, an Episcopal-church-turned-storied-club-kid-fixture of yore.
The new location, which opened Saturday, boasts two floors, 20,000 square feet, and sleek new equipment with technology that can sync up to one’s iPhone. Its interior features the original stone structures of the church with impressive stained glass windows lining some of the walls. The design, by Bill Sofield of Studio Sofield, converges old and new, retaining the bones of the church but with ellipticals wheeled in.
The fitness empire is best known for its flamboyant founder and ex-chief executive David Barton, who set out to create a health-club-as-nightclub hybrid in 1992. He’s since moved on to pursue other ventures and has no involvement with the business. But for years, David Barton’s edgy gym (its tag line was “Look Better Naked”) prided itself on its thumping music and downtown fashion crowd, not to mention a solid gay community. So it was only natural that the business would want to create a stir by moving into Limelight, what its president Kevin Kavanaugh said was essential to its growth. He had been eyeing the space for the past year or so until finally pulling the trigger and scooping the spot.
“It was the only location after scouring the city that we needed to have,” he said, while giving a tour of the facility.
“Needless to say, the community board wasn’t too thrilled about us moving in,” added Kavanaugh. “They thought that it would be loud and too noisy. They thought it was going to be a nightclub and not a health club.”
Admittedly, they had reason to believe so. Limelight had long been a club kid’s haven. It also served as a concert venue for the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, and even Jay-Z.
And what about the notoriously salacious men’s locker room culture David Barton Gym has been known for?
“I think since [the business has] expanded [the reputation has] diminished,” said Kavanaugh. “We became the epicenter of the gay life in Chelsea. Did it have some trouble when it first opened? Yes, but I don’t see it as notorious as it once was. That stigma has moved past us.”
This location is also in Chelsea, a hotly competitive neighborhood for those in the fitness game. Across the street lies Barry’s Bootcamp, which neighbors the new FlyWheel. Down the street is SoulCycle. An avenue away is Brick. With the ever-growing popularity of class-centric studios, could a place like David Barton Gym even survive?
“It’s about creating a community,” Kavanaugh said. “As long as you’re getting results, you’re going to stay. Our business is about referrals. One person will come and then have their friends join and so on.”
But Kavanaugh doesn’t bristle at the cult class trend. “What’s trending now is just a repackaging of workouts of the past,” he said. “It’s the same.” Besides, the gym has its own array of classes, including favorites such as Barton Bootcamp, Yoga For Jocks, Divine Abs and, of course, Ass Blast.
For now, Kavanaugh said that he’s hired a social media director to be more closely connected to the Millennial generation and he has a few projects in the works to keep the gym relevant.
“We’re working hard so that we can show we’re still a fun, energized place to work out,” Kavanaugh said. “My nieces and nephews love it. They love the new technology. I know other young people will, too.”