The Barnes and Noble on Astor Place is no more. Today, if you push through its heavy wooden double doors, you’ll know immediately that you’re not in Kansas. The new front lounge could be from a neo-Gothic, swanky hotel or an exclusive nightclub, with large candelabras stuffed with dozens of long black tapers. A gift shop to your right hawks chopped-up couture fashion on consignment from London, hard plastic Gummi Bear backpacks, chunky Chanel jewelry, coffee table books and silver absinthe fountains. A bass-bumping electronica soundtrack matches the jewel-toned lighting. You half expect to turn around and see a model or TV celebrity with drink in hand.
Congratulations! You’ve found the David Barton Gym, the gym that thinks it’s a club, where dedicated, rich people come to work as hard as they play. The clientele is fit and fabulous, sporting tight yoga pants and muscle tanks to show off those rippling biceps. On one visit, I saw a tall, lanky man in tight jeans picking up his giant fur coat from the cloakroom. You don’t want to mess around with poor fashion choices here; other David Barton locations are iconic gay hot spots, and I know boys who’ve met their boyfriends at the new location. Moral? No baggy T-shirts.
The decor is dark and would please any club bunny. Slate grey walls are transformed by David Barton’s trippy post-80s lighting design: omnipresent orange spotlights, splashes of magenta and chartreuse across columns and glinting machines, a glowing aubergine ceiling. Mirrors abound, concealing long stretches of wall, interspersed among weight machines, stretching long and thin on stairwell landings, and lurking in a tarnished and oh so bohemian way in the bowels of the 40,000 square foot facility.
Funky display pieces act as road signs in case you get lost. Face to face with a lifesize Chinese dragon costume lurking in the shadows? You’re in the Hall of Cardio on the ground floor. Lounging on a purple crushed velvet Victorian fainting couch? That’s downstairs by the glass-walled Pilates studio. Wandering past a curtain of oversized Chinese throwing stars toward a three-story-tall skull with a dumbbell in its teeth? Well… you could be anywhere; that’s over the main stairwell, carved in relief into the clay-coated wall. The pièce de résistance, a floor-to-ceiling disco ball that can house a DJ and turntable, nestles behind the bright upstairs studio, like a miniature Death Star on coke. (The ball was apocryphally salvaged from a club favored by David Barton and kept in storage for ten years, waiting for just such a purpose as this one.)
Like its clients, the David Barton Gym both looks good and feels good. A fleet of state-of-the-art stationary bikes, ellipticals, steppers and treadmills gleams on the second floor, facing floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Astor Place. Behind the cardio armada lie long racks of free weights, with adjoining high-ceilinged rooms dedicated to weight machines and benches. A large stretching area with stability balls and yoga mats is tucked away in back. Three yoga studios are floored with burnt wood imported from Milan and lined with rows of fat, flickering luminaries. David Barton offers a full schedule of yoga and Pilates classes, taught by tough yet loving instructors; you want to hate them for kicking your ass so hard, but you just can’t. If you’re more of a one-on-0ne guy or gal, ripped personal trainers abound.
The women’s changing rooms (I can’t speak for the men’s) are carpeted and spacious, with cherry-colored walls, fuchsia fluorescent lights, and five or six alcoves of dark wooden lockers and gleaming silver accents. Rows of roomy showers stand next to an inviting Russian bath, opaque with vapor. Large magnifying mirrors are great for checking out how hot your naked self is, and for enjoying all the freebies David Barton provides its clients: body wash, shampoo, conditioner, disposable razors, Q-tips, cotton balls, body lotion, mouthwash, blow dryers, and hair products by Bumble and bumble. Other occasional perks include after-hours cocktail parties and free Perrier in the lobby, so you can sip in style all day long.
The biggest drawback to David Barton is the high membership fees, even if you take advantage of their student rates ($89/month after initiation fee) or one of their aggressive sign-up campaigns ($0 initiation fee for the month of January.) If you can afford it, though, I can’t think of a gym where I’d rather be.