Chronicles: Ramping It Up on Rampart

The New Orleans Athletic Club blends a cool old building with hot cardio action

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION, top

Where else can you work out in front of a fireplace and under a chandelier?” Mike Walters muses. One place offering just that sort of perk is the venerable New Orleans Athletic Club, a presence on Rampart Street for more than a century, kept up-to-date with enough fitness options and amenities to appeal to today’s market. “Our demographic is the 30 to 45 crowd,” says Walters, the club’s general manager.

Over the year, the NOAC has been the healthy choice of many New Orleanians. Originally all members were male, but that has changed and women are now encouraged to join. There is a little something to appeal to everyone.

Musician Fredy Omar, who has a lifetime membership, likes “the homey New Orleans vibe.” He notes: “It is beautiful; it has a nice old building. There are a lot of locals, so it’s like a family environment. You get to meet a lot of people.” Besides yoga classes and the steam room, Omar admits to doing “a lot of cardiovascular work – I like the machines.” Besides, Fredy Omar Con Su Banda (his musical group) has performed at the bar.

Attorney Jonathan McCall recalled going to the NOAC with his father as a child. “My father signed me up for boxing lessons and sure enough, the first class somebody bloodied my nose.” As a result, his father signed up Jonathan for wrestling lessons from coach “Cyclone” Bill Shriever, a club fixture.

Although the NOAC officially took that name in May 1929, it was founded more than a half-century before then, according to The Times-Picayune. It began with an 1872 meeting at the home of J. C. Aleix, when 12 young men organized the Independent Gymnastic Club. The name changed the next year to the New Orleans Gymnastic Club.

The club rented rooms on Canal Street near Rampart Street, and then took over a stable at the corner of Bienville and Rampart streets.

By 1884, the club had outgrown its space and purchased a building on Burgundy Street between Iberville and Bienville streets. In 1889, the club purchased a residence in the square of Rampart Street, with a façade by architect James Gallier Jr., and connected the two properties.

Besides a regulation gym, the club boasted a “bathing pool, built of marble” and fed by an artesian well, flowing at the rate of “150 gallons a minute” and “68 degrees year round.” The pool measured 70 feet by 30 feet, and the water had a slightly salty taste. An elaborate Turkish bath with steam room and massage tables was added, as was a bowling alley. Even more improvements to the property followed, and the 1929 name change signaled the beginning of an era when the club welcomed local businessmen and politicians as members and lavish entertainments for families and classes for all ages filled the clubhouse with activity.

Politicians, such as a city assessor, might hover near the front door to glad-hand arriving members. The club sponsored separate banquets honoring New Orleans Mayors Robert Maestri and Semmes Walmsley. (Maestri’s honors arrived after the city’s legislative delegation sponsored legislation exempting non-profits from taxes, saving the NOAC $7,000.)

The all-male membership enjoyed their swimming pool without the necessity of bathing suits. Past member Peter Gabb recalls that “the pool was salt water – that was pretty special – and it was emptied every night and filled every morning.”

“By the pool there was a list of whatever chemicals were in the water, and it was very cold,” Gabb adds. He also recalled that massages (“a standard Swedish-type massage”) were given by employees – all black – who wore “a wrap like a sort of diaper.” There was a dark resting room where you could cool off from the steam room.

Over the years the NOAC offered more than just a gym and pool. The June 1930 edition of the club’s magazine Punch listed “boxing shows, wrestling shows, various Amateur Athletic Union championships, informal and formal dances, luncheons and dinners, swimming meets” and other activities aimed at keeping members involved.

A menu from the 1930s offered a $ .50 soft-shell crab lunch. Peter Gabb recalls a monthly bingo night and buffet in the ’70s.

And there was always a chance to meet a celebrity. Tennessee Williams was an active member of the NOAC, and Joseph DeSalvo at Faulkner House Books now owns Williams’ membership card. Harvard University’s collections include a membership application for a friend of Williams, whom Tennessee recommended as having “fine character, excellent breeding.”

Both Kevin Costner and the late Jim Garrison – Costner’s character in the film JFK – could be seen at the club.
Even if the pool no longer uses the artesian well, Mike Walters noted that the water still tastes of salt – but bathing suits are now worn. Workout machines and yoga may have gained in popularity, but boxing is still an option and even early members of the club would find some equipment recognizable.

One thing hasn’t changed. As Fredy Omar comments about the NOAC, “It’s the people I love.”
 

Posing Among the Posies
Need a change of venue to pep up your fitness routine? Try the yoga class every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. in the New Orleans Museum of Art Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

East Jefferson Hospital Wellness Center and NOMA offer yoga and Pilates (once a month) classes that are free for NOMA or East Jeff Wellness Center members, and $5 for the general public. Tai Chi classes are Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Inclement weather brings enthusiasts inside the museum’s great hall. Bring your own mat. (Erin Kernion, one of the Pilates instructors, is a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall!)
 

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