As the third-oldest health club in the United States, New Orleans Athletic Club has mastered the art of aging gracefully.
To say that New Orleans has a rich history would be an understatement. The gulf side of the city, founded in 1718 by the French as Nouvelle-Orléans, was also owned by the Spanish Empire prior to being sold to the U.S. as an asset of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Throughout transitions in ownership, the city’s residents experienced The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788, built three impressive structures including the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, and laid the groundwork for a place that would become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Since 1872, New Orleans Athletic Club has stood witness to a portion of this rich history as the third oldest health club in the United States. Established by gymnast J.C. Aleix under the name Young Men’s Gymnastic Club, the institution has seen numerous changes, including a move to its current location and the christening of its present namesake, both of which occurred in 1929.
One of the biggest changes came in 1991, when New Orleans Athletic Club was purchased from members who acted as stockholders. Bill More knew the club was floundering and became its first independent owner.
“I saw a diamond in the rough,” said More. “It was struggling.”
In many ways, New Orleans Athletic Club had been stagnant prior to More’s purchase. Until his involvement, it remained a men’s-only institution. It had old fashioned dining halls, bars and a card room, serving as a gathering place for gentlemen of all ages.
One of those gentlemen was Manuel Sala, 87, who became a member of New Orleans Athletic Club in 1936, when he was just 8 years old. “I used to practically live down there,” recalled Sala. “That used to be our meeting place for the fellas when I was a younger man. We’d all meet at the club if we were going out into the French Quarter. It was kind of like a second home for all of us.”
This sense of camaraderie was bolstered by New Orleans Athletic Club’s many club sport teams, which spanned wrestling, weightlifting, swimming and football, among others. Sala’s sport of choice was wrestling, though he dabbled in handball as well. “But all of that’s gone,” said Sala. “There are no more teams representing the club like in years past.”
Dissolving club teams is just one of many changes that have boosted the club’s evolution since Sala first joined 79 years ago. The club is now co-ed, which was one of the first major changes More made after taking ownership.
“It was a very restrictive policy,” explained More. “It needed to be more for people wanting to get in shape and not just a men’s club.”
In addition, many areas of the 56,000-square-foot club needed to be updated, which More embraced. “It was screaming for attention,” he said. “The property needed a lot of TLC. Being a part of bringing it back — that was attractive to me.”
Although More worked to update different aspects of the building one project at a time, many changes came in 2005 after New Orleans Athletic Club was forced to close for 10 months due to damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Mike Walters, the current general manager of the club, explained this was somewhat of a blessing in disguise. “We took that time to really renovate and upgrade as much as we could, because it’s not often you get a 10-month break where you can [make changes],” he said.
Now, New Orleans Athletic Club offers state-of-the-art equipment and modern amenities, while staying true to the club’s historical roots.
As a preservationist, More explained it was important to conserve as much of the building’s historical architecture as possible. “I wanted to keep the charm,” he said. “You want to modernize and have state-of-the-art facilities … without interfering with any of the charm.”
To accomplish this, More avoided making significant architectural changes. “We kept the architecture intact, but we made changes in interior design when it made sense from a member usage vantage point,” he said. “And when we had to make carpet selections or other flooring selections or any other aesthetic decisions, we stayed with the authenticity of what the club had been previously, but we went with the highest of quality and the smartest of look. Everything that we did we tried to do it with the best material and products.”
Throughout this process, they communicated as much as possible with the gym’s membership. “We kept our members posted as to what we were doing and what our progress was via answering the telephone, responding to mail or email inquiries, and we sent intermittent emails to members and placed an ad in a weekly publication that we continued to run each week while we were closed,” explained More. “In the ad we spoke about what we believed the community needed to do to pull the city back together again and sometimes said something about our status, always ending the ad with the phrase that we were, ‘Coming back, better than ever.’”
Overall, the 10-month renovation cost several million dollars. To Walters, the result of combining modern technology with historical architecture is one of the most interesting aspects of the facility. “I don’t know of any other health club where you can get on a top-of-the-line treadmill under a chandelier with a fireplace from 1920 that are exactly preserved the way they were when [they were] built,” he said. “That’s kind of a neat thing.”
However, reserving the club’s historical features isn’t without its challenges. “The expenses are crazy,” said Walters. “Trying to get Internet to the third floor and drill through 42-inch walls with marble and brick — it’s not easy.”
Despite these hurdles, More and Walters believe preserving the building, while bringing a state-of-the-art fitness experience to members, are important. The gym’s unofficial slogan is, “We’re a sophisticated future with an exuberant history.”
To Walters, history is central to New Orleans Athletic Club’s success. “It’s been such a rite of passage with families,” he said. “We have great-great-grandkids here now, [and] their great-great-grandfathers were members. There’s a strong sense of family. Then, because it’s been such an institution in New Orleans for so long, people want to belong.”
This sense of community is what made many members return once the gym re-opened, though it was a slow process for some.
“[Members] trickled back,” explained Walters. “It took a good two and a half, three years to get everybody back since there were so many people displaced so far away. But when they did come back, a lot of them couldn’t believe the changes. A lot of them were just happy to be back because it helped reestablish the normalcy of their routine.”
This included Sala. “I was tickled pink,” he said. “I was glad to see it back.”
At the end of the day, many of the gym’s members — especially ones like Sala, that think of the club as a second home — are grateful More was able to save the historical institution. “It’s still operating, thank goodness for Bill More, ‘cause if he hadn’t have taken it over, there would no longer be a New Orleans Athletic Club,” said Sala.
Over the years to come, More explained he’ll continue to polish the diamond that is New Orleans Athletic Club until it is fully shining. “I love the club,” he said. “It’s a special place.”