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Urban Legacy: A Look Inside Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago

The leadership team behind Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.

A look inside the $80 million renovation and expansion of the Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.

This September, Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago’s members and staff got the keys to their new 575,000-square-foot fitness oasis — the culmination of an $80 million renovation and expansion project that began over three years ago.

The high-end sports resort, which boasts a 55-room boutique hotel, is an exerciser’s dream, featuring: indoor and outdoor pools, a warm yoga studio, 60-bike Spinning studio, group exercise theater, 10,000-square-foot cardio fitness floor, 40-yard turf indoor sports field, full-service spa with five treatment rooms and a hair salon, men’s barber shop, childcare, retail store, full-service restaurant, 16 indoor tennis courts and much more.

According to Steven Schwartz, the president and CEO of Midtown Athletic Clubs, the new facility is a legacy property for the brand and the Schwartz family. “Fifty years ago my father and grandfather set out to build the world’s best tennis club and they did it,” he said. “I’m excited to build the world’s greatest health club and hotel that will set the standard for generations to come.”

That bar is set high immediately upon entering the lobby at Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago. Members are greeted with a wall of beautiful, dark granite — painstakingly hand-picked in India by a staff member — that sits behind the marble-lined front desk. Getting the granite to Chicago is a story in and of itself, requiring dozens of man hours and innovative problem solving to be installed.

The facility is inundated with high-end features like the granite wall, and each has its own story surrounding how that feature was picked, and what challenges had to be overcome to see it come to fruition. Other highlights include a 3,000-pound Ganesh statue, brought on the same barge as the granite from India; goose feather chandeliers in the women’s locker room; and hand-crafted, wooden trees created by a local artist in the yoga studio.

Michael Mahoney, Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago’s general manager, said the stories behind these features are what make the club so special. “These are stories for our members to tell,” he said. “Even if they don’t get it quite right when telling their friends about it, it’s all about stories and storytelling. We wanted to create story opportunities.”

Creating a legacy property on this large of a scale — one with a story worth telling — was no easy feat, especially when that legacy is being built within a club that already boasted a robust membership. One of the biggest challenges with the project was renovating and expanding while staying open for business.

To make the transition as smooth for current members as possible, Midtown Athletic Clubs invested $1 million into a temporary fitness space embedded within the first floor of the parking garage.

According to Jon Brady, the COO of Midtown Athletic Clubs, the goal with the temporary space was to limit member disruption as much as possible. “I think we provided a reasonable experience,” he said. “It wasn’t ideal for a lot of members — we’ve had to route people in from different ways, create walkways, stuff like that. But I think members have understood the temporary solutions we put in place.”

To sell current members on the benefits of the project, in addition to attracting new customers, Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago utilized virtual reality technology — creating nine unique virtual walk-through experiences of the club.

“It is incredibly realistic and was the best way to communicate something people hadn’t seen before,” explained Schwartz. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, virtual reality is worth several thousand. We visited local farmers markets and popular outdoor spaces in key Chicago neighborhoods and invited people to try on the virtual reality headsets. This really brought to life the magnitude of the project and drove new membership from those who wanted to become a part of it.”

According to Schwartz, fostering community is a key goal for the project. Throughout the sports resort are a number of communal spaces that encourage members to sit, talk and be with one another, including: a sunken lounge where members can charge their laptops and computers; pool-side fire pits located on the outdoor patio; and sprawling bench seating outside the Group X theater.

“As you walk through you get a real sense of community,” said Schwartz. “It’s designed very specifically around the idea of seeing people you know, and interacting with people you know.”

Much of the gym’s features and amenities draw inspiration from boutique fitness facilities. Each space is treated as its own, individual boutique — from the Spinning and Pilates Reformer studios to the 40-yard turf field and EveryBody Fights in-club box — creating “clubs within clubs.”

“We’ve curated the best ideas from all the cumulative experiences we’ve seen,” said Schwartz. “Part of what we’re doing is creating something unique in almost every single space. As cool as that is, it’s a nightmare because it’s an art project and detailed construction project that’s custom everywhere. It’s a lot of time, a lot of energy, and thinking through details you don’t normally need to. Everything is real, there’s no plastic. This is genuine.”

According to Brady, with each amenity and feature they strived to go beyond the visual — creating a sensory experience encompassing sight, smell and touch, in addition to eliciting an emotional response in members.

“The love and care that’s been put into the club, we really thought about it from an emotional perspective — asking, how does it make you feel?” explained Brady. “We want people to feel at home, to feel welcome, like someone has built this with the care and love that makes it a generational, legacy club. This is not a fly-by-night project.”

Although the project has been a huge undertaking, ultimately Schwartz believes it will be worth the investment — especially when taken in the context of how low-price gyms and high-priced boutiques have changed the fitness landscape.

“We looked at these phenomena and decided to go upscale and add more components and boutique experiences all under one roof,” Schwartz continued. “Today, that vision is now a 575,000-square-foot fitness oasis that brings together the best of boutique fitness programming, while retaining what we set out to achieve in 1970 — a world-class tennis experience and a community of active, inspired people dedicated to improving their lives through wellness.”

This experience, combined with a boutique hotel, makes Midtown Athletic Club and The Hotel at Midtown in Chicago attractive to the active traveler — providing a much higher-end fitness experience than is typical within a traditional hotel fitness facility.

The facility’s hotel boasts 55 guestrooms with four deluxe suites, two conference rooms, a boardroom and rooftop lounge. The two-story presidential suite was designed by DMAC Architecture. The club also has a partnership with Venus Williams, which came about due to the Williams sisters’ long-standing relationship with Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago, as they played tennis there when they were younger.

It’s relationships like these — and all the other details that make up the sports resort — that make it a truly one-of-a-kind facility.

“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” said Schwartz. “The thing that surprises and excites me the most is what it feels like to see a vision come to life. We’ve been planning this project for years, and for the past two years, the club has mostly been renderings, imagination and construction. The feeling of watching so many people’s visions become reality is amazing.”

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko

Rachel Zabonick-Chonko is the editor-in-chief of Club Solutions Magazine. She can be reached at rachel@peakemedia.com.

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