A man named Alex beat me with a bundle of oak leaves at 268 East 10th Street.
That’s where the Russian and Turkish Baths Health Club is housed, in a renovated tenement building midway between First Avenue and Avenue A. Established in 1892, it’s New York City’s oldest – and for a while in the early ’90s, it was its only – bathhouse. And it feels it: the baths have the aura of an era lost to our world of flipped switches and pushed buttons.
The first time I visited, the crowd was a mix of older, shirtless men and Millennials wearing waist towels. “The people that you see here, weren’t here 30 years ago,” Dmitry Shapiro told me. “The clientele is completely different.”
Shapiro is a part owner and part manager of Russian and Turkish Baths. In 1985, the baths were jointly purchased by his father, David Shapiro, and a partner named Boris Tuperman. “Before we came, it was just a really rundown old tenement building,” Shapiro said. “Our families have invested a lot of money. Before us, I can’t remember the place even having a roof.”
Real estate and city archival records put the building’s construction at “estimated 1900” (the generic epoch given to a building without a definitive dated origin), but the address pops into history as early as 1865 with a robbery reported in the New York Times at what was then a boarding house.
“Saturday evening two men entered the large boardinghouse at No. 268 East Tenth Street, and garroted and robbed Mr. Theodore Sanches in his room on the second story. At the time of this audacious robbery the house was filled with boarders.”
Criminal occurrences, certainly, did not begin and end in 1865. A more recent Times report stated that the building’s first floor once kept a special room for the placement and storage of mobsters’ checked coats – and weapons.
Dmitry Shapiro knows very little about the building’s history. He explained, “I had a guy call me and say, ‘I think my family owned the place around World War II,’ and I said, ‘Hey, you know more than I do.’”
In the Municipal Archives, there is earlier logged evidence of the brick building’s existence, dated August 15, 1883, when both the Fire Department and Bureau of Inspection of Buildings approved plans to add a fourth floor to its three floors and a basement. The renovation raised the roof (flat both then and now) from 45 feet to 54 feet high. Work was started on August 27 and was completed by New Year’s Eve of that year. Sophia Danenbaum oversaw the construction and paid her contractors, Peter Hughes and Sons, $2,000 for her new fourth floor.
An amalgamation of U.S. census records, 19th century city directories, and obituary reports show that Sophie Danenbaum was married to retired merchant named Moses Danenbaum, the founder of L. Danenbaum Sons & Company, which had been selling millinery goods and women’s undergarments in Philadelphia since the 1860s. The Danenbaums moved to 268 East 10th street around 1880 with their eight sons and two daughters and opened New York locations of the business at 72 West 23rd Street and 285 Fourth Avenue.
An immigrant of German descent, Moses Danenbaum was self-made and successful. His sons, Murray, Chase, and Isaac, managed the firm into the 1930s, despite the setback of an 1894 fire in Philadelphia that caused $100,000 in damages to two of the company’s buildings. Moses was an annual member of the American Museum of Natural History and belonged to the Jewish Osceola Club. His son Murray became the leader of Democratic Party activities in New York’s 29th District, and his son Isaac became “the leading spirit” behind the Democratic Club of New York City.
Moses had many trading partners and his network was wide; Chase was sent to trade undergarments in Liverpool and Murray traveled to France on a merchant mission in 1894. The Danenbaums remained at 268 East 10th Street for less than a decade before moving uptown to a swankier Upper East Side address.
An 1895, New York State law mandated that all large cities have public baths. At the turn of 20th century the city had three types of bath houses: large city-owned facilities strictly for sanitation purposes; privately operated bathing businesses, and facilities like 268 East 10th Street, which were privately owned establishments for the purpose of relaxation. In 1900, the Danenbaums leased 268 East 10th as dormitories located on the second, third and fourth floors but did not directly manage the bathhouse located on the first floor, which was primarily referred to as “Tenth Street Baths” for most of the 20th century.
U.S. census records show, at the time, the building was the primary residence of five German immigrant families: the Neumanns, the Schucks, the Schicks, the Herrs, the Zinkannds, and one independent boarder, Carrie Lutz. A total of 37 people lived in the building. There were two milliners, a dressmaker, two saleswoman, and a one “cash boy” included in the various broods. Because Moses Danenbaum owned a large milliner operation, it’s probable that he was renting his former home to his employees and their families.
Among the random facts gleaned from census records: Eleven of the children living above Tenth Street Baths were attending art school. An 1890 resident of 268 East 10th Street spoke in front of a Congressional Committee designated to examine the rights of immigrants entering the United States by way of New York’s harbors. Moses Oppenheimer, editor of The Emigrant, a publication that served immigrated German citizens, said, “Detained immigrants . . . were treated as if they were prisoner committed to Sing Sing,” the New York Evening Post reported. Julien Schucks, who lived with his family, died at age 31 on August 13, 1900, and on June 26, 1900, Phillip Schuck, head of the Schuck clan, died at age 87.
Records at the Municipal Archives showed that in 1909, Lee Summerfield managed and oversaw the building’s second major structural alteration. The first floor’s rear was extended by 40 feet into the back yard to expand the space for amenities of the Tenth Street Baths. Terracotta coping was added to the saunas’ interior walls, with steel and brick arches shaping the extension.
Unlike the opulent Roman baths before them, the baths of Turkey focused on water rather than steam. The Turkish bather first entered a “warm room” for relaxation, proceeded to a “hot room” with higher temperatures, and finally washed with cold water. In early Russian banyas, meanwhile, an oven was positioned in a corner and stones were placed on a frame over hot charcoals. Three rooms – an entrance room, a steam room and a washing room – helped bathers achieve an optimal sweat, which was thought to contribute to good health.
At the East 10th Street baths, The Redwood room, compared to the other saunas, feels like a moderate summer day; it functions as a warming up area, a stretch before the marathon. The Turkish room is considerably hotter and decorated with mosaic tiles. The Russian Room is an oven, with its temperature approaching 200 degrees.
I was in the Baths’ aromatherapy room when a man, whom I didn’t realize was there, spoke to me through the fog of steam.
“How’s your schvitz?” Schvitz is Yiddish for sweat. I saw a figure approaching out of the mist.
“It’s good,” I said.
I was drenched in sweat, my hair was matted, and I was thinking about Gatorade.
“Relaxing?” the figure said. “It’s addictive, right?”
The bathhouse can sometimes feel like an insider’s club. Where Wednesday mornings are exclusively for woman, Sunday mornings are for men. It’s a place of escape and open camaraderie. In the saunas, I discussed movies, women, the Spanish Inquisition, and was informed at length about the oldest synagogue in NYC on the Upper West Side.
It’s easy to tell who is a bathhouse novice. The staff speaks to itself in Russian and curtly to customers. After aromatherapy, I got a massage. A six-foot masseuse, Gene, led me to a private room with a massage table on the second floor.
“I’m looking into the history of the buildin…” I said.
“Take off your clothes. Get on the table,” Gene said. I did. At one point I lifted my face from the table and looked up and into a mirror, making eye contact with Gene.
“Head down, arms back,” Gene said with a heavy accent.
The next thing I knew, the approximately 200-pound Russian was walking on my scrawny back, kneading my muscles with his bare feet. When it was over, I asked, “Gene, how long have you been working here?”
Gene said, “Six or eight years. Go back to the baths.”
I said, yes sir.
Today a trip to the bath costs $35. In 1915, the Englishman William Harmen Black reported in his travel book, The Real United States and Canada Pocket Guide-Book, that a soak cost him a mere 50 cents to $1.50.
In 1921, a Department of Buildings record shows that the owners applied for an electrically lit sign as an addition to the building’s exterior. That same year, the New York Times reported, a resident living above the bathhouse, Herman Schwartz, was robbed. Before going to bed Schwartz laid out the outfit that he planned to wear the next day. Including his hat and the cash left in his trouser pockets, the outfit was worth precisely $102.85, as Schwartz testified in the Essex Market Court.
When Schwartz awoke, he found in his outfit’s stead a “sorry brown derby, a brown suit worth less than $1.” Serendipitously, Schwartz ran into the thief wearing his stolen suit the next day at 125th Street and Third Avenue. There on the street, Schwartz proved his thief’s guilt to Patrolman Cornelius Walters by correctly identifying the brand of cigar in the thief’s stolen pocket; the scoundrel was identified as Abby Goldstein, of 235 Roebling Street, and was held on a $1,000 bail. Schwartz returned to his home above the bathhouse dressed dapperly.
The building’s structure changed little from the turn of the century until 1930 when it underwent a slew of dramatic overhauls. Then owners Abraham Landberg and the N.L.M Realty Corporation had the first floor’s brick arches rebuilt and reinforced with steel beams and added fireproofing. They upgraded the 19th century natural cement that was supporting the walls, added eight new floor drains and refurbished the plumbing system. They also added an iron staircase.
Ownership of the property passed from Landberg to his son, Harry Landberg, who, in 1943, installed handrails leading to the front exit and re-hinged the front and rear exit door to comply with city ordinances. The property’s 1943 certificate of occupancy states that the space could legally accommodate up to 110 persons at one time.
These days, Thursday nights are the party nights at the Russian and Turkish Baths. The baths are crowded with schvitzers. I sat on a second floor patio and watched steaming bodies cool in the night air. A group of young professional men who had entered the bathhouse in business suits minutes later sat in a circle, laughing in their pinkish towels, sipping drinks and smoking cigarettes. A 22-year-old brunette played Sam Cooke from her iPhone as a robe slinked down off her shoulder.
A 1984 New York Times article said Frank Sinatra, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd frequented the bathhouse at the time; a 1991 account said Timothy Leary, and John F. Kennedy Jr. were patrons. In 1988, Maureen Dowd wrote about Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s visit to 268 East 10th Street.
For John Belushi the baths were a sanctuary “one of the few places he could go to relax,” Bob Woodward wrote in his book Wired The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi. But once for an unclothed Russell Simmons the bathhouse was a spot of rancor, when he threatened a fellow businessman not to try and steal the Beastie Boys from Def Jam Recordings. On the recent Thursday night when I visited, a naked regular in the locker room told me that Colin Farrell is a regular. Jonathan Ames goes there four or five nights a week.
When Shapiro and Tuperman took over the business in 1985, paying $950,000 for both the building and the business, their clientele was primarily an older group of people from the neighborhood, Dmitry said. Before that, the baths had been run briefly by Tim Hunter and before Hunter by “Big” Al Modlinz. “All the real old-timers are dead,” Dmitry said. “Those guys who would have known the place in the ‘50s and ‘60s have sadly passed.”
The bathhouse was never a sex club and, comparatively, was affected little by the 1980s AIDS scare, when many other bathhouses were shut down. But, as noted in Hidden New York: A Guide to Places That Matter, its less than sparkling interior (walls papered in 1950s girlie photos, mismatched linoleum floors, cigar smoke in the lobby) caused many to flee to the tonier health clubs.
After Modlinz, who was “unbelievably rude,” died on the job, the current owners had a new façade put on the building in the early 1990s. They removed bunk beds from the locker rooms and installed the aromatherapy room. Briefly, in the late 1980s, there was a sushi bar.
There is also a feud between the managers. Shapiro and Tuperman never work together at the same time. Every other week a different owner runs the baths and manages a different staff at the front desk; the massage, treatment, and kitchen staff stays the same. Weekly profits made by one owner are not shared with the other; the building has essentially shared two separate businesses since 1986 or 87, Shapiro said, the exact date escaping him.
The two owners are unalike men in character and trade philosophies. When interviewed by The Local East Village, Shapiro made it clear that he favors modern means of doing business, such as using computers and keeping financial records, where Tuperman does not. Shapiro is talkative. Tuperman lacks a firm clench on the English language. When I asked Shapiro how much my entrance into the bathhouse would cost, he said “$35.” The next week, when I asked Tuperman the same question, the older man clasped my right hand between both of his, patted it, and pulled my nose close to his grin.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “You buy a five-time pass, I’ll give you a deal. Yes? No? Are you sure? Okay, boss. You’re sure? Okay.”
Though Shapiro and Tuperman’s business survived the AIDS crisis and steadily gained popularity in subsequent decades they also suffered a financial blow in 1993, when a lawsuit cost their establishment $500,000. The Taj Mahal Development Corporation, owner of a neighboring building, claimed that the heat produced by the baths was infiltrating their building and was so excessive that one tenant “fried an egg in his bathtub,” The New York Times reported.
In the mornings the Russian and Turkish Baths is neither packed nor empty. But it is quiet. It was in the morning when Alex beat me with a bundle of oak leaves. I was led into the blistering heat of the Russian Room and instructed to lie on my stomach.
“This is supposed to be good for circulation, right?” I said.
“Circulation, alteration, confrontation, castration, meditation,” Alex said.
The treatment is called platza. The oak leaves were dipped in water and a soapy solution and rubbed, hit, beat across my back, arms, and legs. As soon as I felt my body reaching a pinnacle of heat, a tipping-point into delirium, Alex poured cold water across me. The procedure continued is this fashion – hit with oak leaves, over heat, rushing cold water – for about fifteen minutes. It ended and I was slightly dizzy.
“Get in the pool,” Alex said.
I submerged in 47 degree water. It was not shock but more of a numbing calm..