Body Building

An old hotel with historic associations now attracts therapists and bodyworkers

The blocky, six-story structure at the southwest corner of Broadway and 11th Street has a name—the St. Denis—and two addresses, 80 East 11th Street and 799 Broadway. Completed in 1853, it was a grand hotel when the area around Grace Church was a fancy shopping district. Designed by James Renwick Jr., the St. Denis gave shelter to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt and Buffalo Bill. Ulysses S. Grant used it as headquarters after the Civil War, and Alexander Graham Bell offered the first New York demonstration of the telephone here, in 1877. (An elegant spread in the May 2001 issue of Metropolis, with text by Mindy Aloff, documents the whole history of the site.)

The neighborhood foundered when the commercial center moved north, and the hotel became an office building in 1920, coming to house plasterers' and bakers' unions as well as the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American volunteers who fought the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Its dining rooms and restaurants are now antique shops and other retail outlets. Pioneering conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp rented suite 403 from 1965 until his death in 1968. Dialogue House, founded by depth psychologist Ira Progoff, has been a tenant since 1974, and the building is currently home to designers, small publishers, nutritionists, homeopaths, smoking cessation counselors, and, overwhelmingly, psychotherapists and bodyworkers, happy to fill the one-room suites with massage tables, stability balls, and the more complex paraphernalia of the contemporary health and fitness industry. The 150-year-old building has very thick walls, so the individual suites are quiet, perfect for the stress-busting activities they house. We talked to several current tenants, some of whom breathe the same political fire as earlier residents, though their methods are more contemporary.


Circle time: Pamela Warshay works out on a Gyrotonic Tower at Sage Fitness.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Circle time: Pamela Warshay works out on a Gyrotonic Tower at Sage Fitness.

JAE GRUENKE, a Feldenkrais practitioner and personal trainer, moved into the St. Denis (suite 201, 646-256-4414) in July; she rented there because "the building has a great vibe, it's known for people in related fields, it's close to Union Square and near my home. After six and a half years of making house calls all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, I felt the less travel, the better."

Feldenkrais, a form of somatic education, uses gentle movement and directed attention to enhance human functioning. It was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born physicist and judo expert who honed the technique to heal his own crippling knee injuries.

Gruenke, who also coordinates the Democracy in the Park cell phone efforts on Sunday afternoons in Tompkins Square, offers private sessions and workshops in "intelligent exercise," specialized for people experiencing a lot of physical stress, like pregnant women, senior citizens, and long-distance runners. She publishes a regular free newsletter, available at intelligentexercise.com.

In the coming weeks she'll be offering "What Runners (K)need to Know," a two-part workshop aimed at helping runners and walkers keep their knees functioning smoothly while preparing for the upcoming New York City Marathon (October 4 and November 1, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Chelsea Studios, 151 West 26th Street, sixth floor, $35 each, $60 for both). A session on October 5, "Feldenkrais: What Your Knees Need Now," has been designated a fundraiser for Run Against Bush (runagainstbush.org), a group trying to run Bush out of office; the $35 (or pay what you can) fee will be donated to the cause. Another workshop, "Running Freer and Faster," meets October 18 from 7 to 9, also at Chelsea Studios.


SUSAN BRAHAM, a former dancer and choreographer who first sublet at 80 East 11th Street 15 years ago, likes the building because "it's a very comfortable rent for this profession. It's quiet and well kept." Now in her own suite, she offers Swedish and deep tissue massage and Reiki bodywork, and also sees clients in Brooklyn, while subletting to two other practitioners (suite 639, 212-505-0136). (Another attraction of the building, many tenants observe, is management's easy attitude about sharing and subletting space, which helps defray the rents and the rising real estate taxes that are passed on to commercial tenants.)


MARTHA PARTRIDGEmoved into the building in 1993 (suite 440, 212-358-1083). In a peach-colored studio filled with exercise balls, stretchy bands, and other aids, she assists people dealing with Parkinson's, doing movement and hands-on work influenced by Milton Trager's approach as well as Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, and Pilates. "I do lots of walking up and down the hallways with my clients," she says. "That's why it's nice to have a friendly building. We borrow each other's stuff, and we pay each other rent if we need their spaces. It's like a nice college dorm with really mature people; I haven't met a practitioner in the building that isn't good." What she does is "movement education, not massage," and her work with clients feels like partnering, resembling the "fall and recovery" path of Humphrey-Limón dance technique—not surprising since Partridge, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence, trained with former Limón dancer Ruth Currier and taught at the Limón studio herself.

Clients are referred to Partridge from several area hospitals and by word of mouth; she has more work than she can currently handle, and has just taken on an associate.


Sage Fitness, the large suite PAMELA WARSHAY shares with other bodyworkers, looks like a nursery school for adults. It's full of equipment ranging from the hospital-plain "reformer," a spring-loaded bed used by Pilates instructors to lengthen and strengthen clients' muscles, to a curvy wood-and-metal contraption that might have been designed by a hobbit, but is in fact a "Gyrotonic Tower" developed by Juliu Horvath, a Hungarian dancer raised in Romania, after a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his career. Horvath founded the White Cloud studio in New York, but has recently relocated to Miami, says Warshay. His Gyrotonic Expansion System, which she teaches, is "all about arching and curling." Poised on the bench of the tower, you hold wooden handles that guide your shoulders and arms through sweeping circular movements—twists, spirals, and figure eights—improving posture and alignment, range of motion, and general flexibility. "You can add weight," says Warshay, "thus developing strength on one side while stretching the other." Lie on your back, insert your feet in little black slings, and the counterweights in the machine offer resistance and support as you move your legs in wide circles. All these exercises engage the "core" abdominal muscles, essential for general conditioning. The apparatus, which sells for about $5,500, is only available to certified instructors.

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