Sweating the loss of Coles gym, my workout haven

The N.Y.U. Coles gym, on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts., has been closed and is set to be razed. It its place, the university plans to build a far larger building, currently known only as the “Zipper,” due to the design’s zigzag shape when viewed from above.   Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie
The N.Y.U. Coles gym, on Mercer St. between Houston and Bleecker Sts., has been closed and is set to be razed. It its place, the university plans to build a far larger building, currently known only as the “Zipper,” due to the design’s zigzag shape when viewed from above. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie

BY KATHRYN ADISMAN | Jerome S. Coles Sports and Recreation Center, 1981 to 2016, R.I.P.

Sunday, Feb. 21, was the last day of Coles. New York University’s gym was closed — despite community and faculty opposition — to pave the way for N.Y.U. 2031, a 2-million-square-foot expansion plan slated for the university’s two South Village superblocks.

Though this has been pending for years, I could not bring myself to go and say my farewell. It felt like saying goodbye to my New York.

Grief-stricken over a gym!?

More than a gym, Coles was a center, as its name said. One of my last favorite places in Manhattan, Coles has existed as long as I’ve been in the city.

It opened in September 1981 and seemed to herald a new era for N.Y.U., then still known as a commuter school. Back in the late ’60s, I commuted from my grandmother’s apartment on the Upper East Side to — gasp! — Greenwich Village to take classes at N.Y.U.

When I returned in 1982 as a grad student at the Tisch School of the Arts, Coles was here. Coles has been part of my life ever since I joined the gym as a school alumna 30 years ago.

Increasingly, I found myself in the hypocritical position of supporting my alma mater — whose aggressive acquisition of property and destruction of Greenwich Village landmarks I found insupportable — in order to maintain my membership at Coles.

That’s how much I loved the place — I made a deal with the devil just to belong there. There are so few places left that I feel passionate about in the city, and Coles was one.

Home away from home. Refuge from the city. Oasis of spaciousness. It afforded a sense of privacy and personal space in the midst of community.

“Everybody loves Coles,” said film teacher Daniel Heffernan. N.Y.U. estimated the place was frequented by more than 3,000 people on a daily basis.

“Coles was the main reason I got my master’s at N.Y.U., and the prospect of ongoing alum membership was what motivated me to finish my thesis,” said Janet, an alumna.

In a world where very little makes sense, Coles, the Guggenheim of gyms — with its wraparound balconies overlooking basketball courts two levels below and fences that functioned as a ballet barre where I used to stretch, once upon a time — made some kinda wonderful sense.

It was designed by Wank Adams Slavin Associates, an offshoot of the architectural firm that designed Grand Central Terminal. On the outside, the one-story aboveground structure, with its modest, khaki-colored brick that blended in with the surroundings, was deemed ugly by one visitor. Yet she had to admit the unprepossessing exterior masked a world of variety behind the wide double-door entranceway under a glass canopy inviting you inside. It was surprising to discover how much was there: 142,000 square feet and five levels — counting squash courts and rooftop running track.

“WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” asked a sign next to the elevator, posting a list of levels: L (lobby); N (natatorium — pool); FH (field house), each with separate areas. Just like in a department store. Remember those?

At Coles, there was someplace to go, as well as someplace to be. It reminded me of the old Washington Square Park, before the redesign. There were locations within the location, hidden from view, to explore.

Your workout might be limited to pedaling a stationary bike and weights, but there was always something going on: basketball, fencing, wrestling matches, tennis, badminton, volleyball, cheerleader rehearsal. It added to your total experience of the theater of the gym.

Talk about diversity, Coles had it — not just in its facilities, but also in its members. It was truly a melting pot, where faculty, students, alums, administrators and community members of all ages mingled.

Here’s what you could do at Coles: grab a sectional chair on wheels in the lobby lounge and pull up ringside to the plexiglass observation deck, and from the balcony look down on swimmers in the lap and diving pools below, like peering into a giant aquarium.

I was lucky to work in a place I loved when I got hired by assistant director of recreation Gail Stentiford to be an instructor of Feldenkrais, one of hundreds of recreation courses she administered. To any regular gym-goer, Gail was the face of Coles.

At the last recreation staff meeting in September 2014, at which Stentiford announced her retirement after 34 years, she referred to N.Y.U. as a “real estate maven” and predicted, “This president [John Sexton] won’t resign until the shovel is in the ground.”

Sexton stepped down as university president this January.

The new “Zipper Building” planned to replace Coles would be 21 stories, said Stentiford, and would have designer boutiques, such as Prada on the ground floor.

“It’s not about money,” she concluded. “It’s about space.”

Is there life after Coles?

Squash instructor Daniel Tai is looking forward to a new air-conditioned state-of-the-art athletic facility, which he hopes can be completed in less than five years. He cites all that wasted space at Coles.

But what about the value of space itself? Admitting he’ll miss “the expansive atrium space where you could see everything happening below,” Tai feels an updated, new facility is worth the trade-off and can’t wait to play on the air-conditioned squash courts.

Michael, an administrator, said, “The spaciousness of Coles was something I knew would never be replicated.” He’s resigned to 404 Lafayette St., the interim space he describes as “a glorified storefront — just like every other gym in the city.”

A Feldenkrais student of mine said Lafayette St. is “as bright as an arcade,” in contrast to Coles, where the low lighting was conducive to calm. We need more, not fewer such spaces in the city now.

It’s the end of an era — for N.Y.U., as well as for me.

The demolition of Coles and projected five-year construction plan reverberates beyond the gym, Mercer-Houston Dog Run and satellite shops. A swath of prime real estate across from the Angelika Film Center, the spot is a gateway to Soho.

What will I miss?

Custodians’ bins on wheels rolling down the halls? The photos of star athletes’ faces on the walls? The drone…er, hum…of the ventilation system? Teaching in the fencing salle to constant interruptions? That male announcer with the bullhorn and deafening whistle during women’s basketball! The world’s slowest elevator? Toilet stalls without latches? Orange metal lockers? Wall fans croaking to a halt? The water fountain outside the weight room that suddenly spurts? N.Y.U.’s color, purple, filling my eyes in a strangely soothing way? Yes to all of it!

Regrets? That I never used the sauna — or climbed to the roof one last time for a panoramic view of Greenwich Village, before the demolition sweeps Coles away.