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When in Rome, or Chicago: thermal baths open in former paint factory

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- Chicagoans looking to soak in ancient Roman thermal pools, housed inside a somewhat less ancient restored former paint factory: Your bath is almost ready.

Aire Ancient Baths, a Spanish company, is opening a 20,000-square-foot facility in the River West neighborhood later this month, featuring cold, warm and hot baths, a salt water flotarium, and other spa amenities that were all the rage two millennia ago.

"The whole concept is to bring back the tradition of Greek and Roman bathhouses," said Silvia Barnett, a spokeswoman for Aire Ancient Baths.

The expansive subterranean baths will occupy the restored basement at 800 W. Superior St., a wing of the century-old River West Plaza building that originally housed the DeVoe & Raynolds paint factory.

The historic location is not an accident for Aire, which launched in Seville, Spain, in 2001 and expanded to New York in 2012.

"In each city we open, we find a historical building, we bring it back to its original splendor," Barnett said.

The restoration and build-out took two years and cost $10 million, Barnett said.

The baths occupy space that most recently housed a nightclub. A lot of the original elements -- from wooden beams and steel columns to brick walls -- have been restored and exposed to create the right setting for an ancient bathing experience that will likely be new to most Chicagoans.

A staple of ancient Roman culture, the thermal baths feature a circuit from ice to cold to warm to hot pools. Other Aire experiences include a private candlelit soak in red wine and a flotarium -- a salt-water pool with the density of the Dead Sea.

In case patrons are contemplating bringing a straw, the wine bath is nonalcoholic, but an accompanying scalp message should accomplish any desires to reach a mood-altered state. The bath also won't stain your skin red, Barnett said.

A feature unique to Chicago is an indoor-outdoor pool, with an adjustable temperature for year-round swimming.

Massages, steam rooms, aromatherapy and a relaxation area featuring heated marble stones and refreshments are also offered.

Hourly fees run from $70 for a 90-minute dip in the thermal baths to $400 for the private wine bath plus massage. Weekend rates are slightly higher and potentially much harder to book. Barnett said there is a two-month weekend waiting list in New York.

The baths are coed and are limited to about 20 people at a time to create a "tranquil" space, Barnett said. Swimsuits are required. The facility bans cellphones and watches and also requests that patrons use their indoor voices at all times.

"We have a silence policy," she said. "We ask people to keep their voices low."

Aire has four locations in Spain, with New York opening the door to international expansion. Beyond Chicago, the company is planning to open facilities in Paris, London and a second New York location next year, with Copenhagen, Denmark, slated for 2019.

The baths are always located underground, Barnett said, to help patrons get the most out of the experience, and essentially forget where they really are.

"We want to create spaces that you can kind lose the sense of time and space," Barnett said. "It's like traveling somewhere without leaving your city."

Chicago has been in the company's sights for years, in part because of its architectural history.

"We knew that Chicago was a city that really connected with our concept of bringing back to life historical buildings, an appreciation for architecture," she said.

Built in 1902, the DeVoe building -- a four-building complex -- was converted into office spaces in the late 1980s but retains the original facade of its factory roots.

(c)2017 Chicago Tribune

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