North Avenue Baths Building
by: chicago designslinger
[North Avenue Baths Building (1921) Levy & Klein, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
If you labor outside on a hot day you sweat. If you go to the bathhouse steam room you schvitz. Schvitz, sweat, your body is doing the same thing but under very different circumstances. You purposefully go to take a schvitz, sweating is another matter altogether. And you never go to the baths "to schvitz," you go "take" a schvitz "at" the schvitz.
[North Avenue Baths Building, 2039 W. North Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The schvitzing bathhouse was different than say a bathhouse owned and operated by the city. The privately run bathhouse usually catered to immigrant Jewish men and women from Eastern European - a holdover from the old country. Harry Kaplan's North Avenue Turkish and Russian Baths wasn't the first schvitzer on Chicago's near northwest side, there was a bathhouse around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue, and one about a mile away on Division Street. But the Wicker Park community in around the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee had a large immigrant Polish population and Kaplan's business venture was popular and profitable. Take a schvitz, get a massage, relax, talk business, have some borscht and rye bread with a hard boiled egg in the dining room, and make an afternoon or evening of it. In the 1970s the Chicago Police Department had undercover cops working at the North Avenue Baths which were often frequented by gentlemen supposedly associated with organized crime who used the facility as a meeting place.
[North Avenue Baths Building, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Russian and Turkish experiences were different in temperature and humidity. The Russian schvitz was wetter and not as warm as the Turkish. In the Turkish style you schvitzed in a warm room and cooled down by dumping a bucket of water over yourself. In the Russian style you sat in a hotter room and poured cold water over incredibly hot rocks, creating steam, and causing intense schvitzing. Both included a plunge in a cold water pool which either ended your experience, or cooled you down enough to go back in for another round. In either situation a massage, or rubdown, on your warm mushy muscles added to the overall experience.
[North Avenue Baths /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The North Avenue Baths held on until the late 1980s. By then the younger generation sweated in a sauna at the gym as part of a work-out routine - no one seemed interested in just schvitzing anymore. The baths sat empty, were almost torn down, went-up for auction, and were purchased by Steve Soble and Howard Natinsky in 1994. They spent over a million dollars converting the upper floors into apartments and the ground floor into a restaurant.