On top of ushering in nearly 21 inches of snow, the Chicago blizzard of 1979 may also have indirectly led to the birth of the modern health club in the city. Inches of snow piled on top of Lincoln Park's Lakeshore Indoor Racquet Club on the stormy morning of January 13. By afternoon the building's roof had caved in. Luckily, no one was injured in the accident, but the club's founders, Walter and Jordon Kaiser, were left with broken tennis courts and snow-covered debris. The two brothers, who had opened the club in 1972, decided there was only one thing to do: build something bigger and with more variety. O
The result-which the Kaisers renamed the Lakeshore Athletic Club when it reopened in 1980-was one of the first examples of the now ubiquitous multi-use health club. Commercial health clubs such as Bally Total Fitness seem as prevalent as McDonald's today, but 30 years ago there were few options to combine athletics. Before the collapse, the Kaisers' modest club only had tennis and racquetball courts. However, the Kaisers kept some Nautilus machines in a small corner of the club that many patrons used. When looking at plans to rebuild after the collapse, they wanted to keep the club busy during off-peak hours, so the Kaisers decided to keep the Nautilus equipment and expand the club beyond just tennis and racquetball. In their words, they envisioned a "glorified tennis club."
"We both found that the athletic end of the business was overtaking the [members'] interest, more than just tennis," Walter Kaiser, 74, remembers. "The athletic boom ... grew larger and larger, so we added tennis courts, basketball courts and a swimming pool."
In addition, the new flat-roof club expanded to include an aerobics room, a free-weight room, a quarter-mile indoor running track and restaurant/ bar area, resulting in one of the first modern health clubs in the city. (The East Bank Club, another pioneering Chicago fitness institution, also opened in 1980.)
"It was going to be our idea of a country club in a city without a golf course," Jordon Kaiser, 85, laughs. "It embodied the latest technology of aerobics and exercise workout and [the idea of] keeping people healthy by having them exercise all together in one building. It became an opportunity to expand our great big tennis and racquetball club into what was the health push of the future."
Lucky for the Kaisers, the timing and location seemed to fit. The club, at 1320 W. Fullerton Ave., was along a main drag in the growing Lincoln Park neighborhood. In the early 1980s, the formerly industrial neighborhood started becoming more and more residential, eventually paving the way for the prime real estate area it is now.
"We were in a neighborhood that was growing and gentrifying, so we began to incorporate families in the workout-husband, wives, children," Jordon Kaiser says. "When we had a rooftop party [a few months ago], we had third generation members, so that was very satisfying to us."
Both Kaisers speak passionately about their business and sports. As entrepreneurs and real estate developers, the Chicago natives have invested in sports for more than 30 years. In the 1970s, they owned a sports complex in Palatine as well as two team leagues - the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association, which no longer exists, and the Chicago Aces of World Team Tennis.
The Kaisers' gamble with health clubs, however, seems to be a lasting one. From the onset, Chicago residents seemed sold on the idea of a multi-use health club. In 1980, the Kaisers hosted a grand reopening party at Faces, a former nightclub that could only accommodate 700 people at the time.
"We made a deal for all our members to come, and 2,800 people came. They had to wait outside around the corner," Walter Kaiser laughs.
The Kaisers continue to operate the Lakeshore Athletic Club in Lincoln Park and two other Chicago locations. (A third location at 441 N. Wabash Ave. closed Sept. 30 at the expiration of its lease.) They also operate out-of-state locations in Costa Mesa, California (called The Spa) and Mishawaka, Indiana (called Pinnacle).
When Walter Kaiser pinpoints Lakeshore's lasting presence in Chicago, he proudly says, "We kept evolving." Blizzards and all.
Sheila Burt is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Reach her at email@example.com.