Mid-century fitness: vintage gyms

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For today’s vintage-loving mid-century modern person who is looking to stay vigorously active, there’s nothing like finding an older weight training gym that hasn’t changed much in several decades. There’s just a special kind of rush from being in that old-school, no-frills atmosphere, with the concrete or wooden floors, the brick walls or dark wood wall paneling, the sound of clanking iron, the rows of fixed-weight barbells leaning on a stand that resembles a rifle rack, and the rickety old machines that look like something from a torture chamber.

If such an environment seems a little too gritty and lacking in the glamour that we tend to associate with the elegant vintage life, remember that plenty of stars of Old Hollywood regularly spent time in such gyms so that they could develop and maintain a healthy, trim, and athletic build for their movie roles as well as their public image. As discussed in previous posts on Living MCM, strength training with weights is for everybody.

Today, decades-old gyms with vintage character seem to be few and far between, since they have tended to close down as new gyms constantly come and go, or become overly commercialized and change so much and so often to accommodate the latest fitness fads that they no longer bear any resemblance to their original forms. Alas, Vince’s Gym in north Hollywood and Ed Yarick’s Physical Culture Studio in Oakland are no more. Venerable old upper-crust athletic clubs are priced way too high for regular everyday folks, and they have become trendy fitness studios instead of retaining their old-school charm.

Finding a gym dating back to the 1960s or before is like finding a hidden stash of treasure. In the continental US, a few examples of old-school gyms that have kept the old-school atmosphere are Doug’s Gym in Dallas, TX, dating back to 1962; Easton Gym, in Hollywood since 1938; and two other west coast gyms from the 1940s that I will highlight here.

Stern’s Gym, San Diego, CA

On a nondescript side street in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood, on the second floor of an older brick building that houses a Chinese laundry on the ground level, you will find Stern’s Gym, started by Mr. San Diego and Mr. California winner Leo Stern in 1946. When I first saw the vintage neon sign on the outside of the building (pictured up above), I almost passed this place up because I assumed the sign was just there as a historic landmark, and I didn’t think the gym was actually still operating (those who are interested in vintage roadside signage will understand the assumption).

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It’s a good thing I looked into Stern’s further! Walk up the wooden flight of stairs, and you will find a small space packed with all the fitness equipment you truly need to keep in shape: free weights, machines, and chin-up and dip stations. They even have cardio machines and StairMasters (of course, you could always run up and down their actual wooden stairway instead).

Loprinzi’s Gym, Portland, OR

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Tucked away in a residential neighborhood in southeast Portland is the quintessential community gym. The Loprinzis were an Italian-American family with several brothers who were involved in physical culture and athletics from the 1930s onward. Their legacy lives on in this gym, which was first opened in 1948.

The upper level is an open studio with various fitness classes offered for free. Outside is a small swimming pool for those few months out of the year when it’s warm and dry enough in the Pacific Northwest to exercise outdoors. And of course, the ground floor of Loprinzi’s has abundant free weights, with benches and racks, and a full set of vintage globe-style dumbbells like you only see in the old movies.

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There are also a number of older machines in a coordinated blue and red color scheme that allow you to focus on just about any muscle you can imagine, for a thorough workout. You can even exercise your neck from four different angles!

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When I work out at places like Stern’s and Loprinzi’s, I find the long history to be a great motivator. I believe that physical fitness should be incorporated into vintage and retro living. As the mid-century fitness expert Jack LaLanne used to say, “You eat every day, you sleep every day, and your body was made to exercise every day!” And there’s no better way to do so than to find an old landmark gym that transports you back to your beloved bygone era.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Living MCM…

Further reading:

History of Stern’s Gym

The Loprinzi brothers

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