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Division Street baths are back and better than ever

Updated: March 17, 2013 6:10PM

When various forms of communication are being discussed — email, Twitter, text, cellphone — no one ever mentions sitting naked in a hot room, conversing, and for that reason I tended to scoff whenever anyone claimed that the Division Street Russian Baths were re-opening.

Yes, the building is still there, at 1914 W. Division. But the practical need is gone. When the baths opened in 1906, people went there to get clean, because their tenement didn’t have a shower. Now indoor plumbing is ubiquitous. Moreso, the social need is also gone. We communicate electronically. So the idea of going somewhere special to talk seems odd . . . heck, we can barely manage to speak to those standing right in front of us.

Sure, there is nostalgia for a place like the baths. There is nostalgia for old gas stations, too, but were I to open a Texaco with a squad of eager attendants in snappy uniforms and peaked caps, people would stop by for a fill-up once, realize they are paying a quarter more a gallon, and never return.

To my vast surprise, the Russian baths did re-open in January, as “Red Square.” Which struck me as dubious. To my thinking, if you have a name like “The Division Street Russian Baths,” changing it is like the Berghoff family renaming its restaurant “17 West” — a sure sign they have lost track of their souls.

But I had been a member of the baths for years and wasn’t about to let any new name stop me. The baths were open! I visited Tuesday, passing under the new red awning. There was no little barred window, no display of Hav-A-Hanks or black Ace Unbreakable Pocket Combs. No Jimmy Colucci, his hair Brylcreemed. Instead a friendly Russian gal, Alexandra — OK, an improvement.

“Have you been here before?” she asked.

“Years ago,” I sighed.

Admission, which was $14 in 1990, when I first went, is $30 now. They give you two towels, a robe and a sheet, plus a numbered wristband used to track your purchases.

Gone is the decor I thought of as “1930s boxing club.” No posters of Tony Zale. But the entrance is a pleasant medley of polished wood and red brick, with a large, sepia Russian cityscape painted in the restaurant area. It wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t bad either.

Downstairs, lockers, then a hall with chaises and flat-screen TVs, paneled with pine, leading to the showers. In a previous remodeling, in 2007, they had gone for a sponge-painted effect, which looked like a suburban hair salon. But this is all blue tile and stone and wood, upscale and elegant. Inside the main sauna is the same configuration as before — three tiers of benches, the oven redone, artfully, with brick, but the same little arched door, and a ladle to nudge it open and toss in water to stoke the heat up.

The sauna still has that intense Russian baths heat — the sauna in most health clubs is a warm damp place by comparison. I sat on the upper tier, happily baking, looking around, thinking. “I’m back — the past is returned.”

I was glad they kept the same layout — you’re in the exact spot that Nelson Algren and John Belushi frequented, where Saul Bellow once took John Cheever.

I heard a faint voice from outside. “Bro?” My brother — we were together the first time I went in 1990, and going back didn’t seem a task to do without him. He padded in, we took the heat, talking about the range: family, jobs, life. When the heat grew intense, I’d fill one of several black rubber fire buckets with cold water and dump it over my head with a shout — revivifying. The fire buckets, I noted gratefully, are exactly as before, only newer.

After an hour of this, we repaired upstairs to the restaurant, which has a satisfyingly quirky train motif, complete with velvet tassled curtains framing windows revealing video of trackside snapping by. We ate Russian salad — chopped tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce in sour cream, chicken kebabs over saffron rice and pelmini dumplings. It wasn’t just good, it was gooood. The chicken, moist and hot, the dumplings fat and friendly. My brother had an icy shot of Russian Standard vodka, I drank a big fresh cup of Julius Meinl coffee. The service was excellent.

The new owners plan to put a bed and breakfast upstairs, which sounds like a good plan — as it is, just camping in the chaises for 20 minutes after the sauna felt like being on vacation at a spa. I can’t imagine a full day there, but I’d sure like to give it a try.

Afterward, bounding down the steps and into the brisk air of Division Street, I had that exhilarating, three-hours-at-the-baths-and-back-into-regular-life feeling of rejuvenation. I was doubly pleased to realize that nostalgia — the heroin of old folks — has not yet bound me in its grip. The Division Street Russian Baths are back; they’re different, but better. (I’m going to work my way up to calling the place “Red Square,” the way old-timers called 437 Rush “Riccardo’s” for its first 10 years.) My brother and I shook hands, parted, and vowed we’ll come back soon.

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