Updated June 2005
The aqueous features of Manhattan dried up a long time ago. Canal Street no longer has a canal, the Collect Pond was drained to make way for Chinatown and Federal Plaza, and the stacks of the public library at 42nd Street have taken the place of the reservoir. Aside from the lakelets of Central Park, it might as well be a desert island. But water has been making a comeback in the form of private swimming pools, appearing in lofty, unlikely places.
The Mandarin Oriental hotel, in the Time Warner colossus at Columbus Circle, starts on the 35th floor. Its pool, one floor up, is open only to hotel guests and residents of the condominiums above. The pool is a narrow trough, 75 feet long and about 4 feet deep. It is emphatically for swimming, as opposed to relaxing, a pool where a busy CEO might get his energy up before heading to the office to outsource a thousand jobs to Bangalore. A wall of windows looks out to the Hudson—or, rather, to the apartments that overlook the Hudson and, just behind them, the Hudson. As I’m drying off, a woman and two men, all wearing identical gray business suits, come in to look the place over. We take in the privileged view of the Queen Mary 2 inching her way between the buildings, past the Concorde, which now sits on an aircraft carrier in the river. I briefly contemplate stealing my towel.
Although twenty stories lower than the one at the Mandarin, the 45-foot pool at the Hotel Gansevoort has a better view by far: a 360 degree panorama of the city. New Jersey is brilliantly close, with a nice shot of the green patinated copper of the old Lackawanna marine terminal. The Gansevoort towers over everything around it, a metal-clad giraffe set down among the charming grime of its hunched West Village neighbors. This contrast—the tsunami of unchecked affluence washing over the formerly proletarian streets of the meatpacking district—is mirrored in the music throbbing from the sound system: a dance remix of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s way too loud for this sunny morning, giving the place a hungover, up-all-night feeling. Combined with the hotel guest with the slicked hair in the lavender sweater, smoking a fat cigar and talking on his cell phone, it adds a touch of South Beach ick factor, which dissipates once I get beneath the surface. I can still hear the music, though, piped in via underwater speakers. It’s kind of cool. But one of the great transporting things about swimming is the blocking-out of extraneous noise with the rush of bubbles and the restful chuff of one’s own breathing. Still, it is a lovely (solitary) swim, and lovelier still to dry off on the deck under a great bowl of big sky. Looking down and diagonally across the street, I can see my next stop: the pool on top of Soho House.
Although technically closer to the river, the seventh-floor Soho House rooftop deck faces east, looking directly over the mini-Flatiron at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, where Ed Harris’s character kills himself in The Hours. The pool here is smaller than the others, just 32 by 15 feet. Swimming in it is more gestural than active, a small part of what must be a thriving roof-deck scene in high season. It’s the kind of place one could park oneself all day and be discovered like Lana Turner. Except, of course, that this is Soho House, an expensive private club with a notably celebrity-heavy membership. If you’re here, you’ve already been discovered.