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STEINBERG: Aire Ancient Baths brings Roman luxury to River West

The flotarium, or salt bath, at the new Aire Ancient Baths Chicago on West Superior has the salt content of the Dead Sea, to facilitate floating.

The flotarium, or salt bath, at the new Aire Ancient Baths Chicago on West Superior has the salt content of the Dead Sea to facilitate floating. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

What do Chicagoans have in common with ancient Romans?

Beside living in a crumbling empire ruled by an unstable tyrant, that is.

Well, we’ve got our own Roman bath now.

Aire Ancient Baths Chicago, 800 W. Superior, opened late last month.

Doing my due diligence, I noticed something surprising: The Tribune, Crain’s, Chicago Magazine, TV stations, all noted that a Spanish company was opening a 20,000-square-foot bath complex in the basement of a rehabbed 1902 paint factory in River West. Then all overlooked one vital step in the journalistic process: The actually going there part.

As a former card-carrying member of the Division Street Russian Baths, I sensed an opportunity, and visited Aire last week.

But not before getting in the spirit by reading Seneca’s Epistle 86, where he discusses Roman baths. Seneca habitually praises the simple life, as only a fabulously wealthy man can, and so lauds the rustic baths of yore, with their chinks admitting light, so superior to the marble splendor of the baths of imperial Rome, with their big mirrors and fancy windows.

OPINION

Seneca’s scolding, combined with Aire offering a $450 bath in Spanish wine, inclined me to expect over-opulence. A place for Trump-era plutocrats to percolate away their excess cash.

So I was pleasantly surprised, walking in, to discover Aire has found the sweet spot between spartan and excessive. The tone is not gilt but exposed brick and rough-hewn beams. You are assigned a white glass locker, change into a bathing suit — it’s co-ed — and little black water shoes, then plunge into the bath complex.

I gasped at my first glimpse of the flotarium, a large saltwater pool. Lights are low, a practice applauded by Seneca: “Our ancestors did not think that one could have a hot bath except in darkness.” Blue pools outlined in flickering candles, 30-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings, large vases, archways, and all sorts of interesting architectural nooks. Orienting yourself takes time; it’s a spa you can get lost in.

Next to the salt pool, one leading outside to a waterfall, with billows of steam rising into the December sky—my favorite spot.

There is a hot pool, and a number of cold pools, plus a pair of steam rooms. The glass walls, dimness, silence and solitude combine for a disembodying effect. The real world bubbles away, and you find yourself as far from Chicago winter as you can get for $70, the base weekday price for 90 minutes of soaking.

That’s a lot, especially since I could easily spend three or four hours at the Russian Baths. Yes, Aire will happily extend your 90 minutes at $26 per half hour. But emerging to a $278 tab could easily harsh your mellow. Mine anyway. This is definitely where being rich helps, and in Aire’s defense, they keep the population down: a maximum of 20 patrons at a time. Sure, King Spa in Niles charges $35 for 24 hours — $23 with a Groupon. But King Spa is lit like a garden center, can be crowded as an O’Hare causeway and about as elegant.

Criticisms? I would have the hot pool and steam rooms hotter — annealed in the furnace of the Russian Baths, perhaps. The pan flute music intended to foster meditation seemed more likely to induce madness, though I eventually managed to tune it out.

A few missteps were my fault — entering one pool I made the mistake of assuming a metal handrail meant there were steps in — there were, on the other side — and the unexpected plunge was jarring. There is a self-administered salt exfoliation scrub where I managed to inexpertly fling a handful of salt into my mouth. A word of advice: don’t do that.

Dark-clad attendants ping a bell when it’s time to go, and I found I did not want to leave, vowing to return in the depths of February (plan ahead; in New York, Aire books two months in advance).

Aire is a welcome addition to the city, a jewel, really, a novel and intriguing environment Chicagoans should considering splurging on, if only for the experience of having been there. We’ve got a long winter ahead of us. We have to get through best we can.