In the 1980's, Leo Stern made a huge concession to modern expectations of climate control at his second-floor walk-up gym in North Park. He did so after 40 years of Hot-as-blazes summers and nothing but windows shoved up air.
New fitness centers that had sprung up around the city boasted central air conditioning. They pumped waves of coolness over their members, men and women in color-coordinated Spandex.
Stern bought a few electric fans. This is the kind of hew-to-the-course management style that, despite a half century of gusting trends, has preserved Stern's Gym in a pristine state-its decor what you might call ambiance de iron.
From its inception, the place had been a lodestone for hardcore bodybuilders.
At the end of its first year, Stern's Gym needed more space. Stern leased the second floor of a building on Grenada Avenue in North Park. Only the previous tenants refused to vacate the premises.
Stern and his pals bid their time. When the ex-tenant left the building one day, they moved his bowling alley and pool hall out, and moved the gym in-where it has remained ever since. Below the gym in those days a kosher chicken slaughter house. "the odor was so bad in the summertime that people walked on the other side of the street". Stern remembered. "but the rent was cheap. at 5 p.m. each day, when the rendering truck drove up, weightlifters rushed across the gym floor to shut the windows to the stink of it.
Sterns first opened the gym for business May 13, 1946, on Menlo Avenue near Hoover High School. "I worked 90 hours a week for the first month," he recalled, "and I made $50."
It would be an understatement to say weightlifting was not popular. In fact, Stern said, "it was frowned upon. People didn't understand it. We were ridiculed for working out with weights." But Stern said a small group of friends persisted. "we did it because we enjoyed it. We believed in what we were doing." And, in any case, "I didn't give a damn what anybody else thought."
To promote the gym and the sport, he arranged weightlifting demonstrations like "The Symphony of Strength" performed as an assembly program at Hoover in 1947.
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For about 20 years, Stern's Gym had no heat. "It was so cold in the winter, sometimes the gyms had to wear gloves," Stern recalled. Otherwise, when they sweated, the palms of their hands would stick to the iron bars. "I had to put heat in about the '60s, " he said. "There were so many complaints, and the membership dropped."
The 1970s brought large mirrors to Stern's Gym, a fashion that had begun in New York in the 1920s. The 80's brought music - for a while, until the aggrevation got to be too much for Stern. "I'd be walking down the street," he explained, "and somebody'd come out to the fire escape and yell at me to change the music. I wasn't running a music hall." He yanked the music out instead.