To peek inside the windows of the WoofSpa and Resort at 678 Hudson Street was once to glimpse a real-life Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painting in action: Dogs of every breed lounged on leather dog furniture in the lobby. Multicolored Andy Warhol–esque portraits of the proprietor’s Wheaten Terriers adorned the walls. And for non-canine glitz, the likes of Ed Burns, Julianne Moore, Lili Taylor, Molly Ringwald and Molly Shannon coming through the front doors was unbeatable.
But this fall, a sign was posted to the entrance, dated Sept. 15, announcing that the pet spa had been “forced out” of its lease.
In fact, the departure of WoofSpa from the meatpacking district was the culmination of a prolonged legal struggle with its landlord over tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, as well as numerous regulatory violations and customer complaints of less-than-luxurious animal accommodations.
WoofSpa owner Keith Acker, who on more than one occasion during the life of his business spoke to trend-spotting reporters eager for pampered-pooch stories featuring him, wouldn’t comment on the shuttering.
“Neither I or WoofSpa will be responding to or commenting on your inquiries,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Observer.
But an attorney for the building’s management, acknowledging the legal struggle with the business, said that WoofSpa had not been evicted.
“They just got up and left,” he said.
The sudden shuttering came as little surprise to some disgruntled patrons, who became dissatisfied with the upscale dog-hotel.
“With the fake Le Corbusier sofas and fake Warhols, it was very much geared toward the West Village aesthetic done doggie-style,” said one neighborhood dog owner and former client, who wanted her name—and that of her precious pooch—withheld. “Keith really tapped into something, knowing that there was a certain comfort level that us West Village–meatpacking [district]–Chelsea residents felt in leaving our dogs somewhere stylish.”
Conversations with several patrons revealed that however luxurious-looking the place may have been, a kennel is still finally an indoor place where lots of dogs spend lots of time; dogs with rich owners, it turns out, don’t smell any better than the less fortunate of their species, making the prospect of an upscale kennel seem, at best, paradoxical.
And indeed, beyond its chic-looking lobby, behind the large black doors, the style-conscious anonym (and several other visitors) described a backroom with cages and fenced-in playpens more typical of a traditional shelter.
In the center of its cement floor, they remember seeing a large drain reminiscent of a communal shower.
For months, she reported no problems while her little dog “hung out in the lobby every day on the leather sofas and looked out the window,” she said. “He loved it there.”
But one day, her dog was bit in the face by another dog. And though WoofSpa employees responsibly rushed the pup to the vet and even covered its medical bills, she wasn’t pleased to hear that her dog’s attacker was also readmitted to WoofSpa.
Then, one day in the summer of 2004, she was tipped off by an internal WoofSpa whistleblower that her precious pooch had been caged up and locked in a closet in the back, with no water. Sure enough, that’s how she found him. She demanded her money back and vowed to never return.
Ever since, she and another dog owner—whose pet was also confined to the same closet—have referred to the place as “doggie Abu Ghraib.”
“You hear bad stories about all of them,” she said of dog-care providers in general. “But I’ve never heard WoofSpa-caliber stories about any place else.”
Another less frequent WoofSpa patron, Mary Ann Puccia, said she swore off the place after just two visits. The second time she came to pick up her tiny Papillon, she said, employees couldn’t immediately recall what they’d done with him. It turned out that her pet had been stuck inside his zippered carrier and stashed behind the reception desk.
“God knows how long he’d been in there! He may very well have been in there since the moment I dropped him off before 9 o’clock in the morning, and it was after 6 when I picked him up,” said Ms. Puccia, adding that it appeared her pup hadn’t been fed, either.
“The food container in the side of the bag was still there,” she continued. “All these huge dogs—including a malamute—were loitering and sniffing around his bag when I picked him up. The other dogs were probably sniffing out the food.
“Ever since that experience, he’s a maniac in his carrier,” she added. “It was very traumatic.”
Jordan Kaplan, owner of the Petaholics dog-walking and sitting service, has heard many similar WoofSpa tales.
“New Yorkers have a very high expectation of how they want their pets treated,” said Mr. Kaplan. “But, with that being said, this was just far and above any other companies that we were hearing about. Just a lot of bad news. Not just one disgruntled client, but a lot of people.”
Despite the negative pet-community chatter, WoofSpa was never once reported to the Humane Law Enforcement Office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a private entity that routinely investigates complaints of animal abuse throughout the state.
But WoofSpa’s record with city regulators is not so uneventful.
In 2004, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene cited WoofSpa for lacking the very permit necessary to operate a pet-care facility. The business eventually got one, according to a health-department spokesperson. But the business also went on to rack up multiple citations for its employees lacking the proper animal-care certification, as well as for regularly failing to file the required self-inspection reports.
WoofSpa was further hounded by Department of Buildings, which sent inspectors there at least four times and issued two citations for “illegal use of space for dog kennel.”
Zoning regulations, it turns out, don’t allow for dog-boarding facilities in residential and most commercial districts, classifying such places in the same category as human crematoriums, “[p]oultry or rabbit killing establishments,” and other semi-industrial enterprises that involve “offensive noise” and “odorous matter.”
Of course, no self-respecting Manhattan pet-care center would ever market itself as a “kennel,” even though many do provide overnight accommodations for mutts en masse.
“We tend to not shun that word, but we don’t like to toss it around because we’re really not a ‘kennel’ atmosphere,” said Rachel Deichman, manager of WoofSpa rival Biscuits & Bath in Greenwich Village, a self-described “cage-free facility” that instead provides “glass-enclosed corrals” for pets that stay the night.
For WoofSpa, the Building Department’s insulting “kennel” designation initially amounted to only a $400 fine, city records show. But the issue did come back to bite the dysfunctional doggie-care center during legal proceedings earlier this year.
As the landlord moved to evict WoofSpa over more than $40,000 in unpaid rent—which Mr. Acker attributed to adjacent construction driving off his customers with noxious fumes and vermin spillover—a lawyer representing the building’s condo owners further strengthened the case for removal by pointing out how WoofSpa’s “use of the premises is in violation of the zoning regulations,” according to court papers.
On July 31, the WoofSpa and its landlord reached an agreement to keep Mr. Acker in business so long as he made weekly payments of more than $12,000 to pay back his debt. He further pledged to operate “in accord with all zoning regulations.”
A month and half later, the WoofSpa moved out, leaving behind a pile of boxes and chewed-up furniture on the sidewalk, as well as a sign indicating that management was planning on “re-establishing our business in a new location.” (Calls to a posted cell-phone number were not returned.)
Real-estate broker Faith Hope Consolo, who’s now marketing the former WoofSpa space, declined to comment on Mr. Acker’s abrupt exit but said she expects the next retail tenant to be “more typical of the neighborhood.”