Thank You For Soaking

observatory mg 1506 Thank You For SoakingGod willing, at this very moment someone is scrambling eggs on a stove in an apartment overlooking the East River while at the same time gazing up at someone’s buttocks, pressed against a see-through Plexiglas bathtub, sunken, by design, into the floor above.

In the early 1980s, the late Paul Rudolph, noted architect and onetime dean of the Yale School of Architecture, incorporated such a tub into his dream apartment on the top three floors of 23 Beekman Place. The tub was still in working condition a few years ago, when hotelier and noted bathing enthusiast André Balazs had his birthday party there. “Of all the incredible bathtubs I’ve heard of in this city, that one takes it,” Mr. Balazs said.

At a gallery opening some four years ago, socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein, known about town for sparing no expense on plastic surgery, confessed another extravagance to this reporter: Keeping a pet monkey in a big Plexiglas cage installed above her gold-plated bathtub.

It stands to reason that in a city that has long been teeming with extremely rich, unabashedly decadent and hedonistic individuals, many great bathing tubs would exist, hidden from sight, behind the closed doors of mysterious, fabulous apartments. Finding them, alas, proved a difficult task.

The great Elaine Kaufman has seen a lot of characters walk through the doorway of her hallowed restaurant on Second Avenue. On a recent Friday evening, I pressed her on the subject of bathing and great bathtubs. After scrolling through the vast Rolodex of her mind, Ms. Kaufman said that the owner of Tavern on the Green, the late Warner LeRoy, used to have a great big tub in the middle of a large, windowed room in his penthouse apartment, with a commanding view of Central Park, which he liked to show off to guests.

She had little else to say on the subject. In her judgment, men who favored tubs have been lazier than their showering counterparts.

Indeed, only recently have we begun speaking openly about our growing love of a well-appointed bathtub, sufficient in depth and legroom. To this day, bathers have a bad rap, perhaps due to a pernicious rumor that soaking is somehow “less clean” than standing under a spray. (It doesn’t help that MSNBC’s Keith “Bathtub Boy” Olbermann is one of our icons, or that forgotten actor Craig Bierko is interviewing celebrities from his bathtub in his new column, superdeluxe.com.)

But this may be about to change. As Mr. Balazs puts it, Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, are in the midst of “a profoundly deep awakening about the pleasure and relaxing qualities of a bath.” A four-person tub in every apartment is one of the main selling points of his Wall Street residential development the William Beaver House, and he is currently building what he believes will be the city’s first true spa hotel, yet unnamed, on West 14th Street.

Mr. Balazs is one of the few people around willing to boast of his practice of ending his day with a relaxing tub; after returning from a tour of the legendary bathhouses that dot the peaks of Mount Fuji in Japan, he is completing the installation of a steam room in his Soho apartment.

Alas, in New York, only the very lucky or very rich even have a living room, let alone a nice bathtub.

But times are changing. High-end brokers and interior designers report that it is not uncommon for members of the growing multimillionaire club to spend upwards of $100,000 refurbishing a bathroom; residential developers say that in the past five years, a great bathtub has become a requisite accoutrement to luxury apartments, and Japanese soaking tubs are now de rigueuer at high-end hotels.