Meet David Barton, King of the Pimped-Out Gym

He no longer runs the chain of nightclub-vibed gyms that bear his name, but as he opens his New York gym, TMPL, David Barton talks health, sex, and feeling great at 51.

03.23.16 9:25 AM ET

The scene is a blurring riot of workmen carrying planks, extension leads, banging, drilling, giant inflatable animals standing guard next to a swimming pool, and two floors of gleaming, unused gym equipment.

Periodically, the emergency evacuation announcement is tested, with accompanying demented whirring.

At the center of the controlled chaos, a 5-foot-5 extremely muscular man, dressed like a New Romantic pirate, smiles gently at a reporter and tells him that he is four minutes early, and that everything today is scheduled to the last minute.

In a few hours time, New York’s most beautiful will descend on David Barton’s new gym, TMPL, in Hell’s Kitchen for a raucous opening night party—appropriate, because much like the gyms that made, and still carry, Barton’s name this one feels like a nightclub.

As Barton’s gym aficionados will recognize, it’s there in the dim lighting, the proud lack of natural light, the machines black and sleek in the gloam, and the very handsome and pretty who come to work out the Barton way.

At this joint, it’s also right there in the huge painting of a pair of red lips, holding a golden pill. For Barton, very personally, exercise is both the drug that gives him his best high, and a more innocent cure-all medicine. TMPL is a play on “temple,” which Barton—who works out seven days a week, pairing two muscle groups per session—says the gym is to him.

“I love gyms,” he says. “I just love the gym. I call this TMPL because the gym is my temple. This is where I come to get right with the universe. I guess if I was a Buddhist I’d go to a Buddhist temple. This is my temple.”

It must be strange, not opening this venue in his own name. “David Barton Gym” is a brand that is now nothing to do with him, but still with gyms in New York, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Boston.

He doesn’t seem downcast. Indeed, Barton’s body is on full, peacock display. His tight white jeans have painted scrawls over them by artist Kenny Scharf. He has butch, black boots, a faded stars-and-stripes tank stop, and a black cloak, also armless, over that.

His mountainous biceps would make Popeye chug protein shakes, rather than spinach. A black hat with a glittery strip barely conceals a little bleached cowlick peeping out from below.

Barton looks both like a gym bunny, and an old-time Downtown boho, which he sort of is. Also darting around, overseeing party arrangements, is Barton’s wife, Susanne Bartsch, Manhattan’s alternative scene party queen.

She is dressed in a red jumpsuit, and is fizzing with party planning orders and ideas, and is being trailed by a camera crew. They are married, though they separated a few years ago. Apparently still close friends, they live near each other in Chelsea, and are clearly committed parents to their 22-year-old son Bailey, who is studying classics at Brown.

“We call it a work in progress,” Barton says of his and Bartsch’s marriage. “We get along great, and sometimes better than others.”

I ask if they’d decided not to divorce.

“It’s more that we haven’t decided not to divorce,” Barton says, smiling. “We’re very much in each other’s lives. We get along great. We went away together a couple of weeks ago. We do things with our son together. I see her all the time.”

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Barton parted company with his self-named gym chain in 2013, he tells me, bored by the corporate grind of running so many gyms.

TMPL, he hopes—40,000 square feet, three levels, the usual aesthetic vibe of sex, sweat, and nightclub, with pumping music—will restore his gym-owning mojo.

There is the gorgeous pool, and no queuing for leg machines, with a whole semi-room of them.

Barton is straight, but looks like a sexy gay Muscle Mary; and his gyms have always attracted a hot gay clientele. But he says he didn’t open TMPL in Hell’s Kitchen because that neighborhood has supplanted Chelsea as New York's grooviest gay-borhood, but “it just has a great mix of people here: gay, straight, creative people, there’s just a great energy. There are people here working down the street holding portfolios.”

He had been waiting for the space, a former gym itself, to be available: The lease was suddenly free to be snapped up last April, and Barton pounced.

The most buzz may well surround TMPL’s spinning room, which features a huge IMAX-style cinema screen, which—as you pedal away—will immerse you in a computer-game like, strange, vividly-colored world of rollercoaster tracks, mountains, precipices, and outer space.

One of the gentlemen setting it up for Barton says he has seen people scream as they find themselves enveloped in this cartoon vista for 45-minute classes.

Spin Studio at David Barton's newest gym.

courtesy of David Barton

Spin Studio at David Barton's newest gym.

“I find myself screaming and I’m not even on the bike,” Barton says, laughing. “It’s a combination of a ride at Universal Studios and an acid flashback. Whatever I do I want to do it better than anyone can find elsewhere. With this, I thought, ‘How do you take spinning and make it as cool as it can possibly be?’” Barton smiles his cute, impish grin. “At least it distracts you from the monotony or agony.”


After leaving the world of gyms behind, why come back into it?

I did it for 20 years. It became a big business, and I became a corporate CEO reading spreadsheets in the office, sitting around with people in suits and ties. For this new concept I really wanted to roll my sleeves up and build one great place. I started that company in my 20s and I wanted to do something different at 51.

You didn’t want to do something completely different to gyms?

I love what I do. On the worst day I love coming to work, and I do love being in the gym. But I wasn’t having as much fun running a company that ran gyms. I didn’t enjoy that, it was time to move on and do something different. At this gym, we will treat every member individually, and address people’s individual metabolic issues and disruptions.

How deliberately sexy are your gyms?

I do see the gym as something that should be sexy. I think that’s why people associate my gyms with nightclubs. If a bunch of people, all sparsely clad, working out and sweating to pumping music isn’t sexy, what is? Some gyms have managed to take this visceral, primal experience—of working out, pumping muscles, listening to music, and being around people—and take the sexiness out of it. How they did I don’t know. To me, it’s hard not make it sexy.

A gym should make someone feel sexy. It should stimulate emotion and imagination partly through visual pathways.

Someone being in this gym will feel sexy. The gym should help you imagine yourself with the body you’re trying to achieve, or getting the most through your workout, or that certain body you want to see when you look in the mirror.

How to ignite the imagination is something I think about all the time.

Are you restarting your empire or just keeping it to this one?

I don’t know if I’m interested in empire. I could see doing a couple more, but at some point having a lot of locations means one has to sacrifice a little control over details, and details are so important to me. Sometimes you start a business with friends in flip-flops, and then you look around and there are people from HR in your office telling you who you can’t fire, and who you have to hire—and it just becomes the very corporate environment that you chose an entrepreneurial life to avoid. But I did, do, love the gym.

Were you restless these last three years?

At first it was good to have a rest. I was tired and needed a break. It was nice to take a little vacation—I traveled a bit and that was inspiring. I spent a lot of time with my son, which was great. But I got restless, and began to incubate ideas. Seeing those ideas materialize is the most exciting part of the business.

Have you always loved the gym and working out?

When I was kid I was in a lot of trouble. The gym really saved my life. The first time I went to the gym was when I was 12 or 13. I could have lived there. I knew I was home. I loved being around weights and working out. I never get tired of being in the gym—that great experience, that great feeling I felt when I worked in dirty, grunge-y, rusty gyms.

There was one on the Jersey Shore in this guy’s basement, and another in this Brooklyn backyard.

These little gyms were set up by bodybuilders with what little equipment they could find. That’s what “gyms” were back then. I’d hitch-hike to go to a gym, and I guess I tried to re-create that in my gyms for the non-hardcore weightlifting muscleman.

I wanted to infuse the gyms with a great mix of grit and glamour: people don’t necessarily have to understand it, but it should be a feeling they get when they walk in.

You and Susanne have that air of “grit and glamour” and Downtown cool of another time. How has New York changed for you?

New York has changed a lot. The neighborhoods are going. The one thing I love about Hell’s Kitchen is that it is still a neighborhood. Elsewhere you see more and more glass condominiums and chain restaurants. I hate to see New York lose the soul that makes it exciting—that feeling of never knowing what’s around the next corner. The difference is now you know what’s around the next corner, and it’s not that exciting.

You and Susanne seem to have that old-time, edgy spirit still.

I’d like to think that. If you go to Susanne’s parties, there are always these new groups of people coming to New York and getting this experience, which is so New York.

How do you feel about aging?

If you didn’t tell me I was 51 I wouldn’t know it. (Laughs) I bounce out of bed in the morning. I really don’t feel that different to how I did at 18. Turning 50 actually felt great. But it was weird turning 40. It freaked me out, it came up on me so suddenly. I did have this feeling of wanting to be 39. At 50 I didn’t want to be in my 40s or 30s. At 50 I was happy to be a cool 50-year-old. I didn’t feel a desire to be 49.

Do you worry about the new business tanking?

I think one always worries that things won’t go as well as you like. I think I’ve covered all my bases. I’ve tried to create something that I think people are going to like. I’ve built a gym I like. The response has been fantastic. We projected 600 people signing up for the opening, and we’re now close to 2,000. Forty percent of those people are not from Hell’s Kitchen.

Were you tempted to do something totally different?

I had a lot of thoughts about doing something else, but I didn’t want to go too far from New York. My son wants to come live here. My mother lives a block from me, as does Susanne. There was always a temptation to go to the country and raise schnauzers. I thought about a quiet farm life, to experience nature, grow vegetables and live off the land. But in the end I really wanted to build this gym. I love gyms.

What lies beneath that love?

It’s almost the last thing out there that people can’t do on the computer. You have to go somewhere to work out, to be around other people, and have social interaction. People have fewer and fewer of these interactions characterized by things like eye contact and fear of rejection—all these things that make life exciting.

I think the gym is one of those places that people have to go to and socialize, and meet and see each other and be around other people and do things that are physical and not sitting at their keyboards.

It must be weird not owning the gyms with your name on them.

They were all my babies one way or other, but at some point you throw the baby bird out of the nest and hatch new babies.

I sometimes miss certain things, seeing the different results of different creative moments and inspirations at those other gyms. It was weird at first to see my name live on without me. I think of Gogol’s story, “The Nose,” about a man whose nose goes off down the street having a life of its own away from him. It felt like that, but I’m used to it now.

And the future?

I’m part of a band, which is a side gig. Music has always been a big part of my life. I have some other business ideas percolating. I have a charmed life: a great son, a wonderful dog (Bippy, a schnauzer).

Have you ever worn a suit?

(Laughs) I’ve managed to avoid wearing a suit. I chose a life where people would not expect me to wear a suit, and I would never have to show up wearing one. Kenny Scharf, who designed these jeans, once designed another pair I wore to a high school teacher-parent conference. I noticed a teacher staring at the pants. I hadn’t realized Kenny had made a pair of X-rated jeans: they were covered in pornographic images.

What's your most conventional article of clothing?

What a great question. Probably a pair of very conservative socks. (Laughs) There’s a sweater at home somewhere. I think my mother got it for me, hoping to reel me over to the more traditional side of fashion.