The aura of tradition is felt as soon as one enters the historic New Orleans Athletic Club. Its elegant 222 North Rampart Street home erected in 1929 is a far cry from the Club’s modest beginnings.
The Early Years
The Club was conceived in the youthful mind of J.C. Aleix, who, together with other young men, had seen the swanky Hammersley’s gymnasium on St. Charles Street, decided to build a gym of their own in the back yard of the Aleix’s home. They were enthusiastic young gymnasts eager to encourage among the young men who lived below Canal Street an opportunity to gain the many physical advantages which gymnastic exercises offered and master the technique of horizontal and parallel bars.
The two gymnastic apparatus were built by hand of oak and installed at the home of J.C. Aleix. From that, the 2nd day of September 1872, the Club continued to grow. J.C. Aleix became the first president. Dues were fixed at 50 cents monthly. A 35 cent assessment was levied for a bucket of water and dipper when the occasion demanded it.
The Club constitution was a unique draft the young men all decided was a masterpiece: “The name of this Club is the INDEPENDENT GYMNASTIC CLUB and shall not under any circumstances consist of more than fourteen members. The President must have a gentlemanly deportment carried on at all meetings and show no partiality; also to see that the Rules and Regulations are strictly enforced.”
The object was to develop the body by sufficient gymnastic exercise including fencing and boxing. The Club adopted as its motto, Mens Sana in Corpore Sano (a healthy mind will exist in a healthy body), and old gold and black the colors, which were used by the members in all gymnastic engagements. The winter months passed and the gymnasium remained in the back yard of Mr. Aleix’s residence. Devoid of proper facilities and accommodations, especially in inclement weather, a committee formed May 21, 1873 to find a suitable home for the Club somewhere in the territory bounded by Poydras, St. Louis, Rampart and Magazine Streets. Arrangements commenced for an old building, floor covered with sawdust, at the comer of Rampart and Bienville Streets to become the Club’s domicile. By September 5, 1873, every member had signed as security for the rent.
The INDEPENDENT GYMNASTIC CLUB, with financial assistance of influential friends, moved into its new quarters in October 1874. Weights and pulleys, dumbbells, Indian clubs and other apparatus, mostly second hand, were placed on the walls and racks of the gym. Fifty young men were members. Dues were 75 cents a month.
Edw. Fredericks, prominently connected in social and financial circles and eager to assist the new Club, succeeded J.C. Aleix as president in 1875 and the name of the club, by acclamation, was changed to the YOUNG MEN’S GYMNASTIC CLUB. With membership up to 350, the old building needed repairs and by 1884 the landlord advanced the rent from $10 to $40 monthly, required a five-year lease, and demanded any and all repairs to be made by the Club. This did not meet with member approval. Hence, arrangements to purchase the property 37-39-41 Burgundy Street for $6,000 cash were finalized in February 1885.
The Club was holding its own in 1886-87, but with a bit of difficulty. The president called a meeting September 11, 1888 to inaugurate a Stock Corporation with 1500 shares at $50 per share, payable 10% down and 10% every 60 days. The applicant for membership was required to hold a share of stock. As well, stock was made liable for all dues or other indebtedness due by a member. Some members protested, pleading their impecuniousness. The question was opened for debate and after a lively wrangle, a concession was made for the sake of harmony and the success of the Club.
During the 37 years from 1890, an annex to the beautiful Masich home at 44 N. Rampart St. provided handsome space for the Club’s new gymnasium, baths and swimming pool, professional glove contests and other entertainments. By 1920 and with about 600 members, the Club building was in terrible condition and its credit worthless. “We could not even buy bread from the bread man without paying cash for it.” Irwin F. Poche, athletic director, developed and promoted business men’s classes and an attractive program of health work devised to build membership. Regular dances were held in the gym. A handball court was opened. Athletic teams were busy and the old gold and black colors began to wave again. THE PUNCH was born. New promotional stunts and boxing entertainmen brought about a feeling among the citizenry of New Orleans that down at the Young Men’s Gymnastic Club there was something doing all the time. “We had reached our goal in the old building. Modern times demanded better.” So, on March 9, 1929 pile drivers swung action and for months members were annoyed yet pleased with the noise of the rivet machines and concrete mixers: Pleased because every member looked forward with keen anticipation to their new home: the NEW ORLEANS ATHLETIC CLUB.
In the decades since, the NOAC has won many athletic championships and welcomed many champions: John L. Sullivan trained in the boxing ring for the 1st heavy weight championship fight; Johnny Weismuller swam in the old saltwater pool; Kevin Costner played basketball in the gym; Alec Baldwin and Harry Connick, Jr. refined their boxing skills on the heavy bags above the pool; John Havlicek and Kareem Abdul Jabbar played basketball and gave basketball clinics in the gym; Roberto Durand trained for several of his fights in the boxing area; Clark Gable, Jimmy the Greek, Frankie Laine, Phil Harris, the Longs – Huey, Earl and Russell, Bob Hope, Art Linkletter, Tennessee Williams, Tom Foley and many other celebrities and political figures have enjoyed use of the facility.
A Dedication to Excellence
Over the last several years, the NOAC has experienced major operational and infrastructure modifications with the concept of blending the Club’s congeniality, serenity and architectural significance with its advancement to the forefront of fitness, health, athletics and nutrition. “Strong men and women must oft-time find an outlet for their superfluous energy. In this manner the athletic club offers many interesting health activities.”
The tradition was started by J.C. Aleix in the 19th century. Maintaining that tradition has become the responsibility of the past two centuries of membership and continues into the 21st century.