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Beneath the Surface: A Peek at Private Pools

Ashok Sinha for The New York Times

For most New Yorkers, the close of summer means no more sand between their toes, or that faint taste of salt or sting of chlorine.

But beneath a handful of townhouses and skyscrapers lies a hidden realm most will never know: subterranean natatoria carved into basement floors and exquisitely maintained so residents can swim year round — fall, winter, spring, summer.

Private pools “become a vehicle for escape from the city,” said William T. Georgis, the New York architect. He installed a refrigerated plunge pool in a private spa complex below a limestone townhouse on the Upper East Side. “Somebody beats you with birch branches, and God knows what else goes on down there,” he said.

Andre Kikoski, an architect who designed subterranean aquatic amenities at One Hudson Yards, said, “There can be a social quality to water that magically transforms architecture, or a wellness quality.”

A private pool, he noted, affords its owner at least one other advantage that a shared pool cannot: the luxury of “never having to choose a swimsuit.”

Radomir Sedlak took advantage of the pool right away when he moved into the Brooklyn Point condominium tower, off Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn, in summer 2021. He reserved time with the building’s app and then religiously completed about 44 laps each visit, typically breaststroke on the outbound and freestyle for the return.

“I have a sit-down job, and it has helped with my back,” said Mr. Sedlak, 38, a financial crimes investigator with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Brooklyn Point was designed by Bruce Fisher, a design principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. With 483 units rising above the basement, “the amenities are pretty extreme, to attract buyers,” Mr. Fisher said.

A former competitive high school swimmer who was ranked in his native North Carolina, he called lap pools “close to my heart.” Swim lanes in the saltwater pool at Brooklyn Point measure 65 feet long. Katherine Newman Design chose the handsome Casablanca granite walls with “celestial” circular cutouts. They reveal illuminated granite niches to “introduce an element of whimsy,” Ms. Newman said, adding that otherwise, “the architectural rigor and lack of ornamentation are kind of monastic.”

In Nomad, a tower called Rose Hill houses a 6,000-square-foot wellness center in the basement. Inside a modern grotto, the pool mirrors the character of the 123-unit building, which nods to the artistic heritage of Rockefeller Group, its builder. The tower has “the attire of the Jazz Age,” said Nancy Ruddy, of CetraRuddy, the building architect.

Behind the 50-foot-long pool, a 17-foot-tall mosaic of glazed porcelain tiles is inspired by the oversized goddess-of-light wall art at Rockefeller Center. “I don’t believe in stereotypes, of male and female, but we were very intentional that it be a female form because of Mother Earth,” Ms. Ruddy said. The mural also suggests sunlight below ground where there is none, in order to avoid feeling like “you’re going down into the basement,” she said.

Earlier this year, Tyreke Whyne, a lifeguard from URBN Playgrounds, the amenity management firm, was on duty and said sometimes he will be the only person at the pool. “Could be a whole day with no one,” he said.

A peaceful pool is a mere 30 feet from the C Train tunnel, yet there is nary a rumble inside its cellar one level below the basement on Central Park West. The 19th-century property changed hands in March for $26 million, setting a neighborhood record.

The house and the pool are thoroughly renovated and updated by William Leeds, a residential architect who swam competitively in high school on Long Island.

The cellar was once traditional, with old-fashioned wall sconces and a ceiling peppered with harsh compact-fluorescent recessed can lights. Betsy Correa, a senior lighting designer with Tirschwell & Co., called that effect “dungeonous, spotty, and utilitarian like a school gym.” She also noted the “maintenance nightmare” of changing bulbs over water.

“We stripped it all out,” Mr. Leeds said. He extended the 50-foot length of the pool to add a 15-foot whirlpool. Cellar walls and the old brick arcade are now sheathed with large-format Spanish porcelain tile in a manila color, though the arches have curving stucco underneath, painted to match.

Energy-efficient new lighting gives the feeling of a spa. For ceiling coves, Ms. Correa chose LED strips that shift through a range of moods. “People think of nail salons when you say color-changing lighting,” she said, so “we didn’t want it to look cheesy.”

Steady warm-white light is possible, but a computer control produces any of 16 million distinct colors — her favored pastels comprise a 20-minute cycle that slides from sky blue through the warm tones of a “cotton-candy sky while the sun is setting.”

“When the lighting is done right, all you see is the architecture,” Ms. Correa said.

More than a dozen years ago, a family gutted a rundown apartment building in the East Village and restored it as an opulent five-story townhouse. The exercise pool is in the cellar below the English basement, and two adjustable water jets outfit it for stationary swimming.

At 15 feet square, the pool is not particularly large, and about half of its 4-foot-6-inch depth is above floor level. Tiles are brightly colored 8-inch squares of Carocim unglazed cement from Provence, laid randomly on both floor and walls. “We made it a fun space and beautiful with the colorful tiles that really make it unique,” said the pool architect, Annabelle Selldorf, in an email.

Taylor Swift immortalized a year in her West Village rental, a former stable, with the 2019 ballad “Cornelia Street.” The 25-foot-long basement pool is 4 feet deep and sits below an ambitious renovation and expansion completed by Galia Solomonoff, of Solomonoff Architecture Studio, not long before the songwriter lived there, in 2016.

The project took five years and replaced an old basement filled with rubble right up to the height of the current ceiling. Ms. Solomonoff said she has not seen recent modifications by Labo Design Studio, but said that “it’s surprising the pool endures.”

The current tenant is Zanotta, the Italian furniture manufacturer, and a new tension-cable safety railing was added because “they are hosting parties,” said Raffaella Bortoluzzi, an architect who has updated the house.

Zanotta opened the building last year as a corporate guesthouse and showroom, but quickly disabled the doorbell to discourage fans of Ms. Swift who haunt the sidewalk outside, taking selfies.

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