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Rules of the Sovreign

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There was a time when you could smoke anywhere in Edgewater's Sovereign Pool and Health Club. Men and women would stand puffing around the pool, schmoozing, eating hot dogs: that was when Bill McGuire ran the gym. Now you can only smoke over by Mr. Hahn's chair, in the gym's southwest corner. Mr. Hahn, who owns a liquor store nearby, does not like to be disturbed. When he is at the Sovereign, he is usually snoozing, sometimes smoking, occasionally swimming.

Peter Hofmann, a longtime member who now runs the Sovereign, says that in the McGuire days the place was as much a lounge as a health club. McGuire would hold big drinking parties on the sun deck. "They partied all the time and came here to sweat it out," Hofmann says. "Today maybe there's a more serious attitude, except for Mr. Hahn, who smokes his cigarettes. Today we try to discourage heavy smoking."

Mr. Hahn's chair overlooks the pool, and beyond that the steam room. A sign posted above the steam room door reads:

STEAM ROOM

No Shampoo

No Soap

No Oils

No Shaving

Use locker room and toilets for personal needs

It's about seven in the evening, the Sovereign's busiest time. A thin, older, bald man wearing a bright pink bathing suit and blue gloves is swimming laps. In the lane next to him is a young man, and then an older woman wearing goggles and a black one-piece. Mr. Hahn is snoozing in his chair. A pot-bellied man is watching reruns on a black-and-white television.

Inside the steam room, an older woman wearing a blue-green bathing suit and green bathing cap is talking to a big, muscular man. "Now Latin dancing, that's the real dancing, the mambo and the cha-cha. They really know how to dance. I still go dancing. It's a big ballroom," she says.

The steam room overlooks the pool, but the windows fog up when it's in use. The room is lit by a dim bulb enclosed in wire mesh. A pale yellow hose for drinking from sits on the floor.

"Oh yeah?" says the man. "Big ballroom?"

"It's huge," she says. "It's popular on Sunday afternoons."

"Yeah? Willowbrook Ballroom?"

"I still go out there on Thursday nights. The weekends are too much."

"Uh-huh." Water, condensed in thick drops, is falling from the ceiling, slapping the white concrete floor. The steam pipes hiss.

"I used to dance all afternoon, from noon until about dinnertime."

"That's a lot of dancing."

"Then I would go home, eat dinner, and come back and dance until about eight o'clock at night. I'd shower, go to bed, and go to work the next day. It was great. But now they've cut that out. Thursday nights, they have Latin dancing. Now myself, I go out there and dance with everybody."

"Some people don't even like to dance."

"But it's fun, a lot of fun."

The health club is part of the Sovereign Hotel, which was built on Granville just west of Sheridan in the 1920s. The centerpiece of the club is the pool, 20 yards long, seven feet at the deep end, three feet at the shallow. Hotel residents are permitted one free swim a day. The elaborate pool rules are posted on a sign:

NO RUNNING

NO YELLING

NO ROUGHPLAY

NO CANNONBALLS

NO CAN OPENERS

Do Not Double Bounce Board

Do Not Hang on Diving Board

The Sovereign has not had a diving board for eight years; diving was the special passion of Bill McGuire, who was a world-champion high diver. Over by the steam room the walls are festooned with pictures of McGuire--contorted into a triple half-gainer, or standing on top of a tower in a cape and tights triumphantly shooting his hands in the air. Hofmann, who first started coming to the Sovereign in 1969, says he remembers McGuire frequently diving off the hotel's seven-story roof, as well as performing stunts in the pool itself. He appeared on the Merv Griffin show once, plunging 147 feet into an eight-foot tank and setting what was at the time the world high-diving record. "He was a real rabble-rouser," Hofmann says.

A sign on the office door left over from the McGuire days advertises "Hot Delicious Sandwiches," including "Jumbo Cheese Burger" and "Hot Ham and Cheese," though Hofmann can't remember a time when the Sovereign sold food. The tanning bed, also here since McGuire ran the place, sits like a vampire's coffin in its own chamber next to the weight room. As the tanning bed's popularity has declined, Hofmann has had to reduce his fees. These days a half-hour "Quick Tan" is $6. For a few sessions more, you can get a "Florida Tan," a "Caribbean Tan," a "Hawaiian Tan," or the ultimate, a 20-session, $90 "Acapulco Tan."

Hofmann is trying to modernize things a bit; he recently put in new exercise bikes and ordered a new weight machine. But still most popular is the old steam room, which is co-ed and does not discriminate. "If you want to discuss anything you go in the steam room," says Lorraine, who has been coming to the Sovereign for 25 years. "Politics, religion, anything. The building, the city, anything. It all happens in the steam room."

Outside the steam room Mr. Hahn continues to nap and several people swim laps, while inside a mechanic with a Middle Eastern accent is trying to reassure an old Japanese man that the car he just bought is a good one.

"It's good, that car is good," the mechanic says.

"I hope so."

"You got my word, that car is good. For eight years, no problem. Good car, very good car. Nice engine, good gas mileage."

"Yah, that's good," the old man says.

Another man walks in and sits on the ledge above them. "How are you," he says to the old man.

"Good," the old man says. "I have a new car."

The newcomer turns to the mechanic. "I saw your friend in here before, the Middle Eastern one."

"Who?"

"You know, with the beard."

"Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, the tall guy. I don't know his name but you ask about him. He's trying to bring his wife over. It is very hard for him."

People at the Sovereign don't pry much into each other 's personal lives, says Scott Foster, a member for 15 years. "People come here to be alone, really, just like at a bar. There are a lot of people here who I know a lot about, but I don't know anything about. There are people who have been here for 10 or 15 years, and I've never met their wife, I've never met their kids."

It's always been that way at the Sovereign, says Lorraine. "It's kind of gone down the line," she says. "You come, you swim, you steam, you can do what you want, as long as it's not rowdy. You can't drink, you don't do drugs, you don't do any of that here. It's just a nice place. We wouldn't want it to go into one of these places, one of these modern health clubs where everyone is 25 and wears headbands all the time. We in the steam room don't want everybody to know about it. We like it the way it is."

Upstairs in the men's bathroom, the rules of showering are spelled out on a sign:

HELP PREVENT ACCIDENTS

STAND ON CARPET

TO DRY OFF AFTER

SHOWERING

Next to the sign sits a crooked wooden bench. There is a sign over the bench as well. It reads:

PLEASE DO NOT PUT THIS BENCH IN THE SHOWER

Thank You.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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