Pool Party

Saturday nights, the swimming area at Canton Merritt Athletic Club is transformed into the hip Aqua Lounge.

August 06, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

Sherry Westerman peeked out of her apartment window one Saturday night this summer to see searchlights streaking the skies over Canton. Probably a tony new restaurant had opened, or some dignitary was hitting the town, but, to be sure, the financial analyst asked her boyfriend what the hoopla was about.

"It's the pool," he said.

As in the chlorine-irrigated concrete pit behind their gym, where water aerobicizers thrash, where the pinnacle of fashion is a pearlescent bathing cap? Yep.

Much to gym members' surprise, the swimming pool at the Merritt Athletic Club in Canton is masquerading this summer as the Aqua Lounge, a new party spot that purports to be the 180,000-gallon watering hole of Baltimore's beautiful people. On Saturday nights only, a DJ spins on a sunken stage, and the watery floor churns with disco lights. A sushi bar and champagne station do business on the deck; occasionally, a trapeze artist dangles overhead. Guests wear dress shirts and shimmering tank tops instead of Speedos. Swimming is, in fact, forbidden.

It has to be. This nightclub is a health club incognito, and its success, organizers say, depends on a 180-degree shift in atmosphere, a quick switch of swim lanes for velvet ropes and back again. By Sunday morning when the gym pool opens for lap swim, the last traces of Aqua Lounge have dissolved.

"We're pulling off something that Baltimore has never seen," said Maura Smith, Aqua's owner. "All we're selling is a feeling." And some pretty pricey drinks.

At 11 p.m. on Saturday, the house music is thumping, and little black dresses are trooping in by the trunk load. Girls scarf down eel rolls and ooh and aah at their lantern-lit surroundings, especially the jewel-blue pool itself.

An outdoor venue, Aqua is done in what organizers call "cabana-style"; its signature is the gauzy white curtains that hang down from the pool's retractable roof, filling like sails in the breeze. Plastic chairs and sheet-draped futons ("beds," organizers urge) are grouped around the pool's perimeter in dozens of living room configurations, complete with area rugs and tables made of stacked concrete blocks. Every seating area is different - here a faux sheepskin, there an imported Floridian palm - but watch where you nestle, because bed occupation costs what amounts to a minimum of $350, the price of two bottles of alcohol (if you stick to the shallow end of the menu).

The 21-and-up club, which charges a $10 cover fee, has been full every Saturday since its June 4 opening, with the exception of one rainout. Sure, the decor smacks of Ikea, and some of the palms look a little homesick, but most on the pool deck are duly impressed.

"It's magnificent," said Lorena Mullaney, a Timonium stylist. "Baltimore needed something like this. I say bravo, bravo."

"It's high-end liquors and people dressed to the hilt," said Joey Buscemi, who works the door in a pinstripe suit. "Once you get into a place that flows like this, you don't want to leave."

Indeed, when the breeze blows and a good song pounds, it's easy to overlook the lifesaving equipment leaned against the wall, to ignore the silhouetted weight machines in the club's darkened windows. Actually, after a while the exercise equipment starts to look appealingly minimalist - like with the right tasseled throw pillow, someone might pay to sit there.

Aqua Lounge is billed as Baltimore's version of South Beach, Fla., where fancy poolside discos are common. Its creators felt that Baltimore could conform to Miami's social mores - with a little coaching, that is. Advertisements urge curious clubbers to "dress sophisticated and chic"; the Web site includes a gentle tutorial on the hows and whys of bottle service.

In a city where open-air swimming holes are scarce, organizers agreed that the Merritt pool, which is open outdoor from May on, would be the perfect spot. It's in stylish Canton, but in the industrial section close to the harbor, where noise from al fresco dance parties isn't a problem. Also, Aqua's proprietor owns Coburn's Tavern and Grill on O'Donnell Square, which already had an arrangement to sell poolside refreshments at the athletic club on weekend afternoons. Why not take on Saturday night as well?

But this spring, when Aqua organizers traveled to Florida to research the concept, they had to acknowledge an inevitable complication: Most of the South Beach pool clubs are affiliated with swanky hotels, not sweaty gyms. A local duplicate would take a little imagination, thought Jason Poling, who handles Aqua's marketing.

Luckily, "I have a lot of imagination," he said.

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