Nicholas Kounovsky opened a gymnastics gym, called Kounovsky’s, in New York City in 1940. Kounovsky’s specialized in teaching “high society” how to exercise on the mats, rings, Swedish Bars, and more. For about 40 years, he trained not only clients, but also gymnastics teachers. As time passed, Kounovsky’s teachers went on to open their own gyms in the same style, as well as take over his gym when he retired.
Through my research and personal interviews, I’ve been able to trace some of the history behind Kounovsky’s and its off-shoots, Kounovsky’s teachers, and their addresses/locations.
Kounovsky was first located at 39 West 54th St and later moved to West 56th Street in NYC. Through these articles, I will highlight the details of Kounovsky’s gym and Nicholas Kounovsky’s legacy, his gym’s eventual ownership by Drago Mehandzic and Ivo Lupis, and what later became known as Drago’s Gym. Additionally, I’ll take a look at another gym that was opened by 2 teachers from Kounovsky’s, Alex & Walter, at 50 West 57th Street.
Both Kounovsky’s gym and Joe’s studio at 939 8th Ave were in business and had their popularity in the same era. Despite some of their ideas about exercise being similar, their apparatus was not at all alike. While Joe used springs and furniture-like equipment, Kounovsky focused on the rings and Swedish bars. Although both Joe’s gym and Kounovsky’s existed at the same time, and they did share some clientele, their methods were very different.
Gym Urges Keeping Fit by Relaxing
This early article about Kounovsky’s gym was written when it was still located in a brownstone at 39 West 54th Street. It details some of Nicholas Kounovsky’s life history that lead him to opening his gym, as well as information about what took place in the gym. Notably, the article mentions calico bags that served as gym lockers. Later on, this tradition continued with Alex & Walter at their off-shoot gym. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
“Chore Your Way to Fitness”
Nicholas Kounvovsky wrote a number of books during the peak of his popularity, including this interesting one with Sears called “Chore Your Way to Fitness”, which showed how to exercise while you vacuum. Similar to Joe Pilates, he was trying to find easy ways for regular people to work out at home. Images first shared on 12/12/21.
An article about another one of Kounovsky’s books, “Instant Fitness: How to Stay Fit and Healthy in Six Minutes a Day.” Kounovsky had some ideas similar to Joe’s, such as suggesting that anyone can exercise in bed or in the shower. Also notable are Kounovsky’s six factors of total fitness. These factors may remind pilates practitioners of the “Pilates Principles,” devised by Gail Eisen and Philip Friedman. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Mary Martin not only exercised during her voice lessons with William Herman, but she was also a client at Kounovsky’s Gym. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
While Kounovsky had some ideas similar to Joe’s, his style of movement during floorwork was not really that similar. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Another article about Kounovsky’s that reveals another similarity between his ideas and Joe’s- a way for people to exercise easily from home on apparatus that doubled as furniture when not in use. Kounovsky’s idea was a mat for exercising which was a “mattress made of three cushions, which, when exercising is over, collapse into a small hassock.”
Despite some of their ideas about exercise being similar, their apparatus was not at all alike. While Joe used springs and furniture-like equipment, Kounovsky focused on the rings and Swedish bars. Although both Joe’s gym and Kounovsky’s existed at the same time, and they did share some clientele, their methods were very different. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Here we see the very early stages of what may have later led to the traditions of Romana at the pilates studio. Kounovsky celebrated with champagne, which was likely passed on to Drago, who possibly passed the idea onto Romana- something she was also known for. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
A very cool article with colored pictures from inside Kounovsky’s gym that I have in my collection of original articles. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
A page from my collection of original Kounovsky’s articles. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Some background information on these addresses:
- Joseph Pilates’ original studio was located at 939 8th Avenue.
- After he died and in the 1970’s, Romana later moved the studio to 29 West 56th Street.
- Meanwhile, Kounovsky’s gym was located at 25 West 56th Street at this time.
Through my research, I have read on some websites that Romana and Drago (who was a gymnastics teacher at Kounovsky’s) met because Kounovsky’s was on the floor below the original pilates studio. However, we can see that Kounovsky’s was located at a different address than the original pilates studio, and a different address than Romana’s studio.
In fact, according to Drago, Romana and Drago met because Romana was a client at Kounovsky’s gym and a student of Drago himself. She would go to the studio 2x week for gymnastics lessons!
Images first shared on 12/12/21.
Drago and Ivo Take Over Kounovsky’s Gym
In 1970, Nicholas Kounovsky sold his gym to Drago Mehandzic and Ivo Lupis, two instructors at his gym. At the time of sale, gym was still called Kounovsky’s and remained in its original location on 56th Street. Later, Drago renamed it, “Kounovsky’s Physical Fitness Center”, and even later, simply, “The Gym.” Images first shared on 12/12/21.
In 1989, Drago changed the name of Kounovsky’s to “The Gym,” and changed locations- from the original West 56th street location to 50 West 57th Street. He became the only owner and asked Romana to join him at this new location as well.
In the beginning, Romana had a small space in the back of the gymnasium for pilates. Over time, pilates grew and so did the space that she was using for pilates. Images first shared on 12/12/21.
Kounovsky’s leads to the Alex and Walter Gym, which opened in the 1960’s.
Alex & Walter were two gymnastics teachers who got their career starts at Kounovsky’s Gym, and went out on their own. We can see the obvious influence from working at Kounovsky’s, such as the rings, but another interesting tradition that made its way from Kounovsky’s to Alex & Walter was the hanging calico bags that served as gym lockers, as noted in the article.
The Alex & Walter gym started out at 30 West 56th street and later moved to 50 West 57th Street- the same building that later became known as the location of Drago’s/True Pilates East, where Romana taught Pilates.
According to Ivo Lupis himself just recently, Alex & Walter was located on the penthouse floor of the building. Although it was not the same floor as Drago’s, we will see a number of similarities in the layouts of the two gyms, as well as the spaces themselves.
If you look between these photos, you can see similarities between Alex & Walter and Drago’s Gym: the windows, the rings are in a very similar location. Swedish bars and a mirror are also placed similarly between the two.
Alex & Walter Gym. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Drago’s Gym, photo ©1994 Liisa Johannsonn. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Alex & Walter Gym. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Here we can see the addresses for both Kounovsky’s (25 West 56th) and Alex & Walter (30 West 56th). This was before Alex & Walter moved to 50 West 57th.Image first shared on 12/12/21.
Great article about Kounovsky’s featuring Ivo Lupis, and a mention about Alex & Walter. Noteworthy is the miss print in the article- the addresses are switched, likely by mistake. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
An article about Alex and Walter, saying that they were the first to branch out from Kounovsky’s. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
This article not only lists Kounovsky’s and Alex & Walter, but other names we recognize like Kathy Grant at Bendel’s and Lotte Berk. Image first shared on 12/12/21.
An article about Kounovsky’s, and Alex & Walter. Image first shared on 12/12/21.