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The Massage Experience 

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Peter Rubnitz, owner of the massage spa Urban Oasis, is in Treatment Room No. 1, standing over what appears to be a stainless steel trash can. He opens it with a pedal; three heavy towels are hanging inside and steam swirls up around them. A cloth bag full of herbs is steeping in boiling water at the bottom.

The smell of grapefruit wafts out of a little candle-powered diffuser on the reception desk down the hall. Distilled from grapefruit rind, the essential oil in the diffuser is supposed to have a "highly refreshing and uplifting effect on emotions--ideal for alleviating depression."

The background music? Could be "Healing Harmonies." Or "Comfort Zone." Or "Natural States." Or "Music for Relaxation."

And overseeing it all is former accountant Rubnitz, who looks as awkward as a father in 1954 showing a visitor around his child's nursery. It's apparent that Rubnitz is unfamiliar with Treatment Room No. 1; it's where his massage staff performs the "extras"--herbal wraps and aromatherapy and salt glows. He opens a jar of salt and peers in, admitting that he's not quite sure how it actually adheres to the body for the exfoliating process.

He also admits he's not quite sure who makes the decision for a particular aroma during aromatherapy--massage therapist or customer--or exactly what aromas are available or how many. He does know that peppermint is good for the hands and feet; chamomile is best for the rest of the body. He doesn't know why only certain herb mixtures are used for the herbal towel wraps, the others he purchases going to waste.

But Peter Rubnitz loves a good massage. And fine architectural detail. "I love the Far Eastern touches here," he says. "They're so soothing and relaxing--and the minimalist decoration. The curved hallway, the textural walls, the carpeting, the tile in the shower. There aren't a lot of pictures up; there's not a lot going on. Yet it's very full." His 2,700-square-foot domain is like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting: stark, southwestern, a lot of earth tones. So clean even one's best underwear looks dingy when placed inside the Santa Fe/Albuquerque/Tucson-inspired armoire after disrobing for a massage. The employees are instructed to clean the bathrooms so that each time someone steps in they look like they've never been used.

Rubnitz has a degree in economics--Tulane, '77. "I wanted to get into advertising or product management, but the offers didn't come," he says. He likens managing a massage spa to managing a product. "I've ended up being a troubleshooter."

Rubnitz also has an MBA from Northwestern and worked as an accountant for Arthur Young for three years. And he's worked for Draper & Kramer doing financial analysis and asset management. "I didn't get enough gratification from corporate life," he says. "No knock at Draper & Kramer. Just corporate life."

Rubnitz's grandparents got weekly massages for 50 years. "I get one or two a week," he says. "I've never been so stressed out in my life." He used to get massages at the East Bank Club, he says, but something was missing: atmosphere.

"There are a hundred different places to get a massage in the city. But they slap you off the table in 55 minutes and you're back in the locker room with lights and people. The atmosphere isn't conducive to relaxation." When his brother told him about three massage spas in New York City devoted solely to the massage experience, Rubnitz flew to New York to check them out. "I figured the same concept, if done properly, could work well in Chicago."

Perfect ambience for Rubnitz means, for starters, a pre-massage shower that imitates rainfall. A 12-inch-diameter shower head sprays ten gallons of water per minute down on the customer, and a water temperature knob is calibrated in degrees Fahrenheit so that the customers know exactly how hot the water is as they lather up with honey-mango body bath. When they're done there are freshly laundered kimonos, and massage sandals and big plastic hairbrushes, both treated between clients with bactericide.

The massage rooms are softly lit and specially laid out ("Three feet must be around the massage table--no less," says Rubnitz) and are permeated with essence of ylang-ylang--a "sensual and soothing...euphoric fragrance distilled from the flowers of a tree from the Philippines." It's beneficial in cases of mental tension, depression, and anger, claims Rubnitz. Customers fill out medical forms on redwood clipboards (with pens to match) while drinking herbal tea or fresh pear juice. The price for all this luxury? Sixty dollars for an hour-long massage.

The problem is, advertising can be risky. "I'm getting my share of callers [from the yellow pages] who are looking for something other than massage--people who are looking for sex."

But Rubnitz is tackling the problem with the aplomb of a true project manager. He gives complimentary massages to apartment and hotel concierges so they'll pass the word in the area around Maple and State. And he sent letters to 700 friends when he opened last December. "I offered half-price massages," he says. "I wrote, 'Help us get our kinks out while we do the same for you.'"

And he believes in his product, even if he's not always coherent about it. "It's not cheap what we offer--I mean, it's not expensive--not for a necessary way of coping with a life-style."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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