Welcome to Portland’s Flashiest New Spa
People involved in Knot Springs describe it with various terms: a lifestyle brand, or a social club. This fall, it was a construction site. The Yard, the Burnside Bridgehead apartment tower that houses the very deluxe spa/yoga studio/gym/massage studio/everything, wasn’t finished, and dust grimed echoing concrete stairways.
Exploration, however, brought clarity. On the Yard’s fifth level, just beyond a reception desk and wood-paneled lockers, Knot Springs unfolds as water and light commanding a panoramic view of central Portland. Three waist-deep soaking pools, flanked by a sauna and a steam room, glimmer beneath groovy macramé and greenery, cocooned in glass.
Knot Springs may be the most Portlandy of all of Portland’s many centers of holistic wellness and West Coast chill—a $3 million build-out aimed at citizens who long ago priced $15 drop-in yoga and $100 massages into their sanity and self-care plan. The idea: get it all under one high-design roof, with Pendleton towels and proprietary shower gel. (Lifestyle brand—check.) A fierce, high-tech gym occupies one level, downstairs from an oasis of yogic calm and nine kinds of massage. Options run from simple drop-ins to $199 monthly memberships that buy all the gym, yoga (aerial to yin), barre, Pilates, and soaking time a soul can schedule, plus discounts on treatment sessions. (Social club—check.)
Yes, this place is trying to do a lot. A deep dive, you could say.
The Yard: a 200-foot tower of black-brown futurism, honeycombed with the small apartments—some high-end, others low-income—that many see as the key to our dense urban destiny, others as the end of chillaxed Portland as we knew it. It does sort of ... loom. But Knot Springs, opened in September, strikes a surprising grace note. A building like this would often have a show-pony restaurant as its anchor, or maybe a rent-paying bank. Soaking pools? Multimodality massage therapy? “I’ve always loved spas,” says Robert Gilham, the 51-year-old British developer who led the effort to create Knot Springs. “But very few are aesthetically enjoyable. They’re dark—always off in some back area. Could we create a beautiful space, with beautiful vistas?”
A Seattle apartment building with a Russian bathhouse provided inspiration. But Gilham and his partners—the Yard’s development team, including players like Key Development and Andersen Construction, also owns Knot Springs—broadened the vision. Trainers Gina Neal and Brad Boggs came aboard via connections to architect Jeff Kovel and his firm, Skylab; their own company, Benefitness, consults with companies about exercise and employee health. Alli Lurie, a longtime instructor at Portland’s East West College of the Healing Arts, lined up Western massage styles alongside Thai techniques and Chinese medicine. The gym offers personal training.
“People have a hard time wrapping their mind around everything,” Neal says.
But specifics are just part of the attraction. “We wanted to create something for a culturally rich part of the city,” Gilham says. “A 21-story tower could be seen as not very eastside Portland.”
I was clavicle-deep in the Tepidarium soaking pool (98 degrees) on a Monday afternoon, after paying $45 for drop-in use of the Springs. It was the day before the presidential election. The recommended “10 Steps to Relaxation” cycle sounded very good to me. As I progressed through the Caldarium (102 degrees) and, for a split second, the Cold Plunge (shockingly few degrees), I was alone. I could float and drift at will.
Portland’s key ingredients spread before me: the bridges, like a collage of 20th-century technologies; Forest Park and the Pearl District in dynamic tension; freight trains and semitrucks growling through the Central Eastside, beneath coursing freeways. The White Stag Block, dating to 1883, peeking out from the west-side high-rises.
I was thinking heavy thoughts. And Knot Springs felt as much like an immersive art project as a commercial wellness retreat. In ordinary life, I’m as worried about Portland’s transformation as I am about ... all the other many, many things, right? But from the perspective created in this particular new Portland place, I appreciated some of what change can bring. (The sauna is incredible. At one point, Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" came on and I almost lost it. )
Soon, another guy showed up and submerged alongside me. After the requisite moment of silence, he said, “Dude, I love my life.” (He spiced this sentence with a word between “I” and “love” that I won’t repeat because it’s not relaxing.) Just then, I had to agree.