Likely Stories Million-Dollar Makeover

Nancy Reagan and Liz Taylor gave the The Greenhouse cachet. Now the venerable spa is counting on Cindy Crawford-and a national expansion-to attract a new breed of clientele.


The sun filters through the white latticed atrium onto a dozen silver-haired women sitting poolside. Dressed in their black tights, leotards, and baggy boxer shorts (the Greenhouse uniform), the ladies wait posture-perfect on their exercise mats for athletic director Marsha Taplett’s lecture on fitness to begin. But because this is The Greenhouse, Taplett’s “lecture” is actually more of a chat and “fitness” is a highly subjective term.

Standing before her circle of eager matrons. Taplett has the look and build of the kind of hard-bodied track stars you see in Nike ads. A fitness specialist who trained at the Cooper Clinic, she is certified to teach everything from biomechanics to aquatics. She left the thong-worthy Signature Athletic Club in Far North Dallas for the genteel Greenhouse in 3992, right around the time falling business forced the spa to raise fitness to a respectable level. Still, employing someone like Taplett as athletic director at The Greenhouse seems a little like employing a nutritionist at McDonald’s.

Taplett has accepted the fact that most of her expertise is superfluous at this hothouse orchid of a spa that carries the curious distinction of being located in both Grand Prairie and Arlington. (One city begins where the other leaves off along an invisible line that divides the spa in two.) The average guest, between 45 and 65 years of age, has the fitness level of an Elizabeth Taylor or a Nancy Reagan, both of whom have stayed at The Greenhouse. Taplett has been only mildly successful in her attempt to introduce cutting-edge. For a long time, tai chi was considered too New Age; kick-boxing was too strenuous. Now, The Greenhouse offers both, though Taplett has yet to fill a class in either.

Which explains why she keeps her lecture/chat beginner-level basic (“As we move through life, we lose flexibility if we don’t stretch….”). But that’s the difference between The Greenhouse and the other spas thai regularly make the top-spa lists: Until recently, The Greenhouse didn’t care about the thonged or even the marginally lit, preferring instead to build its fitness philosophy on the premise that ladies don’t sweat. Indeed, the ladies sitting poolside have the kind of bearing that suggests a no-sweat life.

“Here, you bring Mrs. Jones water, you bring Mrs. Jones a towel, you listen to Mrs. Jones talk about her grandchildren,” says Taptett, who regularly reviews each guest’s history and knows who’s had hip replacement surgery and who suffers from osteoporosis. “My goal is to give Mrs. Jones what she wants. In her life, she couldn’t care less about biceps and calf muscles.”

With plenty of the mature well-to-do willing to pay $5,000 a week for the privilege of going without. The Greenhouse hasn’t exactly had incentive to change. Let other spas embrace the inner you. Let other spas sweat it out of you. The Greenhouse has always stood as a testament to the notion that there’s nothing in life a good facial couldn’t make better.

Except, of course, old age.

The first sign The Greenhouse was aging less-than-graciously: Women passing out from hunger. In the beginning, guests were allowed 700 calories a day; 500 calories with a note from a doctor. The spa’s nutritional philosophy was best summed up in two words: Lacy Toast.

Breakfast, served each morning (in bed), was made up of hot tea and a single slice of Lacy Toast. The Greenhouse signature, which required a special bread slicer to get each piece thin enough, was so named because you could literally read the morning paper through it.

“It wasn’t unusual to find someone fainted by the pool,” says spa director Shirley Ogle, who has witnessed her share of hungry grown women collapsing into tears when their Lacy Toast, too thin to be handled, crumbled to the floor. “We’d run to the kitchen, get a glass of orange juice, lace it with honey, and give them an ’infusion.’ In those days we didn’t think about fat, we thought about calories.”

Lacy Toast went off the menu 15 years ago, but The Greenhouse held fast to its antiquated notion of well-being-until business began to sag. It wasn’t because the spa had an old-fashioned view of health and fitness (although it did). It wasn’t because the guests were dying off (although they were). It was the national recession of the early ’80s that threatened to render The Greenhouse-which, curiously, has always had more of a national and international, rather thai local, appeal-irrelevant. By the time the economy rebounded, the industry had changed: Day spas were offering the same beauty treatments for less, and luxury hotels were adding spa facilities or. in some cases, merging with already established spas.

Last year, taking its cue from Patriot American (the heel developer that purchased The Golden Door in California) and Crescent Real Estate Equity (which purchased Canyon Ranch in Arizona), The Greenhouse merged Likely Stories

with Spa Third, a day spa known for esoteric skin treatments. What used to be 11 Spa Thiras scattered across the country, including one in Inwood Village, are now Greenhouse Day Spas. The merger gives the day spa more exposure; what it will ultimately mean for the aging matriarch is anyone’s guess. The transition hasn’t been easy.

“Change is hard,” says Ogle, who’s been at the spa since 1965, the year The Greenhouse opened. She was there the day they retired Lacy Toast. She was there the day Marsha Taplett introduced tai chi.

IN THE BEGINNING, LADIES ARRIVED WITH BIG steamer trunks and jewelry cases, looking as if they were embarking on a month-long luxury cruise, not checking into a ladies-only spa for a week of starvation. Somehow, dressing up helped diguise the fact that they were eating watercress and parsley. And, somehow, watercress and parsley became palatable when” served, as they were, on fine china (The Greenhouse owns 15 sets) by a white-gloved butler.

“In those days, it was a social thing: women of society meeting other women of society,” explains Ogle. “When you can set aside a week and be with other women of means, it sets you apart.”

Stanley Marcus knew all about women of means. Then president of Neiman Marcus, he realized that a luxury spa offering a daily regimen no more taxing than waking up in the morning could be as much of a tourist attraction as. say, an amusement park. The Great Southwest Corporation, the company that conceived Six Flags Over Texas {along what was then a barren strip of land between Dallas and Fort Worth), built the property, and Marcus crafted its patrician image. The staff was made up of European aestheticians and masseurs. Its menu was guided by nutritionist Helen Corbitt, Neiman’s own culinary godmother.

No fool, Marcus also established what has become a Greenhouse tradition. Each Thursday, he sent a limousine to pick up guests for an afternoon of shopping at the downtown Neiman’s. (Now, the Thursday shopping spree is held at Stanley Korshak, where Marcus is aconsultant. )

The Greenhouse was the last of the genteel spas, livinghappily and unabashedly in the past.

Until the ’80s, anyway, when the spa began to gray at the edges. In 1989. new owners took on the daunting task of infusing life into the old girl. Their challenge: Attract a new generation of spa goers-who would likely demand a refund if they paid $5,000 to go without- while continuing to appeal to the aging regulars who still hadn’t adjusted to the fact that Lacy Toast was no longer on the menu. No small feat considering that 80 percent of guests on any given week are regulars.

Under the new owners. The Greenhouse installed real fitness equipment for the first time. It ventured, however gingerly, into New Age, The nutritional philosophy that once forbade any fluids at mealtime now allowed water with dinner. In the same way that Stanley Marcus generated publicity for a spa that shares a ZIP code with a wax museum and an amusement park by luring Princess Grace to The Greenhouse, the new owners managed to lure Cindy Crawford for a highly-publicized visit. At last, the spa projected an image that appealed to younger women without alienating the Lacy Toast ladies.

“In 1989, the spa business was nothing like it is today,” says Gerald Katzoff, the Philadelphia real estate lawyer who purchased the spa that year. “In those days, it was emerging as one of the hottest industries. Now, spas want an operator with name recognition.”

Which is why Katzoff began looking for a way to further exploit the famous name two years ago, right after he paid off the mortgage on The Greenhouse. “It would cost $25 to $30 million to build a Greenhouse today,” explains Katzoff. “That’s why destination spas are now part of hotels that can bury the cost as an amenity. Day spas are the future.”

In search of financial partners to help roll out the Greenhouse name, he came across Spa Thira-a day spa specializing in cutting-edge technology. The merger hinged on whether Spa Thira’s parent company would ante up the $1 million plus needed for renovations at The Greenhouse.

Now, treatments once available only at a Southern-style mansion on the border of Arlington and Grand Prairie are now available at 11 Greenhouse Day Spas across the country. And a cutting-edge process of laser hair removal once available exclusively at Spa Thira is now available at The Greenhouse.

If the Lacy Toast ladies were taken aback by tai chi, wait until they hear about the spa’s newest offering: a low-energy laser treatment that removes unwanted hair and, by the way, is also effective in removing unwanted tattoos.


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