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What people are saying about Richmond Sauna
"I have been going to various hot tub and sauna places for over 15 years, and never have I found ANYTHING to rival the friendliness and comfort that I have found here. The Richmond Sauna is THE place for honest nude relaxation without pressure or discomfort in any way. I wish there were more places like this, but Richard has made this truly one of a kind." --Lorelei
"This is a place where I never think twice about putting my feet up on the coffee table or coming to breakfast in my pajamas. I feel very safe and comfortable at the sauna. People here are respectful and accepting of themselves and each other." --Tamar
"No shirt? No shoes? Service - Yes! There is no place on earth as sweet as a good home with loved ones. Richmond Sauna is the closest I've found to the feeling of complete belonging at home. A place where one finds physical therapy in the heated rooms and waters. A place to just be yourself. Ladies and gentlemen, come to Richmond Sauna and find yourself having pleasant conversation with people from all over the world. Come and sit, take off your shoes, kick back and stay a while. No pressure. No stress. No problem that can't be steamed out. You'll really enjoy this. Promise." --April
“What a splendid atmosphere you have created here!”
“Thank you for your wonderful,
warm hospitality. It was just like
visiting someone’s home…hope you
can maintain your most unique facility
into the indefinite future and flourish!”
“I just wanted to say thank-you
for your warmth and generosity
of spirit – for those simple
breakfasts of tea, toast and conversation.”
“Thanks for having such a peaceful, accepting place.”
“We congratulate you on putting
together an idyllic setting
that boasts great personal freedom…”
we found our stay relaxing and
“Your place is truly a gem, Richard -
the genuine article in a world that
seems to be getting more phony
all the time.”
Down East, The Magazine of Maine
Richmond Sauna was listed as "Adventure #20" in the "50 Adventures in Maine" article of the April 2003 issue.
Richmond Sauna was also featured in this March 1997 issue in an article titled "In the Heat of the Night".
In the Heat of the Night
For some twenty years, Mainers of every stripe have been heading to the Richmond Sauna to sweat out the winter. Edgar Allen Beem visited the laidback landmark to find out why.
A sauna is essentially an oven, so the small oven thermometer nailed to the wall of the Richmond Sauna is entirely appropriate. It lets you know that the reason your face feels seared and your hair seems to be on fire is that the temperature in the little sauna room is 212 degrees Fahrenheit. If your head were an egg, it would be hard-boiled by now.
Fifteen minutes baking in such intense, dry heat opens your pores, soaks you in perspiration, and brings your blood bubbling to the surface. Toss a ladle of water from the bucket on the floor onto the hot rocks atop the stove and fill the room with sizzle and steam. When you can stand it no longer, you open the door into the dressing room and gasp with relief from the heat.
Wrapped in a bath towel, you pad barefoot out into the Maine winter, momentarily impervious to the cold and sleet. Then, stepping into a dimly lit, plastic-covered pool room, you drop your towel and wade slowly into the cool (eighty-degree) blue water of the pool. The sensation is one of buoyancy and weightlessness as your overheated body glides quietly along, suspended and surrendered.
In the wavering half-light of the pool, other bodies float by, congregate in the corners at the shallow end, or rise from the water to stand naked before the world. There is something both liberating and disquieting about being so exposed, not only to the eyes of others but also to the unforgiving nature of winter in Maine. Still, the public nudity of the pool (or of the nearby hot tub) seems neither erotic nor clinical, merely communal.
Here is the human body in all its fleshy variety. The Venus of Willendorf, a squat being all pot-belly and breasts, steps from the pool as the Venus De Milo, a sleek, curvaceous creature, arrives for a dip. Michelangelo's David, well-proportioned and muscled, converses quietly with the Pillsbury Doughboy. Faced with such casual nudity, politeness and modesty dictate that bathers not stare at one another¹s exposed flesh, but, if you are a journalist, here not only to enjoy the Richmond Sauna but to explain it, you are faced with that most ancient of questions - What do you say to a naked stranger?
The setting for this close encounter with heat and humanity is an unprepossessing complex near Richmond Corner, just west of Exit 26 off Interstate 295. Richmond Bed and Breakfast Sauna consists of a well-weathered farmhouse, which must certainly be one of Maine's most eccentric country houses, and a collection of handmade structures - bathhouse, hot tub, domed pool - that might easily be mistaken for an auto body shop.
The bathhouse is a barnlike warren of seven sauna rooms (six private, one communal), each attended by a pair of dressing rooms such that one bather can be getting ready while another is finishing up. The stall-like sauna rooms are all well cured, from years of wood smoke having blackened the ceilings and the walls halfway to the floor. Homemade stoves toast the air and fill the rooms with the sweetness of burning wood while, in the corner, a constantly replenished stack of green firewood - 120 to 130 cords a year - dries in the sauna heat. As the wood fires burn, they also heat water for bathing and the hot tub, the resulting gurgle and tunk of expanding water pipes furnishing the sauna¹s background music.
The master of this elemental sweatshop is Richard Jarvi, a burly, balding, bearded fellow with a résumé as mongrel as his business. A native of Vermont, Jarvi (which means "lake" in Finnish) served aboard submarines for six years with the U.S. Navy after high school and then worked as an aerospace engineer on the Gemini Space Project before coming to Richmond in 1964 to become quality control manager of the Etonic Shoe Company, Maine manufacturers of athletic shoes.
During the early 1970s, Jarvi worked variously as an independent shoe industry consultant, carpenter, roofer, tile-setter, sailor, and photographer, but he seems to have found his true calling in 1976 when he became a sauna entrepreneur (sauna-preneur?).
"As a Finn," says Jarvi, "I was raised taking saunas on my grandparents' farm in Vermont. I attended sauna twice a week. It was just a natural thing. I've always done it."
Opening the Richmond Sauna, then, was both an extension of Jarvi's Finnish heritage and a matter of what he calls "creative survival." Unhappy, unfulfilled, and underemployed at midlife, Jarvi, at his wife's suggestion, decided to build a sauna to supplement his income. If nothing else, he reasoned, owning his own sauna would save him the regular commute to South Paris where he used to frequent Dave's, one of Maine's best-known public saunas.
Given the town of Richmond's distinctive Russian émigré community, Jarvi figured he'd have the nucleus of a sauna clientele in folks raised on Russian banyas, and, indeed, he says he received a lot of local encouragement when he first floated the idea of a sauna. When he opened for business, however, his best customers were not his neighbors at all.
"Who shows up," says Jarvi, "but the hippies - homesteaders with cabins in the woods, back-to-the-landers who needed a place to clean up." For the counterculture types, sauna - with its historic ties to Spartan baths and Native American sweat lodges - was not merely a matter of hygiene, but of health and higher consciousness as well.
One strapping woodsman and writer who now directs the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, was one of Jarvi's early supporters, having become a confirmed sauna devotee after hitchhiking through Europe in his own hippie days. After once having saunaed at Richard's twenty-nine days in a row, he sees the Richmond Sauna as the center of a "sauna culture" that has developed in midcoast Maine over the past twenty years as more and more people like himself have constructed saunas of their own.
"What are all the ex-hippies doing?" They¹re getting together, taking their clothes off, sweating, then eating and drinking together.
"Sauna is highly ritualistic and highly addictive. I couldn¹t live without it. Nothing I have ever found can turn me around like a sauna."
Among the most ardent Jarvi loyalists are a group of some twenty Bostonians who first discovered the Richmond Sauna while attending the Common Ground Fair back when Maine¹s alternative country fair was held at the nearby Litchfield Fairgrounds. One patron from Somerville, Massachusetts, says "Road trip to Richard's!" is still a rallying cry among her circle of friends.
"At the time they started coming here, I was in recovery from alcoholism," Richard explains. "They¹d sit down at the kitchen table, make dinner, recite poetry, and sing. They were loving, touching, compassionate people. I saw young people having what appeared to be a very, very good time together, and alcohol was not the basis of their entertainment."
What you see is what you get at Richard's house- an aging 1831 farmhouse comfortably cluttered with books, bric-a-brac, paintings, and photographs. The paintings - most with a decided surrealist bent - have been collected during Jarvi's extensive world travels, and the color photographs - which Jarvi takes himself - chronicle travels from Africa to Alaska.
Jarvi's sauna guests - who last winter included a group of divinity students from Harvard, another group of young European doctors training in Boston, and at least one party of nudists - tend to be a fairly cosmopolitan lot. He is fond, for instance, of telling the small-world story of a New Yorker who found himself in India on business.
"Have you ever been to the United States?" the New Yorker asked one of his Indian counterparts.
"Oh, yes," replied the Indian businessman. "I am married to an American woman. She is from Skowhegan, Maine."
"I was in Maine once," the New Yorker enthused. "I was taking a course at the Shelter Institute in Bath, and I went to a place that was run by a man who had a hot tub and saunas."
"Oh," said the Indian gentleman, "was his name Richard?"
"The whole thing really surprises me," says Jarvi of the little world he has fashioned for himself out of hot air, "how something like this can materialize and be so fulfilling to me, both intellectually and socially. This place has never been a money-maker. It's a way of life."
Six nights a week - Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. - Richard Jarvi plays host to what amounts to an ongoing sauna party. Having stoked the sauna fires at noon, he spends his evenings handing out towels, tending the woodstove in the waiting room, popping popcorn, replenishing the chips and dip, keeping the refrigerator stocked with cold drinks, and conversing with customers. He goes about these duties in a low-key, friendly manner, the watch words at Richmond Sauna being "relax and enjoy."
Customers, who commute from as far away as Bangor, Bethel, and Biddeford, come to Richmond Corner to decompress, deep clean, warm their bones, and defy the depths of winter.
"It takes the bite out of a cold winter," says Patrick, who's been coming over from Augusta about twice a month for the past five years. "The crowd here is in direct proportion to the temperature. The colder it gets, the more people show up. On a cold January weekend, this place is mobbed."
"I started coming here for health reasons," says Diana, a gaunt woman from just down the road in Bowdoinham. "I have a serious health problem that I'm treating holistically. Regular saunas get the toxins out and cleanse the body. I think everyone should sauna on a regular basis. I'm just sorry I haven't been doing it all my life."
When she can afford it, as this evening, Diana also treats herself to a massage. Jarvi has converted what used to be an eighth sauna into a massage room and a massage therapist is on hand each night, providing the coup de grâce to a relaxing evening of bodily indulgence. (A half-hour massage costs $25, a one-hour massage, $40.)
A significant percentage of the Richmond Sauna regulars works in the health care field. This particular evening, for instance, the sauna¹s customers include Tim, a former staffer at Togus Veterans Hospital who now sells Herbalife products; Bob, a health care management executive here on vacation from Rochester, New York; a couple who work for the state, he at Augusta Mental Health Institute, she for the Department of Human Services; and John and Jutta, holistic health educators and yoga instructors from Falmouth.
Tim, who has been coming to Richmond Sauna twice a week for four years, says of his sauna ritual, "It rinses the week off and gets me ready for the next week."
Bob, who makes do with an electric sauna at a health club back home in Rochester, says he came to value the Richmond Sauna experience when he was living and working in Bangor a few years ago.
"It¹s a no-pressure place," says Bob. "Richard doesn't push you out. A lot of other places work on the clock."
"I tried another sauna a few years ago," adds Tim. "They charged by the hour. I went ten minutes over and they charged me for another hour. I never went back."
Shortly thereafter, Murray (not his real name), a flabby fellow on his first visit to Richmond, asks when his time is up. When told that $15 entitles him to stay all evening, he looks alternately mystified and pleased.
John and Jutta, who have just spent a long, hard day teaching yoga, say there is no mystery to the appeal of sauna.
"Look at us. What do you see?" says Jutta, who slumps in a folding chair as Richard Jarvi gently strokes her feet and ankles. "It¹s a melting, a letting go, no masks."
"Sauna," says John, her heavily tattooed partner, "is one of the most purifying things you can do for yourself."
Cheryl, a full-bodied woman with a lush head of pre-Raphaelite red hair, says she first came to Richmond Sauna following major hip surgery. The combination of deep, penetrating heat and no-impact exercise in the pool proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
"This is a place I can go, shut everything off, and just concentrate on me," says Cheryl, adding, "and you don't have to deal with any offensive advances."
"But if you were too straitlaced," observes Dan, a handsome hydrogeologist sitting nearby, "you wouldn¹t come here."
There is an old Finnish saying: "In the sauna you must conduct yourself as you would in church." While the Richmond Sauna ambience is hardly clerical, it is both tolerant and respectful. Clothing is optional and first-timers often bring swimsuits along, only to discard them by the end of the evening.
Then, too, Richard Jarvi is very protective of his customers.
"This is my home," he says. "This is my place. I¹m not going to let anything happen here."
"Part of the reason it works so well," say patrons of Richard's sauna, "is just history and heritage. Richard designed his sauna to replicate Finnish saunas and Finnish saunas were a social phenomenon. Richard just knows how to handle kids, the different sexes, and the heat."
Ultimately, what you find in the heat of the night in Richmond is an experience of authenticity. While bathers do not beat themselves with birch boughs as Finns do (to stimulate circulation and perfume the body), the Richmond Sauna experience is one that links modern heat-seekers with Spartans, Cheyennes, and Finns past and, more importantly, with the elemental forces of nature.
So much of modern life is now remote-controlled, insulated from the environment, and mediated by technology, that an opportunity to stand naked before the world takes on almost primal dimensions.
Earth. Air. Fire. Water. Sauna.
"Nothing," insists Ilsa Brodovich "matches the full Richard experience. Being in a hot tub under the stars on a winter's night is hard to beat."
Reprinted by permission from the March 1997 issue of Down East magazine. Copyright © 1997 by Down East Enterprise, Inc., Camden, Maine. All rights reserved.