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Brickyard gym's tough exterior houses friendly atmosphere

Would you buy a used car from this guy? If he sold cars, you probably wouldn't be sorry. You can tell a lot about the guy by the way he treats people. This guy is Ken Weber, the owner and resident Zen master of the Brickyard Gym (2651 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) in Bay View.

Walking amid the bowels of a half-finished, work-in-progress motif that resembles the inside of the spaceship in the movie "Alien," Weber knows almost all of his members by name, several hundred of them.

The structure is composed of exposed pipes, brick walls, ceilings with cold and black steel trusses for support. When Weber stops by an apparatus and asks you how things are going, he's genuinely concerned. The music is pumped in through large speakers, and it's not uncommon to hear selections from the hard-rock genre. A selection of heavy metal music for some heavy metal lifters seems to be the strategy.

Weber fell in love with the ambience of a bare-bones and chrome-less gym in the form of the Klotsche Center at UWM.

"I started working out when I was in college," he explains, "while doing some rehab work on my injured shoulder. I started with the spiritual and progressed to the physical."

Weber attributes weightlifting to the successful healing of his shoulder. The lifting led to a euphoric feeling that eventually resulted in Weber's targeted physical condition. He then moved on to a "hard-core" gym sequestered in the nether regions of the YMCA.

"People who worked out there were men and women who were there to make gains," Weber says, apparently undaunted by the dusty floors and musty aromas. He began a more serious fitness routine at a gym at 12th and Lincoln, where the owner was looking to hang up his sweatpants. Weber told the owner that he wanted to own his own gym someday.

Before you could say Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man asked Weber if he wanted to buy it. The price was right, and despite the fact that Weber had no formal business training and was teaching school at the time, he decided to purchase the gym.

"It had none of the frills that you'd find in a health club," Weber says. "What it had was good working equipment, not necessarily new and shiny, but solid. That's what I wanted in my gym."

Weber then opened the Brickyard in the Avalon Theater building on Kinnicinnic Avenue. Recently, Weber moved the gym to the second floor of a building he purchased just a few blocks south of the Avalon location.

Mel Funk has been pounding his pectorals at the Brickyard Gym for over seven years. He arrived after his brother-in-law invited him for a workout and he shares Weber's philosophy. Funk sayas he's tried all of the usual haunts in his quest for a well-conditioned frame -- the Vic Tanny, along with some of the other glossy venues -- and discerned that, "Nobody seemed to be serious about what they were doing.

"You just can't come here to work out and leave the spiritual and intellectual aspect of yourself outside," Funk says. "It all comes together in this gym."

The spartan, working-man aura of the Brickyard gym hits you from the moment you walk in the door.

"Nobody cares what you smell like in here," Funk points out, clad in a well-worn and independently pungent sweatshirt that arrived several moments before he did. "In other gyms, most of the women were putting on makeup before their workouts."

The clientele is about as diverse as you could imagine. African-Americans, Hmongs, Caucasians and Hispanics can be found pumping iron at any given time.

"I have guys on unemployment working out next to a doctor earning a few hundred grand a year," Weber says. "We all walk the same path. Each is treated the same way."

"We've got doctors, cops, firemen, priests, straight people, gay people, a beautiful mix," Funk says. "Everyone seems to get along as though the gym is a neutral territory."

"I encourage people to bring young family members down to the gym -- kids at a young age," Weber explains. "I encourage families to work out together."

Funk took that heart and introduced his 23-year-old daughter Valerie to the Brickyard when she was younger.

"It's one way we can be together," says the younger Funk. "It gives us another opportunity, another level to communicate on, a different dimension to our relationship."

Valerie comes to the Brickyard to relieve stress and recognized a lot of people tend to work hard when they come to this gym.

"I used to go to an all-women's gym," Valerie says, "but it's not the same; it doesn't matter what you wear here. It doesn't matter what you look like."

Coming to the gym causes Valerie to push harder for a better workout. She says in society, there is a lot of pressure for a girl to look good, even when working out.

"At the Brickyard, nobody hits on you," she says. "They teach you, show you how to do things right, the proper way to lift."

The hard-core gym has a softer side. A simple memorial was set up by the front door for a member who recently died in a car accident. His obituary was carefully cut from the newspaper and attached to the wall. The flower arrangement was resting below the article on a small table.

Recently, another member donated a new punching bag that adorns the entranceway. Valerie has donated posters depicting beautiful women and iron-chested guys that are pinned on the walls. Occasionally, Weber will post signs for touch football games, barbeques and even whitewater rafting trips in which members are encouraged to participate.

The elder Funk describes how coming to the gym helped him when he was trying to give up alcohol.

"There are some other guys here in recovery," he says. "It's one way we can talk to each other, give each other support. A certain spiritual level goes on here, a camaraderie, the kind of place I wanted to bring my family to."

Brickyard may be a term that inspires images of brawn and industry but beneath the tough exterior and unfinished interior of this Bay View Brickyard is perhaps the heart of something different: support from friendships, encouragement from family and a firmer butt.


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