Remembering Adventures at the Baths: A Gay Rite of Passage
Before the onset of AIDS, bathhouses were very popular with gay men. After graduating from college in 1979, I moved to New York and, being a frisky 21-year-old, I felt like a kid in a candy store whenever I'd go to "the baths" - with a variety of different venues to visit. I went on a regular basis for a little more than a year, from the spring of 1979 thru the summer of 1980. Besides being exciting, it was also a learning experience. Most of the time I went to the Club Baths, but I also experienced Man's Country, St. Mark's Baths, the Everard and the Big Apple. Besides being a place for anonymous hook ups, the baths, like bars, also served as a place for making friends. (I can think of the names of eight guys I met there who I saw outside of the baths on a number of occasions.) What follows is a synopsis of the venues I went to.
THE CLUB BATHS
The Club Baths was part of a chain with locations across the US. New York's "franchise" was on 1st Avenue near Houston St. next door to an Hispanic funeral parlor. It had a lounge with a bar and TV, and there was a swimming pool and sauna downstairs. The price of admission got you a locker; for an additional charge you could rent a cubicle-sized room (with a cot and a door) for four hours. I never rented a room since I preferred walking about the complex - and I didn't want to deal with the hassle of rejecting those I wasn't interested in (and there were many, especially since I was fresh meat and everyone wanted a taste). For those looking for groups to play with there was an orgy room, a movie room with bunks, and a maze. Patrons walked around with a towel wrapped around their waist and opened it, or dropped it to the floor, as "opportunities" presented themselves.
My first trip on a New York subway was made during a visit to the baths. I usually went on Saturday night, arriving around 9 PM and staying until daybreak, when I'd fine myself on the subway with people who looked like they were going to church. Since I lived in New Jersey at the time, it wasn't an easy trip, but the fun that awaited easily motivated me.
Disco station WKTU played throughout the complex. Whenever I hear songs such as Put Your Body In It (Stephanie Mills); Harmony (Suzy Lane); Street Life (The Crusaders); or Yellow Beach Umbrella (Bette Midler), warm memories come to mind. The music would be regularly interrupted by the desk clerk announcing a room number whose four-hour rental was about to expire.
THE BIG APPLE
The first bathhouse I ever went to was The Big Apple in the Times Square area - on Good Friday. My first encounter was with a lawyer from Mexico City whose name was Javier.
ST. MARK'S BATHS
Located on St. Mark's Place in the East Village, the St. Mark's Baths had the reputation for attracting the hottest men. The one time I went there was on a balmy October evening and the roof deck was open.
Man's Country was on West 15th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. Like the other bathhouses, it was multi-level with long, narrow floors. What made it unique, however, was that upon entering one of the floors you came face-to-face with the front of a red semi with a trailer attached that guys went into to have sex. This floor also held jail cells for more role-playing scenarios. A famous billboard for Man's Country was in Sheridan Square, with the word "Come" dominating.
It was infamous for a deadly fire in 1977 that killed nine patrons. Located on 5th Avenue south of 34th St., I went there in the winter of 1980 (it relocated a few blocks after the fire), and met a fellow named Gordon who I dated until the end of the summer. I'd take the train up to his place in Poughkeepsie on weekends. He is just one of the men I saw outside of the baths ...
NOT ALL ENCOUNTERS WERE ANONYMOUS
Perhaps the most interesting experience I had with someone I met was with Joey, owner of a car dealership in Westchester County, who took me out on his boat in the town of Harrison on Long Island Sound. He picked me up on a Saturday morning in August 1979, and there were two children in the backseat of his car! It turns out he was married, and while he and I went out on the boat to "relax", his wife and kids were back at the boathouse.
Dennis was a Catholic priest from Douglaston, Queens, who I met through a personal ad in the Village Voice. Although I didn't meet him at the baths, I introduced him to the Club Baths on a Friday when it was "Buddy Night", and two gained admission for the price of one. Another fellow, Tom, a librarian from Scranton, PA, invited me to visit him, but with the caveat that since he lived with his father we'd have to have sex in his car in the garage. We spoke on the phone a few times but I didn't take him up on his invitation.
Bill was a guard at the US Embassy in Iran on Tehran's Teleghani Ave. I met him in the summer of 1979, just a few months before embassy personnel were taken hostage. Then there was Bruce (at first he told me his name was Rick), who was a chef at a restaurant on Cape Cod during the summer in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard. On one date he came to my apartment and made Coq au vin, and showed me how to prepare asparagus. Phillip, who lived in Inwood in northern Manhattan, was the first black guy I was ever with.
Mel was a former copywriter at McCann Erickson and lived on Staten Island. I've only been to that borough a few times in my life, and the first time was to visit him. He took me to see the Broadway musical Whoopie and we also saw the Woody Allen film Manhattan. His was the first uncut cock I ever "encountered." One more thing - he was in his early 50s, my father's age.
Bill, originally from Milwaukee, was a temp at Touche Ross (before it became Deloitte Touche), and lived at an SRO on West 12th St. off 6th Ave. called the Ardsley House. He took me to the Russian Tea Room for dinner. He was smitten with me, but I wasn't ready for a serious relationship. His was the first of many hearts I've broken.
Don lived in Bethpage on Long Island and I visited him there on Memorial Day weekend 1979. Upon coming back on Sunday I went directly to the baths and ended up meeting Joe from Bensonhurst Brooklyn. On one of our dates we saw Alien in Times Square and while we were in the theater his car was towed. He had a share out in the Pines but he wouldn't take me because he didn't think I was ready.
My adventures at the baths ended once I started seriously dating someone in September 1980 (we didn't meet at the baths). Many bathhouses closed by the mid-80s due to the backlash caused by the onset of AIDS. Today there are a few in business (e.g. The West Side Club in Chelsea), but they aren't nearly as popular as they were back in the carefree '70s.
Correction: The Everard Baths was located on W. 28-th Street, just off Broadway. Not on 5-th Avenue.It was one of the oldest public baths in the city, dating from the 1920's. The fire of 1977 was widely publicized, but the place never moved to a different location either. It was closed for a few months after the fire and then reopened at the same location. It had a basement with huge Olympic-sized pool and two floors above and was very popular as a gay bathhouse from around 1975 to 1985.
Posted by: Patrick Riley | 06/17/2017 at 11:02 AM
I remember well all the bathhouses mentioned here,as i was a regular in them from 1980 until the city closed them all down in 1986.This article mentions (5) of the most popular ones in Manhattan. However, around 1981-82, in their heyday, there were no fewer than (12) gay men's baths operating in the city.....(11) in Manhattan and (1) in Flushing, Queens, i.e., The Barracks on W.42nd St.in Times Sq.,The Beacon Baths in midtown, Mt.Morris baths on W.125th St.in Harlem,The Wall Street Sauna on Maiden Lane in the financial district, The Christopher Street Baths,a tiny one,located in the basement of a residential building on Christopher Street,just off 7th Ave. South, and The Keller Baths,located atop the Keller Hotel on West Street,one block South of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.Lastly, located in Flushing,Queens was the Northern Men's Sauna. This is gay men's bathhouse history in New York City from the 1970's right through 1986,whenthe city shuttered them all due to the AIDS crisis.
Posted by: James Whelander | 11/09/2018 at 11:50 AM
My favorite was "The Barracks" on W.42-nd Street; (closest to 8th Avenue).It was next to a theater on the second floor. The non-descript door was on the right side and as soon as you reached the window where you paid,you got a faint odor of piss ! It was dark, dirty, gloomy, grimy and full of bareback action !It was frequented by many hot and hung,black "thugs" in the 1980's and their raw white power-bottom and cock hungry pussy-boys. Some with tender and hairless lily white asses propped-up,big holes throbbing and begging for huge black dicks,and swallowing cocks and taking 30 plus loads a night on weekends ! The place stunk of piss and had a pitch-black grope-room that was always jam packed. This was before the Aids crisis hit and promiscuity was rampant !
Posted by: Neil Monihan | 02/24/2019 at 01:38 PM
The best was was always St. Mark's in the East Village. It had 3 floors, a restaurant cafe', was clean, and on three day weekends you had to wait on line outside to get in on Sunday nights. Everyone wanted to screw their asses off that one extra day when Monday was a holiday and there was no work. Of course,the wild and non-stop sex party blew up in everyone's face when Aids, then known as GRID surfaced...and the resat is history.
Posted by: MARCUS SIMON | 02/25/2019 at 11:06 AM
Where can you see the Continental documentary? Ive been trying to find it for years!
Posted by: Michail | 12/20/2020 at 03:42 PM
Unmentioned by anyone so far is the East Side Sauna. I don't remember where it was -- in the E. 50s? -- but the one time I went there, visiting from Chicago, I had a good time with a handsome uncut gentleman who was kind enough to drive me home to my parents' apartment in Riverdale. In the car, he revealed that he was a Catholic priest.
When I got back to Chicago, I asked one of the chaplains of Dignity Chicago whether I had caused him to do a very bad thing, and Father Mike assured me that I bore no guilt, I had served as an "occasion for sin."
Which is different from when I had sex with Father Dan from Dignity, who had put an alluring ad in the Advocate Classifieds. Even after he returned my call and we realized we knew each other, he invited me to the rectory to demonstrate electro sex on me and then on himself. He had the most beautiful foreskin I've ever seen, but I didn't want to be an occasion for sin again, so I didn't say anything and refrained from pleasuring it.
All well before AIDS.
Posted by: Peter in Jersey City | 01/12/2022 at 01:28 PM
The East Side Club remains open today (2022),and is located at: 227 E.56th Street (off 3rd Avenue) in Manhattan. It opened in 1976 and was expanded to now have three floors. It was the only gay men's bathhouse to survive not being shuttered by the city in 1986/86 when the Aids pandemic hit. It got around the closures as a public-health danger by claiming it was a private club-open to members only and not the general public...(Genius !) It was the only bathhouse to require patrons buy a yearly membership card for around $15.00
Posted by: Boris | 04/28/2022 at 02:36 PM
The Wall Street Sauna was located on the top floor of 1 Maiden Lane (between Broadway and Nassau Street) in the financial district. In the 1970's and 80's,this tiny gay bathhouse served a purpose for lunch hour quickies or after work extra curricular activity. It had two floors, about ten rooms, a lounge, several cubicles and a dark room. It survived the city closings in 1985/86, as it was classified as a "members-only" spa and only open to members,not the public.It was owned by the same proprietors of The East Side Club (still open) and The West Side Club in Chelsea (closed in 2021). The Wall Street Sauna closed around 2001,after 9/11 and never reopened due to air-quality concerns in the area and poor business.
Posted by: John Reed | 04/28/2022 at 05:10 PM
I recall the "Christopher Street Sauna" at 78 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village (c.1980-82). It was a tiny bathhouse located one flight down in an old circa 1900 tenement-style building, just off 7th Avenue South. It was only 12 tiny cubicle rooms, 6 on each side and a shower stall with two heads. It was back before Aids became a pandemic and Manhattan was full of seedy bookstores, video shops with glory-holes and no fewer than between 8 to 10 large bathhouses. Of course, by 1985-86, Aids became a real lethal problem and the city closed all these places under Giuliani and by order of the board of health. The old gay bathhouse scene of the 70's and 80's has never recovered and probably never will.
Posted by: John Scafaldi | 05/27/2022 at 02:28 AM
I went to every one of the baths in the city (and the one in Flushing too) but my hands-down favorite was the Beacon on East 45th. If you were into men of varied ethnicities, this was the place for you. It was near to the United Nations and dignitaries who couldn't freely play in their own countries could be found there regularly. I would spend entire weekends there on occasion. Those were great times and I miss them a lot!
Posted by: Ed | 07/30/2022 at 03:50 PM
THE PICTURE OF THE GUY AT CBC BATHS NYC IN THE HOT TUB IS MYSELF (@stephenkeig)!! TAKEN IN 1978 ON MY VERY 1ST VISIT AT AGE 26!! I FREELY SIGNED THE DISCLOSURE FORM NOT CARING I WAS NOT GETTING PAID FOR IT!! AT AGE 70 IT IS QUITE SHOCKING TO SEE MYSELF AT THAT AGE AGAIN!! I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR THAT POSTER PIC USED NATIONALLY THEN FOR YEARS!!! WOW!!! NOT BAD!!!
Posted by: [email protected] | 10/07/2022 at 01:05 PM