PHOTOS: Bathhouse History Lesson

These amazing Polaroids from the heyday of the Fairoaks Hotel capture the feel of being in a bathhouse in 1978 like no other images can.

BY Christopher Harrity

June 28 2014 4:00 AM ET

“Full moon” parties were regularly held, as were events planned around a theme. Patrons were encouraged to bring costumes — from feathered masks to black leather uniforms — and a bowl of psychedelic punch was often set out. For a while there were life drawing classes, Tantric massage classes, and a weekly drop-in support group lead by a hip shrink. Members of these groups were encouraged by the offer of a free locker to spend the evening and this helped foster a more familiar and intimate atmosphere than was common in other gay bathhouses of the era. The sense of playfulness and camaraderie there was palpable. No more so than the night when the city’s reigning disco diva, Sylvester himself, came to party down.

Dug into the bedrock beneath the Fairoaks (below the sauna, glory holes, and sling), was the basement office and living quarters for some of the owners and staff. There were eight partners, including Melleno and his lover, Rob Mullis. Many of those men, like a great number of Fairoaks patrons, are no longer alive — taken by the plague of AIDS that would decimate the city’s gay population in just another few years.

Like a string of black pearls, San Francisco’s bathhouses adorned the city with a touch of louche glamour before they were officially closed in October 1984. The Houthouse, the Barracks, the Handball Express, Animals, the Club, Bulldog, Sutro, and, down by the tracks, the Ritch Street Baths. The ever-notorious South-of-the-Slot, and so many more.  Each claimed a distinct character and clientele.  But no place had quite the feeling of coming home once through the front door as did the Fairoaks.

Polaroids
The photographer takes a break with recent Polaroids at his elbow and a friendly hand on his knee.

How lucky for us that Melleno kept a Polaroid camera nearby. With a historian’s eye and gay activist’s zeal, he captured the fragile, fun, and always fantastic life in the Fairoaks Hotel. Melleno posted the shots on a lobby bulletin board for the guys to enjoy then stored the pictures in a cardboard box where they’ve been the past 30 years until he shared them with his old friend Gary Freeman.  Freeman recognized the historical importance, restored the images and created the Fairoaks Project.

More than a pictorial record of a bygone scene — or even of passing strangers with sticky feet — these photographs open a door into a secret gay world of sexual encounter and sweet innocence the likes of which will never be seen again.

Waiting
His baggy shorts reveal the hairy underside of his leg and more.

Tags: Photography

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