PHOTOS: Bathhouse History Lesson

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com June 28 2014 4:00 AM ET

An extraordinary, glimpse into the pre-AIDS gay sexual culture, "The Fairoaks Baths" is an exhibit of Polaroids taken by Frank Melleno during the spring and summer of 1978 at the Fairoaks Hotel, a San Francisco bathhouse. These candid images are remarkable because they document the life of the bathhouse with celebration and no apology. Many of the images contain nudity and frank erotic scenes, but they also capture men dressed in festive attire and the general life at the bathhouse. There is no other collection of photographs that so clearly visualizes this period in bathhouse culture.

These images and more will be on display at the Leslie-Lohman Prince Street Project Space (details below) and also included are images from the Fairoaks Pride Parade float from that same year.

The Fairoaks Baths:
Photographs by Frank Melleno

Polaroids from a San Francisco bathhouse in 1978
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Prince Street Project Space)
127-B Prince Street
New York, NY 10012

July 12-13,
Opening reception July 11, 6-8 p.m.

Interspered with these images is an essay by former Advocate senior editor Mark Thompson.
 

Hugging
Standing at the front office counter with notices about T-shirts, poppers, and towels.

Fairoaks Project by Mark Thompson

A day and a night at the Fairoaks could mean a lot of things. The acrid smell of popper fumes and stale marijuana smoke. The clank of an eight ball in a rear pocket, the rattle of chains. Low moans and orgasmic shouts heard over an endlessly played Sylvester tune, “Do You Want to Funk With Me?” Giggles. Grunts. And whispers. The passing drifts of another cool fog spied through a curtained bay window. The happy laughter of good friends getting together. The slapping flesh of one-time lovers lustily gettin’ it on.

Those were the times to remember, not to ever forget- — as if one could in their fleeting glory. Dateline: San Francisco, 1978. Life seemed never better in this fabled City-by-the-Bay. The gay revolution was in full flower — sexy, charged with itself, admitting no shadows. This brief zenith would be over in a blink. But for the denizens of the Fairoaks Hotel and other places like it all over town, it was eyes wide-open, as if every second counted. Because they did. The ticking of the clock of youthful beauty and passion was about to chime midnight and who knew what another morning would bring?

Gold Cap
A strategically placed clothespin advertises a preference by this sensitive young man.

Photographer Frank Melleno must have intuited the once-in-a-lifetime magic of the moment when he took these candid Polaroid pictures. He’d been a member of the '70s gay commune that went on to purchase and convert a faded but wonderfully intact Victorian apartment building on the edge of a black ghetto into a gay bathhouse. San Francisco was filled with establishments like this — ranging from the outright seedy to gaily grandiose — but there was no place quite like the Fairoaks Hotel. It literally stood alone, at the intersection of Oak and Steiner streets, perched on a hill overlooking the lower Hayes Valley district; an urban patch not yet gentrified by the city’s swelling tide of gay Boomers and some distance from the neighborhoods they typically occupied.

The Fairoaks’ existence was short-lived — 1977 to 1979 — but fondly recalled by its patrons for a number of things. For one, it was a racially inclusive place for gay men to have sex, unlike some of the city’s hot spots that were less welcoming of people of color. And then, well, it was cheap — meaning it was relatively inexpensive compared to other such places in town. Full-sized rooms were just five to seven dollars for the night; lockers, one to three dollars. The cost of a yearly membership was only four bucks.

Once checked in, you could store your valuables in a safe at the entry. The next room was a relaxed lounge with overstuffed '40s furniture adjacent to a snack bar and an open DJ booth. One could hangout on the aptly named “Joan Crawford Suite” or play a round of pool with buddies clad in nothing but towels. A big wooden staircase, decorated with Art Deco designs of horses and trees, led up to the second through fourth floors. Some of the rooms were fully furnished and decorated with pieces of erotic art by the men who lived there on a semi-permanent basis. Weekly rates were low, too. So more than just a funky place to fuck, the Fairoaks Hotel was a lifestyle for many.

Stud
A muscular fellow, not as commonly seen as today, stands at the base of the staircase.

“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.

Gay Pride #9
Standing on the Fairoaks Pride float, the photographer poses on Market Street with the Sheraton Palace Hotel.

Night of the Jock
Fairoaks handout

10
A candid moment is captured between two guys in the hallway next to Room 10. One has a room key on his wrist and the other holds a paper cup generally used for the acid punch during parties.

Acid Punch
A masked employee of the Fairoaks is showing that the acid punch container is now empty. Acid punch was often served free at Full Moon Parties.

Aida
Full Moon Parties were often costume parties. A patron poses in the office for a portrait.

Brazilian
From Rio to New York City to San Francisco. At the Fairoaks he worked as a DJ, and receptionist, and was a proud member of the Fairoaks “family crew” from its conception.

Folded Arms
Two guys in towels talking near the snack bar in the common area of the Fairoaks.

Gay Pride #1
The Fairoaks float at the 1978 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco was a flatbed truck decorated with furniture from the Fairoaks lounge. The hood ornament is wearing a Fairoaks T-shirt and straddling a protest sign about the Briggs initiative, which would have banned gay and “gay-sympathetic” teachers from classrooms in California, and did not pass.


Gay Pride #8
Taken from the front of the Fairoaks float for the 1978 Gay Pride Parade, looking ahead at the parade and by-standers. The banner is seen here in reverse lettering.

Hard Hat
Cradling his beer (and more), a graduate student at Berkeley becomes a silver construction worker on a night off from studies.

Jockstraps
Two employees are posed in front of a Muhammad Ali poster at the Jockstrap night party. Themed parties occurred monthly.

Marlene
The photographer tries to show that his friend in costume is not wearing underwear.  The friend demurs. This costume displayed the outline of the penis when walking or dancing.

Pool
A pool game ensues while two guys playfully engage each other.

Stairwell
Looking down on a fellow wearing a lambda T-shirt while he lights a joint.

Star Mask
The photographer of the Fairoaks Polaroids has his portrait taken with star-covered eye patch and black face paint.

Gay Pride
The Fairoaks float

Stoned on the Stairway
A causal group assembles to share some weed.

Hamumon
A costume night.

Tree Pose
An employee strikes a yoga tree pose while smoking a cigarette. He was a personal correspondent with Anita Bryant, disagreeing with her ideas on homosexuality.