Nothing represents the intersection of LGBT rights and sexual freedom quite like the bathhouse. For a generation of men post Stonewall – gay liberation was very much sexual liberation. They had come of age amid isolation, fear and a climate of shame – but the modern LGBT rights movement born from the 1960s free love and anti war-movements changed everything.
By the early 1970s, shame had given way to joy and when it came to cruising for gay sex – it was all about the bars, the bushes and the baths. Now the bars cost money and didn’t always guarantee success – and cruising the parks proved dangerous with its risk of attack or arrest. But the baths – or tubs, as they were called, were a sure thing.
In a pre Internet, pre Grindr world – before any semblance of an organized LGBT community – bathhouses were a gathering place for gay men. Starting with ancient Greece and Rome, history records gay men meeting in bathhouses for sex with other men throughout the centuries.
Beginning in 1907, St. Louis city built a total of six bathhouses to improve hygienic conditions in working-class, immigrant neighborhoods where most
The first gay bathhouse in St. Louis was The Belcher – but it didn’t begin that way. Opening in 1894 amid Missouri’s spa craze, The Belcher – later known as the Belcher Bath Hotel or the Belcher Health Club was erected on the northwest corner of Fourth and Lucas and known for its warm sulfurous waters and all marble décor.
During the construction of Interstate 70 the pipeline from the Belcher well was ruptured ending its days as a celebrated spa. Its owner immediately started courting a gay clientele and with the help of The Red Bull’s Chuck Charleston – St. Louis’ first gay bathhouse was born in the late 1960s. The Belcher and The Red Bull (a gay bar across the river in East St. Louis) would send customers each other’s way. Bette Midler was even brought in to perform during her bathhouse circuit.
Also popular in the 1960s and 70s was Kerpens’ Bathhouse at Vandeventer and 44.While never a gay establishment, Kerpens was the real deal – a fully operational bathhouse with all the amenities and also popular for cruising late nights.
Just west of Union Station on South 20th Street was the Stadium Hotel – home to the famed 1970s gay behemoth Bob Martin’s Bar and its Stadium Baths which offered lockers, rooms, a steam room and other amenities.
But St. Louis’ best known gay bathhouse is The Club and came to be in 1968 when Jack Campbell opened the Club Bath Chain here. CBC was located in the Washington Hotel at 600 North Kingshighway – and after rebranding twice and as many changes of address is still in operation at 2625 Samuel Shepard Drive as the oldest, continually operating LGBT institution in the state.
With its dark cubicles, maze of rooms, seasonal pool, steam room, sauna, media lounge and full range gym – the private men's club caters to the gay community in eight different cities, using the same membership card.
At its zenith the gay bathhouse, including The Club, was one of our community’s most popular, profitable and charitable businesses. It was as glamorous as it was alluring and operated with little controversy until the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s.
While gay bathhouses in cities like New York and San Francisco were temporarily shuttered to curb infection rates – The Club Bath Chain remained open rebranding itself Club Body Center - designed for AIDS-conscious gay men. As early as 1983 on site HIV testing was offered. Also put in place were CBC guidelines where each health spa would provide a gym or workout area, a whirl pool or swimming pool, extensive distribution and materials on AIDS risk reduction, as well as eliminate facilities viewed as conducive to high-risk sexual activities such as common rooms and dimly lit portal areas.
No matter your opinion of the bathhouse or the clandestine encounters they invite, it is an integral part of our LGBT story. To that end, Director Malcolm Ingram is chronicling New York’s legendary Continental Bathhouse in his upcoming documentary, Continental. He admits he’s “surprised” no one tackled the subject matter before.
“The story is so incredibly rich: The place had a dance floor, a restaurant, a bar, a beauty salon and a boutique,” Ingram told queerty.com. “It was one of the first establishments to introduce convenient STI testing, and its cabaret shows are now legendary,” says Ingram. The Continental was also one of the first places straights and gays mingled openly, years before Studio 54.”
The Club St. Louis, now in its sixth decade in business, is presently starting a major remodel. According to patrons, its pool, sundeck and Sunday brunch is one of the best kept secrets in town. The Club continues to offer on site STI testing and provides an abundance of condoms and information on how to prevent transmission.
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