Lambda Lore

Utah bathhouses storied past

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On Dec. 4, 1986, Salt Lake City’s last remaining bathhouses, Club 14 and Jeff’s Gym (Club Baths), received cessation notices from Salt Lake City attorney, Roger Cutler. Cutler contended, “Salt Lake City believes each business constitutes a brothel as a place of lewdness assignation or prostitution.” Cutler assigned Bruce Baird, the city’s assistant attorney to handle the case. These two bathhouses, in addition to a third that had been operating quite successfully for more than a decade, were closed when the city deemed them public nuisances.

Club Baths opened as part of a national chain in 1972. It was known as Jeff’s Gym and Ray Andrews was the first manager. It was very successful, yet did not openly identify as a gay club. The market was strong enough in Salt Lake City that within a couple of years another bathhouse known as the GYM began to operate. It was an openly gay establishment and in 1976 was advertising in the gay community’s paper, The Open Door.

In 1978, The Gay Service Center sponsored an after-hours party at the GYM. It was promoted with the advertisement: “Refreshments of a kegger-type will be available. Bring your own towel.”

So popular where these bathhouses as part of the gay men’s community that in 1976 when the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire presented its first official awards banquet, among the approximately 30 awards given, “Best Baths Attendants” was included.

The GYM did not survive past the disco years when an ongoing feud between businessman Mack Hunt and the club’s owner over finances shut the place down. Picking up the slack was a new bathhouse, Club 14. It was owned by Leo Busch, a straight man who made a substantial living off of the sexual libidos of gay men. The club was located in a seedy part of Salt Lake City, but it was conveniently located down the street from the gay bar district on 200 South.

An unusual fact about Club 14 was that its employees were not paid. Leo would take in homeless gay youth and put them to work in the bathhouse and let them live in the upstairs apartment. I was told that Leo saved many young men from being homeless.

I never went to Jeff’s Gym before it was closed but I went to Club 14 many times for personal and community reasons. Leo allowed posters of gay events to be placed in his establishment and we supplied the establishment with copies of Triangle, which was Salt Lake’s gay magazine during the late 1980s. The place was a maze of plywood cubbies painted black, where late night liaisons could take place on small cots, as well in the hot tub and steam room. Of course the place had gym equipment but I never saw anyone ever use it.

In 1985, the RCGSE held the first AIDS Awareness event in Utah in and collected nearly $5,000, which at the time was the only sizable effort to raise money for AIDS services and education. The money was given directly to people with AIDS and to print safe-sex pamphlets for the bars and bathhouses. Actually, the bathhouses were some of the first public places where AIDS information could be found.

But by 1986, Utah authorities, driven by the AIDS hysteria among heterosexuals, decided that the bathhouses had to go. Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis directed the police chief, city attorney and city-county health department director to “explore all legal remedies” to shut down Salt Lake’s bathhouses. The mayor claimed “the continued operation and licensing of these establishments is inimical to the community interests. Police investigations have repeatedly confirmed that illegal sexual activity is permitted and condoned, with all of its health, moral, and other negative implications in our community.” We’ve got trouble here in Salt Lake City. Trouble with a capital “T!”

In the first months of 1987, Third District Judge Raymond Uno heard arguments over whether the bathhouses should be allowed to remain in business.

Eventually Club Baths closed in 1987 after deciding not to contest further efforts on the part of the city. By agreeing not to contest the city’s license revocation, Jeff Gym in effect deprived the court of the opportunity to set a precedent labeling all gay meeting places as “public nuisances.”

Club 14 also closed its doors but reopened at a gay “juice bar.” All the partitions were removed and better lighting was installed. Busch then reopened the establishment as the 14th Street Gym. The steam room and pool were kept open but the business was always under tight surveillance. Salt Lake undercover police officers would join the club simply to monitor gay men’s behavior.

Busch died in 2004 and his two heterosexual sons kept the business going, catering to gay men. However, in 2005 police officers arrested two men for having oral sex in the steam room and the city again sought to revoke the bathhouse’s business license.

The business license for the gym was revoked, but in 2008 an appeals court reversed the decision and ordered the license to be reinstated. The place, under the management of Leo’s sons, was dismal at best.

A close friend wrote me a while back, “My feelings about Leo and the establishment are mixed. If you must go there, it’s best not to go when Leo’s grouchy hetero son is in charge of controls, since he tends to enhance the experience with little touches like setting the steam room light dimmer at full, 100-watt illumination, while keeping the hot tub thermostat at a tepid 75-degrees Fahrenheit. Tony once assured me that he cleans that steam room “at least twice a month.” Even on those happy occasions, however, he does not use bleach.”

I’m not certain when the 14th Street Gym finally closed. I believe it was sometime in 2010 when the Busch sons could not maintain its infrastructure. It lasted nearly 25 years after the city’s attempt to close it.

The decision of Salt Lake City officials to close our bathhouses in 1986 clearly was a sign that AIDS had inalterably affected gay life, not only medically but politically and socially as well. Ironically it was not for the concern of gay men’s health that the attack on the bathhouses was waged. After the hysteria was over, Baird told Triangle that the concern about heterosexual transmission of AIDS may have been the real spark that moved the closures.

The glass gazebo that once enclosed the hot tub at Jeff’s Gym now serves as a garden greenhouse in the backyard of an Avenues residence which is listed in the Utah Historical Register.

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One Comment

  1. The decision of many municipalities to close bathhouse in the 1980’s as a supposed public health measure to curb the spread of HIV (to Gay or straight people) was driven by hysteria, not public health fact. The body of research on the subject has consistently found that the bathhouses that remained open provided one the best places for the education of Men who have sex with men on safer sex practices and other sexual health issues. Patrons are focused on sex, what better place to educate them on the issues surrounding it.

    (disclaimer: I work for Steamworks the international bathhouse chain) The Steamworks chain has been providing free condoms, safer sex education, along with STI/HIV testing and counseling services free to members since the early days of the AIDS crisis. Some Bathhouses took strong leadership roles in those early days and continue to be valuable partners in minimizing the health risks that can sometimes accompany sex.

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