Gay History – December 9th, 1985: SEX PANIC! The NYC Department of Health Closes The New St. Marks Baths
The New St. Marks Baths was the premiere gay bathhouse in New York City located at 6 St. Marks Place in the East Village of Manhattan from 1979 to 1985. It claimed to be the worlds largest gay bathhouse with 230 lockers, 162 cubicles/rooms, a pool, several lounges, a roof deck, a steam room with portholes in the wall like the ones you would see on a cruise ship and a 24 hour cafe.
Opened in 1913 it operated as a Turkish bath catering to the immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. In the 1950s it began to have a homosexual clientele at night and in the 1960s it became exclusively gay.
The Saint Mark’s Baths was sexual playground and gay men would prowl its darkened hallways 24 a day, 7 days a week in search of the ultimate sex partner. On the main floor, money was paid and valuables safely stored in signed, sealed envelopes and put away for safekeeping. A key was handed out (to a locker if one had $10, to an actual private room if one had $20-50; depending upon the size of the bed). And off you went. On Friday and Saturday nights despite the huge size of the place it was not surprising to wind up on wait list waiting for hours for a room or a locker.
The late Vito Russo, film historian and author of “The Celluloid Closet,” was a regular at New York City’s St. Mark’s Baths and worked in its Cafe (pictured above) for minimum wage and tips, making sandwiches for the men draped in towels or those waiting. All enjoying some post-Stonewall sexual liberation
There was no “velvet rope” at the door. Well-sculpted body builders were in line to get in with guys who were 90 pounds soaking wet. The cream of the male-modeling crop mixed together with bi-curious construction workers from New Jersey. Artists and Art Dealers rubbed elbows (clad in nothing but a towel around the waist) with elementary school art teachers. The clothes came off and suddenly everyone was just himself with only one thing on his mind without status symbols or wealth to get in the way.
One’s ability to make out well (literally) was based not only based on one’s looks or charm, but more so upon chance. The odds were based on three floors’ worth of “hunting” space and how many men happened to be there at the time. The bigger the crowd, the chance that one would meet “Mr. Right.” (Or for some, Mr. Right No. 1, Mr. Right No. 2, Mr. Right No. 3, and so on.)
The first floor contained locker rooms, showers and the cafe. The basement contained a swimming pool, more showers, an enormous Jacuzzi, and a large, darkened room with a vinyl-covered mattress that must’ve been 40′ x 40′ where all manner of groping was going on. The upstairs three floors contained seemingly miles of hallway and hundreds of rooms.. Doors ajar with men waiting within,
It was a hedonist wonderland. As someone once described it: “It was Gomorrah the way it should have been”.
A regular of the old St. Marks Baths remembered it this way: “The steamroom was an institution in itself. Guys would pack in so tightly that you could hardly raise your arms. And there was a pool in the basement where I saw quite a few guys getting blow jobs under the water. Never could figure out how they didn’t get a lung full of water.” (Robert, NYC)
Another regular of the old St. Marks Baths remembered this incident: “I’ll never forget this one…happened at the old St. Marks Baths one Saturday night in the late 1970’s. There was a line out the door (probably about 1 in the morning). I was waiting patiently when, all of a sudden, the music stops playing from inside, and an ambulance pulls up. About 15 minutes later two men come out with a stretcher. On it was a guy in a rubber body bag! The reaction of the line was just ‘business as usual.’ A queen in front of me said, ‘I hope I don’t get HER room.’ That was it for me—I was out of there!” (D.H., NYC) Although “D.H.” did not remember why the man on the stretcher had died, there was said to have been an incident in which a man suffered an epileptic attack and drowned in the hot tub about the same time of this incident.
A patron of the New St. Marks Baths remembered this about the place: “The New St. Marks had a great hot tub and olympic pool. Showers were way hot, too. The rooms were tiny, attendants were all nice & would give you sheets, pillows, and towels if you needed extras. I had some hot times as a teenager there. They never proofed!” (J.T., Long Island)
Another regular of the New St. Marks remembered this: “I always tried to get the “corner room.” There was a corner room which was oddly shaped because of the corner. It was right at the head of the stairs, so you could see everything and everybody as they passed by. It was great for cruising. It was also larger than the rest of the rooms because of the angles of the corner. So it was perfect for a small orgy. And I hosted many there!” (C.H., NYC)
But that began to change in 1981 when the AIDS epidemic began.
The Saint Marks and other bathhouses attempted to do what they could. They passed out condoms and placed posters and literature on safe sex throughout the establishments but some gay activists such as Larry Kramer (God bless him but he was wrong here) became so “sex panic” obsessed that they to urged all bathouse closing. And seizing the opportunity (and in some cases the land) the city of New York was glad to oblige.
In October 1985 New York State Sanitary Code (10 NYCRR) § 24.2, authorized the New York City Department of Health to close any facilities “in which high risk sexual activity takes place. This code would eventually lead up to the clean-up of 42nd street and 8th Avenue. And on December 9, 1985 the City began the process of targeting and closing of gay bathhouses and backrooms and the St. Marks was the first on its list.
As the story goes when health officials came to close the place down the staff could not find the front door key. The New York City Department of Health had to purchase and install a lock on the building, because in its 72 years that the St. Marks had been in existence it had never closed. Shortly after its closure graffiti covered the walls, screaming “Finally!” and “Fuck Fags!”
Bruce Mailman the owner of the Saint Marks attempted to fight in court to reopen his bathhouse, but failed. With no chance to reopen it the baths the building that was once one of the busiest gay establishments in New York City stood silent and abandoned for 9 years until he passed away in 1994 from complications due to AIDS.
The property was sold to a video chain and is currently being converted into condos.