Scenes From A 70s-Era Lower Haight Bathhouse

Scenes From A 70s-Era Lower Haight BathhousePhoto: Andrew Dudley / Hoodline
Andrew Dudley
Published on July 01, 2014
It's now home to 20 apartments, but not too long ago this building at the corner of Oak and Steiner was better known as a gay bathhouse called the Fairoaks Hotel.

According to the curator of a photo exhibit focusing on the hotel, while there were a number of such bathhouses in San Francisco in the late 1970s, the Fairoaks was unique:

"The hotel was a converted apartment building owned and operated from 1977 to 1979 by a group of men who had formerly lived together in a commune. These men infused the Fairoaks with a different atmosphere than was evident at other bathhouse at the time. For example, all the rooms were normal scale (no cubicles), there were non-institutional furnishings, artists had been commissioned or allowed to decorate and paint the rooms, and it was generally lighter than a normal bathhouse. Most significantly, the Fairoaks was racially inclusive, and was promoted as a party location."
Those are the words of Gary Freeman, curator of the Fairoaks Project, a collection of polaroids and digitally-restored prints that were taken by Frank Melleno. Melleno was a member of the commune that purchased and converted the Victorian, and he snapped a series of candid, often explicit photographs at the Fairoaks in the spring and summer of 1978. Some of Melleno's photos can be found on the Fairoaks Project's Facebook page:

This past weekend, in anticipation of an upcoming exhibition of the photographs, The Advocate posted a gallery of selections from the show. An accompanying essay by Mark Thompson describes the scene at the Fairoaks. It was indeed a hotel, Thompson writes, with rooms running $5 to $7 per night. If featured a lounge with a snack bar and DJ booth, a pool table, and erotic art, among other flourishes.

Despite its popularity, the Fairoaks' heyday was short-lived. The venue closed in 1979, and most of the city's bathhouses would be shut down five years later in response to the AIDS epidemic. Melleno stored his Polaroids in a shoebox for nearly three decades, until a meeting with Freeman in 2007 inspired him to restore and display them for public consumption. 

The Fairoaks Project debuted in 2010, and has had a few showings since. It will next open in New York City on July 11th at the Leslie + Lohman Museum. But if you can't make it to NYC, click through to the Advocate article, or check out the accompanying book to relive this unique moment in Lower Haight history.