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The Club Milwaukee Baths opened in June 1974 as a franchise of the then-popular national Club Bath Chain. Its entrance was in an alley just north of Wisconsin Avenue, a block from the Central Library and on the same block as the Fire Department Headquarters.
For some time in the mid-late 1970s, the Club Milwaukee (Club Baths affiliate) was one of the focal points of the gay men’s community in Milwaukee. In addition to hosting popular specials (weiners for $1, workout and buddy specials, etc.), they held annual “Mr. Club Milwaukee” contests, as well as promotional events for the GPU, a gay church parish, and other businesses.
On February 14th, 1976, the Seven Hundred Building on Wisconsin Avenue, which housed the Club Bath, was ripped by fire. However that "building" was actually composed of two buildings, an east and a west building; the east building was severly damaged, and was demolished right after the fire. But the west building was largely spared: the Club Bath, housed in that section, had experienced primarily smoke and water damage. The Club Baths had been planning a renovation and expansion anyway, and reopened bigger and better on March 19th, 1976.
But by the late 1970's, with several other gay men's "health clubs" (baths) also opening in Milwaukee, these establishments had reached a critical mass, and had attracted the attention of the homophobic police department. In 1979 several violent raids on gay men’s bath houses were launched by the Milwaukee Police Department, led by its homophobic Chief, Harold Breier. These resulted in dozens of arrests, and angry street protests by the gay community. Within 2-3 years nearly all of the gay men’s spas in Milwaukee had closed.
Somehow the Club Milwaukee Baths managed to survive the police harassment- perhaps manager Paul DeMarco’s involvement in the founding of the Cream City Business Association (CCBA) in 1981 had a hand in that.
But the Club's death knell began with the HIV and AIDS health crisis. Almost as soon as the “gay plague” first came to be realized, both men’s bath houses, and poppers, were near the top of everyone’s list of villains in the crisis-- believed to either cause or contribute to the spread of the disease. It was now the public health authorities who were keeping a close eye on any activities they thought might be sources of contagion. The Club Milwaukee Baths waged a long battle to remain open by adopting safe-sex policies, making condoms available, etc.
But soon Mark Scott, the manager of Club Milwaukee Baths during its last 4 years, had to also fight off recent charges of a spread of tuberculosis in the business, on top of the threat of AIDS transmission.
The dual pressure from health authorities was too much, and on December 22, 1988, citing tuberculosis infections linked to the Baths, the Club Bath Milwaukee was closed down by city order. With the source and cause of AIDS already at issue, the double threat of TB infections made it a forgone conclusion. Bath houses nationwide were being threatened and closed as virtually the entire Club Bath chain was closed down, city by city.
In the January 1989 issue of 'In Step' magazine, manager Mark Scott responded to the rumors and accusations that caused the Club's closing. But it was too late; the business was closed and gone.
The assistant manager at its closing, Bradley Babush, was able to save the art work that had been displayed in the Club (click here to view the collection). Everything else in the business was destined for the dumpster.
(In the early-mid 1990's, the building which had previously housed the Club, and much of the rest of the block, was demolished for construction of an apartment/ condo complex.)
Credits: Web site concept, design and arrangement by Don Schwamb;
History text, page contents, and arrangement by Don Schwamb;
Last updated: August-2021.
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