The Mount Morris Baths Steam And Turkish had been around since the late 1800s and gay since the 1930s in Mount Morris Park on the corner of South Madison Avenue, between 124th and 125th Streets, Harlem, New York.
Robby Virus writes that the establishment was founded in 1898 by a group of Jewish doctors, when Turkish (hot air) baths were an important part of the religious and social traditions of Eastern European Jews. The doctors lived on the upper floors, using the basement as a professional spa. In the 1920’s, Finnish immigrant Hugo Koivenon bought the baths and incorporated Finnish features such as “needle showers” and vitae treatments. East Harlem residents (especially those living in the neighborhood’s many cold water flats) came for the sauna, steam bath and therapeutic pool.
The image shows the Mount Morris Baths as you looked down the stairs at its entrance on the basement level, below the street and somewhat out of view of the sidewalk passersby. The plastic illuminated sign that hung high up over its entrance and said “Turkish Baths—Mt. Morris— Men Only” (not shown) harkened back to a time when there weren’t many legal challenges based on gender discrimination for entering a public place as this. The place had a musty smell, and I imagine that there were still some of the original water molecules circulating in the fetid, steamy mist since its maiden shvitz of 1898.
During the 1930’s Mount Morris Baths began to attract a gay clientele, and was for a long time the only gay bath in the city to admit African-American men.
…that in the late 1950’s, Mount Morris Steam Rooms & Baths, located in New York, was the spot where black “straight” celebrities and sports figures congregated to discuss business endeavors and civil rights strategies. Sam Cooke and Joe Louis were regulars.
When Mount Morris became a predominately gay bath house in the 1960’s, Cooke and Louis (and other black celebrities) never stepped foot in the establishment again!
In the late 1950’s, Mount Morris Steam Rooms & Baths (est. in 1893), located in New York, was the spot where black “straight” celebrities and sports figures congregated to discuss business endeavors and civil rights strategies. Sam Cooke and Joe Louis were regulars.
When Mount Morris became a gay bath house in the 1960’s, Cooke and Louis (and other black celebrities) never stepped foot in the establishment again!
When Mount Morris became gay. Homosexual celebrities flocked to the establishment, in the late 70’s & early 80’s, celebrities included: Jermaine Stewart, Gene Anthony Ray and Sylvester just to name a few.
Before the gay transformation, back in 1928, there was a gay scandal associated with the bath house (despite a majority straight clientele).
Allegedly, W.E.B. DuBois’s daughter (Yolanda) married poet Countee Cullen, he would allegedly leave her for his best man (whom he met at the bathhouse). After two months of marriage, Yolanda’s husband became bored. He abandoned her and sailed to Europe with his best man. Never to be seen again.
“Mt. Morris has an interesting history,” said Carl, a regular visitor there during the 1960’s, “It once attracted its share of famous people from places like the Apollo Theater. You’d be walking the halls and all of a sudden you would see that singer who went on to record that big hit, laying on his bed, gesturing for you to come into his room.”
At the time, it was the only bathhouse in New York that allowed Blacks and Latino’s.
According to patrons: The amenities offered at Mt. Morris are not modern nor state of the art, certain patrons believe that any changes to modernize the facility would ruin its sexual ambience. (“Robert”) said, “The sexual atmosphere of the place, with all the steam pipes in full view, was considered hot and heavy by regulars.” In addition, many agree that the social esthetics of Mt. Morris are more like a social club, “Like you’re in a clubhouse, not a bathhouse.”
In 1985, the City Department of Health closed down many of New York’s gay bath houses due to mounting fear of the AIDS epidemic, but Mount Morris survived unscathed. Located on a quiet block of upper Madison Avenue, and discouraging open sex, Mount Morris attracted a mixed clientele that included area residents and patients of nearby North General Hospital. Mount Morris became known as well for its emphasis on sex education, providing condoms, lubricant, and brochures, and also hiring an education director who held a lecture series five nights a week on topics of interest to gay men, and ran a popular G.E.D. program.
In 2003, the baths were closed down by the city due to “structural problems”.
Get more Harlem history here.
Montage by Danny Tisdale from Fadingad. copyright. © Frank H. Jump (http://www.frankjump.com).
Become an Harlem World Insider - Sign-Up For Our Newsletter!