The Gay Bathhouse Fire Of 1977

Nearly 40 years ago, nine men died when a fire broke out in a bathhouse in Manhattan. What's changed, and what hasn't, in the interim.

No one knows exactly how many men were inside the Everard Baths in the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 25, 1977. Maybe there were 80 to 100, as the building owner estimated later. Maybe there were more. Tuesday night was a big night at the baths, and many of the men would have rented one of the 135 tiny cubicles for $7 for 12 hours, or just a locker for $5. They would have been hanging out in the steam room or the sauna, grabbing something to eat from the snack shop in the lobby, swimming laps in the heavily chlorinated pool in the basement, getting a massage, smoking a joint, buying drugs from the attendant on the third floor, or having sex on a bed in one of the private cubicles or the big, communal L-shaped dormitory, also known as the orgy room. But by the time the fire engines came wailing down 28th Street around 7 a.m., nine men — trapped inside a building with blocked-up windows and no fire escapes — would not make it out alive.

Eight years after Stonewall, the tragedy at the Everard Baths — never investigated as anything but an accidental mattress fire — marked the beginning of the end of a brief, exuberant heyday of New York City gay life that was able to thrive in part because of cheap real estate and a city government that was willing to look the other way when it came to, say, S&M clubs like the Mineshaft in the Meatpacking District (dress code included no cologne). But even as the '70s in New York were a relatively open, exciting time to be a gay man in New York — pride parades, gay bars and clubs proliferating, a mainstream weekly gay newspaper, a gay rights protest at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York — being openly gay, whether on the street or in the workplace, still came with dangers. The bathhouse had long been an anonymous space where gay men could be themselves without shame — but the fire at the Everard reinforced the idea for many queer men that the few spaces they thought were truly their own weren't always safe. Today, even as so much has changed for the better for the LGBT community — marriage legal, queerness visible like never before — the tragedy in Orlando reminds us that safe spaces for queer people, and particularly queer people of color, have never been safe, and have never been protected in the way that they should be.

Everard Baths was not just any gay bathhouse; the writer Michael Rumaker, in his account of going to the baths (A Day and a Night at the Baths) for the first time in the winter of 1977, called Everard "the most venerable, loathed, and affectionately esteemed baths in all of New York City." Everard (or "Ever-hard," as it was nicknamed) had opened as a Turkish bath in 1888, but by the 1920s it had become a known, and culturally significant, gathering place for gay men. Author Gore Vidal met his longtime partner, Howard Austen, at Everard in 1950; over the years Everard was reportedly visited by the writer Truman Capote, theater director Alfred Lunt, the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and gay rights activist and writer Larry Kramer.

In his memoir City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s, Edmund White remembers the Everard as "filthy ... It didn't have the proper exits or fire extinguishers, just a deep, foul-smelling pool in the basement that looked infected." And Rumaker describes seeing a naked man who looked uncomfortable lying in his cubicle: "In spite of his display of nudity and the knuckle-whitened hand clenched at his crotch, he appeared, from the tension in his face, in no way to be awaiting some delightful erotic occurrence. If anything, he looked afraid of getting beaten up, or murdered — not uncommon fears in the backs of the minds of most gay males. But here that seemed, though not impossible, at least less likely to occur than elsewhere."

Indeed, it was an important and, in decades when much of gay life was lived in secret, necessary space for gay men to associate with each other — and, particularly for closeted men, a safe place to meet and have sex with other men. Bathhouses are private and exclusive; whereas anyone generally has access to other gay male spaces, like bars and clubs, bathhouses were, and continue to be, exclusively for gay men — and thus play a unique and significant role in gay life. They generally existed on the fringes of lawfulness; the Everard, along with other gay bathhouses in New York City, were periodically raided by police, with a few people being carted off to jail for lewd behavior now and then, but generally left alone — the ultimate in "don't ask, don't tell." As long as the activity was kept out of view of the general public, whatever happened inside the baths was allowed to continue.

But "don't ask, don't tell" also meant that the baths were treated with a kind of benign neglect — despite a smaller fire four years earlier, owner Irving Fine had still not installed sprinklers. And thus the fire shone a not-totally-welcome light not just on New York gay life, but also on the city's negligence in making sure the building was up to code. As 26-year-old survivor Michael Rhone told the New York Times in the aftermath of the fire, "'Faggots' are given a certain amount of liberty in New York City, and most of that is to hang out in sleazy sorts of low places that are substandard. At a straight health spa you wouldn't have rooms partitioned halfway up the walls so the fire could spread." New York City Mayor Abe Beame's immediate reaction, at a news conference the day after the fire, was to announce that he had asked the district attorney to "investigate why a bathhouse would have overnight guests" — thereby absolving the city of responsibility for the substandard conditions inside.

Nonetheless, no such investigation by the district attorney seems to have ever been pursued. Nor was there any real investigation into the cause of the fire, which the fire department officially attributed to a mattress fire that bathhouse patrons had attempted to extinguish on their own before calling the NYFD. There was also no investigation into why most of the windows on the second and third floors of the building were sealed with paneling and insulation, and the only one that wasn't, in the bathroom, provided the means of escape for at least three men. And not only was there no investigation into why there were no sprinklers working in the building, but the city absolved itself of responsibility, claiming that an inspection the previous August had given the owner until the next July to install sprinklers. The owner himself, 62-year-old Irving Fine, who reportedly had a sketchy, possibly mob-connected past in the garment industry, was never held accountable for the building's conditions, including the blocked windows. In fact, he rebuilt the spa and reopened it within the year. (It would stay open as a bathhouse until 1986, when Mayor Ed Koch ordered most of the city's bathhouses to close in the wake of AIDS.)

The Everard Baths fire wasn't just any fire. The tragedy galvanized the gay community in New York in an unprecedented and public way, and it was considered a serious tragedy in a city mired in fiscal crisis. The Daily News put the fire on its front page with the blaring, all-caps headline "9 Die In West Side Bathhouse Fire; Fear More Bodies in Rubble; Sprinklers Set for Use on June 1." (A mischaracterization, it would turn out.) It occupied prime real estate on the New York Times' front page as well, with a huge photo above the fold of the bathhouse with smoke billowing out of it, as well as a somber article beneath. And the gay community was quick to claim the tragedy: The pastor of the New York branch of the Metropolitan Community Church — the gay church founded in Los Angeles in 1968 that had held services at the UpStairs Lounge just prior to the fire — established a fund to help those injured in the fire, as well as pay for the burials of the men who were killed.

The aftermath was also covered in the media. "Homosexuals Mobilize to Aid Fire Victims" was the headline in a New York Times article on May 26 that explained that gay men "lined up to donate blood" — which today, post-AIDS, they are still banned from doing, meaning gay men couldn’t donate to their friends and loved ones hospitalized after Orlando — and "helped identify bodies and promised to raise money on behalf of the injured," and that "telephone appeals for help involved a network of 15 homosexual religious organizations as well as activist homosexual political groups." In this way, the Everard fire serves as a kind of pre-AIDS era timestamp: Gay men could still donate blood, because AIDS hadn't happened yet; gay political groups were actively advocating for gay rights in a way that was starting to be supported by the mainstream media. Just a few years later, the fight against AIDS would see the media and the city turn on them.

(Nationwide, the story was a little more complicated: The tragedy also happened just after former singer and right-wing political activist Anita Bryant's successful campaign to overturn an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.)

The Times covered the tragedy with mix of respect — quoting Pastor Lincoln saying that "one man recognized the charred body of his lover only by a ring he had given him. They had been a couple for six years— teachers in their mid-30s, just returned from jobs in the Middle East" — and prurience, writing in the same article that the Everard Baths were "a kind of 'Marlboro Country' among homosexuals' gathering places ... said to have attracted a 'macho crowd' of men who affected extremely short hair, tight jeans and leatherwear." Bruce Voeller, a co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force who would go on to be a leading AIDS researcher and activist (and die of AIDS in 1994), told the Times that "you could often meet an off-duty cop or fireman at the Everard." Indeed, the baths' patrons were not necessarily comfortable merging their public and private personas. Many men who signed the register at the Everard used fake names — which briefly delayed identification of the dead. Like the general Everard clientele, they were a relatively diverse group: Among them were Adamo Alamo, age 17, who lived on West 108th Street in Manhattan; 27-year-old Patrick Knott, who lived on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn; and Hillman Wesley Adams, 40, who hailed from Scotch Plains, New Jersey. At least 10 more men were injured.

There was no question, in 1977, that this was a gay tragedy. It was impossible to avert your eyes to the fact that this was a gay bathhouse, with gay men inside of it. Like the UpStairs Lounge fire of 1973, in which 30 gay men were killed in a suspected arson, there was no attempt or desire on the part of politicians or the media to claim it as anything but a gay tragedy. Today, in the rush to claim the Orlando tragedy as "human," as opposed to a specific attack on queer Latinx people, the real danger that people of color and queer people still face in this country can get lost — the first version of the Times' story about the Orlando shooting didn't mention that Pulse was a gay club; the #AllLivesMatter movement elides the fact that violence by police against black people is an intractable problem.

Three days after the fire, the Times published a photo of a crane working to demolish the building. "Wreath on crane was left by someone who wanted it placed at the site," the caption reads, in part. Five months later, in October, another article was headlined "Homosexuals in New York Find New Pride" and opened with Yom Kippur services at a gay synagogue in the West Village. "The city's homosexual population, which only a few years ago began to 'come out of the closet' and into the street, has developed markedly in recent months into a cohesive, open and organized force." The point of the article seemed to be to reassure the Times' readers that the gay population was not just "interior decorators, Fire Island and bars with a leather motif" — although "this world does indeed exist and flourishes in some neighborhoods." No, now the gay population of New York was now "very much one of lawyers, physicians, teachers, politicians, clergymen, and other upper-class professional men and women. Aside from their sexual preference, many tend to live like their heterosexual counterparts."

Of course, this description conveniently leaves out the thousands of gay men and women who were not upper-class and not white; race is not mentioned at all, just that "there are serious divisions within the homosexual population in New York ... between old and young, moderates and radicals, the wealthy and the poor." The article also highlights the internal political conflict within the gay rights movement between "militant" groups and "moderates": "Militant groups like the Gay Activist Alliance continue to stage demonstrations — more than a dozen in the last month — which some moderates feel are counterproductive." The AIDS crisis, which would start hitting the city's gay community in 1981 and by 1983 become a full-fledged crisis, would put some of these politics on the back burner. The fight for rights and visibility became a fight for survival and for worthiness — who got treated with concern and care, and who got treated with skepticism and discrimination. The fight for visibility took on a new urgency. The Times' first story on the crisis, in July 1981, was famously headlined "Rare Cancer Seen in Homosexuals" and was buried on page A20.

The Everard was rebuilt after the 1977 fire and was soon back in business. It wasn't until 1986, when Mayor Koch went on a campaign to close the city's remaining bathhouses in the face of the AIDS epidemic, that it finally closed its doors for good. Only a few bathhouses survived Mayor Koch's purge, including Manhattan's East Side Club, opened in 1976 — "New York's Premier Social Relaxation Club for Gay and Bisexual Men," according to its website — and its newer sibling, the West Side Club, which opened in 1995.

In 1977, the fire at the Everard Baths was a reminder that there was no such thing as real safety — which felt all too familiar last weekend. The world has changed a lot since 1977, but the need for truly safe spaces has not yet been eliminated. There is still, and will always be, a need for safe public spaces for queer people.

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