Monday, November 6, 2023

Are you willing to take the heat?


     Be careful, readers. You never know where these newspaper columns might lead you. For instance, David Roeder’s Chicago Enterprise column last Monday led me directly into a hellishly hot room, where I found relief by pouring a bucket of cold water over my head.
     The column featured the plans of one Alex Najem, a developer who says he is going to build a 40,000-square-foot bathhouse on West Madison Street.
     “A reminder about how everything old can be new again,” Roeder wrote. “Professional massages and scrubs, pools and saunas.”
     “Hmm ...” I thought. “Interesting if true.” I’m sure Dave is correct: Najem plans a new bathhouse — construction is to start early next year. But plans go awry.
     At first blush, building a bathhouse struck me as woefully out-of-date, as if somebody announced the construction of a corner newsstand.
     But what if I’m the one who’s out-of-date? Pre-COVID, there was a vibrant Chicago bathhouse scene. The enormous King Spa & Sauna, a sprawling Xanadu in Niles, open 24 hours a day. The luxurious Aire Ancient Baths in River West, a magical space carved out of a 1902 paint factory, with waterfalls and glowing blue pools in a dim cave of old brick and wood timbers, where guests can bathe in Spanish wine for $650.
     Research seemed in order. There’s a perfectly serviceable bathhouse on Division Street. I began going there in 1990, when it was still the Division Street Russian Baths and promptly fell in love with the place, its boxing club decor, the Hav-a-Hanks and black Ace unbreakable pocket combs for sale at the entrance. Its sleeping room, with a high-pressed tin ceiling and iron single beds made with grey wool blankets, a room salvaged from the past, plucked out of the river of time.

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  1. I'd be happy to join your group visit. email me the details. I know there is no group. lets form one.

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  3. Sounds like the Chicago schvitz is similar to ours in Detroit, although Detroit's history is probably more colorful. For years, it was a Schvitz for a dwindling number of Russian and Jewish men and the usual weirdos, but only during the week. Friday and Saturday nights were "couples' night," and hosted a wall-to-wall orgy. A couple people I know tried to open it up to others, first with a women-only Sunday brunch. Then a new guy bought it, evicted the swingers, ripped up the disgusting carpet and threw out the even more disgusting couches (upon which you can only imagine the body fluids spilled) and reopened as a working schvitz, with alternating men/women/coed hours, rotating massage/skin care practitioners, absolutely no sex tolerated, with special events on weekends. It's one of my favorite places in town.

  4. I'm not sure if Cleveland's one remaining bathhouse is still operating. It was simply known as "The Shvitz", and it was in a rather sketchy part of town, on the East Side. It was almost like a 1920s speakeasy...merely having money or the gift of gab wasn't always enough to gain admittance.

    You had to be connected. Not in the Mob sense, but something pretty close to it. You either knew somebody or you were recommended by somebody who knew somebody. Otherwise, you never got past the parking lot. I don't know anybody, not even after three decades of living here. So I've never been there.

  5. I grew up next to the Niles Public Library, watched a remnant of undeveloped land, swimming hole with rope swing included, become a strip mall. The King Spa seems to have been in the old Goldblatts location. There was a Mob presence south where Waukegan Road ended, the Burgundy Inn. Betting tickets behind the bar, slot machines behind the wall.


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