The Fairoaks Project was launched a couple of years ago to preserve and display a trove of images from inside a San Francisco bathhouse near the Lower Haight neighborhood that operated from 1977 to 1979 called the Fairoaks Baths. The photographer, Frank Melleno, was a manager at the baths and took photos of friends and patrons that were hung on the walls there.
Melleno survived the AIDS epidemic and had kept the images stored in a shoebox. Curator Gary Freeman started talking with him about exhibiting them about eight years ago, before Melleno died in 2010. And it was after his death that Freeman decided to start The Fairoaks Project, which can be purchased here as a hardcover edition.
In his introduction, writer Mark Thompson notes that the images, like the Fairoaks Baths itself, were somewhat unique for the period, capturing a bathhouse that had a uniquely post-hippie, alternative, and casual atmosphere. The only real evidence of drugs is a sign on the wall that says, “Poppers $5.00” in the background of one image.
During the late 1970’s, the gay community in San Francisco was thriving, vibrant and sensual. There were numerous venues for gay men to congregate, such as bars, social clubs, political action groups and perhaps a half dozen bathhouses. Unique amongst these bathhouses was the Fairoaks Hotel which was located at the corner of Oak and Steiner in the Hayes Valley district. The hotel was a converted Victorian 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 bathhouses 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. This party atmosphere fostered a lenient climate for informal photography… These photographs capture an aspect of the gay community rarely seen in snapshot photography: sexually frank, playful, spontaneous, and often-affectionate encounters. The storm clouds of drug abuse and disease that will soon overtake the community are not at all evident in these images.
The building where the baths were still stands at the corner of Oak and Steiner Streets, though the baths have been closed since 1979. Despite being popular, the venue closed five years before the city would force the closure of all bathhouses in the wake of the early part of the AIDS crisis.
See some of these fantastic images below. An exhibit will also be happening this month in New York at the Leslie+Lohman Museum, starting July 11.
A bunch of these photos were taken during the Fairoaks’ infamous “Open Door Parties,” when all the doors on the private rooms would be removed and exhibitionists all had sex out in the open.
The top image is from the Fairoaks’ float in the S.F. Gay Pride parade that year.