On March 18, 1859 The New York Herald reported "The interesting and solemn ceremony of laying the corner stone of the First Free Will Baptist church, to be erected in Twenty-eighth street, near Broadway, was performed yesterday afternoon, in the presence of a large and attentive congregation." It was the first step in a very long and varied history for the coming building.
The church, at Nos. 28-30 West 28th Street, was completed the following year. Five years later, when it was acquired by the congregation of the Disciples of Christ, the neighborhood was still respectfully residential.
But by the mid-1870's the private home owners fled northward as the theater and hotel district engulfed the neighborhood. In the early 1880's the old church building was being used as a concert hall and was partly occupied by the Horticultural Society. Then, on January 21, 1888 The Evening World commented simply "Brewer James Everard is going into the Turkish bath business on Twenty-eighth street, near Broadway."
Russian and Turkish "vapor baths" had been fashionable for several decades. Unlike the later city-owned Free Public Baths which teemed with tenement dwellers who had no means of bathing at home, the Russian and Turkish baths catered to middle- and upper-class patrons. They offered upscale amenities and Everard's baths would provide overnight lodging, as well.
James Everard so completely remodeled the former church structure that it was unrecognizable. On May 3, 1888 The Sun wrote "James Everard's Russian and Turkish bath house at 28 and 30 West Twenty-eighth street, just completed, was thrown open to public inspection last evening, and the rooms were thronged." Everard boasted that his male-only facility was superior to any other Russian or Turkish bath in the world.
"The visitor passes through a side room, where there is a buffet, to the main room. It is two stories high, with a gallery around it on all sides. Around the sides of the main room are private dressing rooms, and around the gallery above are sleeping rooms," said the article.
The lavish Victorian decor of the main room included a large stained glass skylight surrounded by frescoes. "The skylight is exactly over a tank which is in the Turkish bath room, and which is the price of the establishment." That "tank," or pool, was 50 feet long and 20 feet wide and ranged from 4 to 6 feet in depth. Its 65,000 gallons of artesian well water was kept at a constant 60 degrees.
|The Shampoo Alcoves (above) and the marble-lined Russian Bath. The Engineering and Building Record, June 9, 1888 (copyright expired)|
|Around 1896 James Everard took over the saloon in the converted house next door. A sign over the entrance (left) reads "Jas. Everard Lager Beer." from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on May 16 touted the operation with superlatives:
Everard's Russian, Turkish, Roman and Electric Baths, 28th-st., three doors west of Broadway, and directly opposite the 5th Avenue Theatre, are unequalled in London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo, or on this continent for their lavish details of beauty, peerless plunge-baths (the largest in the world)., thorough ventilation and spacious salons superbly illuminated by incandescent lights. The various departments are under the care of professional, expert and skilled attendants. This unexampled rendezvous of health will never close Sundays or holidays, and we are prepared to receive our guests at all hours with polite and attentive service.
It was not long before the first unpleasant incident took place. On Friday evening, July 13 a well-to-do broker, Edward P. White, entered the baths with an associate, C. E. Brown. Brown checked his valuables at the desk, but White decided not to bother. The New-York Tribune reported "When the two friends were ready to go, after having taken their baths, Mr. White felt for his watch to see what time it was, but it was gone."
White called for the manager, James W. Collier. Collier insisted White did not come in with a watch and the discussion became so heated that an policeman was called to arrest White. "Mr. White, besides feeling keenly the loss of his watch, which he carried all through the late war, is highly indignant at the treatment he received," said the Tribune.
|The cover of an advertising brochure showed marble wainscoting and stained glass. copyright expired|
James Everard died in 1913. His daughter, Olga Julia, inherited the baths and it was most likely she who initiated a drastic change to its policy. On August 29, 1914 The Evening Telegraph reported "The Everard Baths at 24 [sic] to 30 West 28th Street, one of the oldest establishments of its kind in the city, will be for the exclusive use of women after September 1. They have been taken over for the purpose by Dr. I. B. Rosenberg of the Murray Hill Baths."
An advertisement in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called it the "first institution of its kind in the world" and said that the baths "have been entirely renovated and will be devoted to ladies exclusively. It may be aptly called "A Woman's Club." Here, it promised, at any hour of the day or night female patrons would enjoy "an invigorating bath and swim, a bit to eat, and retire to a comfortable sleeping room."
The list of feminine-focused amenities included "hairdressing, chiropody, manicuring, massage," and an "electric reducing system." The "perfect hotel accommodations" included an à la carte restaurant.
|New-York Tribune, May 20, 1916 (copyright expired)|
At the end of World War I the neighborhood was again changing as the fashionable hotels and theater district moved further north. Nevertheless, on April 14, 1921 The New York Herald reported that lawyer Abraham Horowitz had purchased the building. The New York Times noted he had spend $175,000 on the property and "About $100,000 will be spent in refurnishing and re-equipping the place for use as a Russian bath" capable of accommodating 500 patrons. The total cost to Horowitz would be equal to about $3.93 million in today's dollars.
The massive renovations were well underway by June 25 when the Record & Guide reported "The old front of the building has been removed and a new facade, of pleasing modern design, is being erected." It promised to continue to be a high-end facility catering to well-heeled patrons. The journal predicted that when the alterations were completed it would be "one of the finest and best equipped Turkish baths in New York City." Visitors would enjoy "new steam and hot rooms, showers, pool, rest rooms, etc." as well as "a high class restaurant, barber shop, with manicure and chiropodist in attendance."
|The Victorian facade was removed and replaced by vast, arched openings which flooded the interior with natural light. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The renovated Everard's Baths reopened on January 28, 1922. The first floor and mezzanine contained the restaurant, pool, "lounging rooms," lockers, and other areas related to the baths. The top floor, held 100 sleeping rooms, and was termed a "dormitory" in Department of Building documents.
Not all the press coverage was about the upscale amenities. On September 24, 1927 the Brooklyn newspaper the Times Union reported on the brutal murder of 46-year old newspaperman Frank O'Connor who was "beaten to death yesterday morning in the Everard Baths." Three men were arrested, professional boxer Anthony De Lucca who fought under the name of Frankie Fay, and two ex-convicts, Nicholas Arietano and Amerigo De Giovanni.
The baths were renovated again in 1932. On March 28 the Times Union reported "Everard Baths, 28 West 28th st., Manhattan, famed for many decades as the health rendezvous of famous persons the world over, and as much an institution as any of Europe's great spas, has taken on a new lease of life." The remodeling included the "installation of the most modern physio-thereapeutical appliances, expert attendants preside over the colonic irrigation chambers, metal and oxide baths and other therapeutic features, with professional attendants always on hand."
|The 1932 remodeling did not affect the exterior appearance. Times Union, March 28, 1932|
On December 17, 1963 Robert C. Doty wrote in The New York Times "The problem of homosexuality in New York became the focus yesterday of increased attention by the State Liquor Authority and the Police Department...The city's most sensitive open secret--the presence of what is probably the greatest homosexual population in the world and its increasing openness--has become the subject of growing concern of psychiatrists, religious leaders and the police."
The once lavish Everard Baths had declined. Bruce Voeller, a director in the national Gay Task Force described it in 1977 as a "shabby, dreadful place--rundown and grubby beyond words." He said that it was popular "only because of its long tradition and the safety of the area." The New York Times wrote that since its last Certificate of Occupancy in 1921 "most of the second and third floors have been divided into cubicles, with scarcely room for a bed and coat hangers, and with plywood partitions part way to the ceiling."
It was a disaster waiting to happen.
On May 25, 1977 terror swept through the dingy corridors of the Everard Baths. The New York Times reported "Nine men were killed and 10 were injured yesterday in an early-morning fire that destroyed a Manhattan bathhouse that catered to homosexuals." The article went on, "Scores of men, some clad only in towels or robes, fled their rented cubicles and the dormitory at the Everard Baths...as dense smoke poured out of the three-story building."
|200 firemen and 31 pieces of equipment battled the fierce flames. The New York Times, May 26, 1977|
Despite the notoriety gained through the tragedy, the Everard Baths was rebuilt and reopened. Gone were the 1921 two-story arched openings and the peaked gable. The end of the nearly 100-year history of Everard's Baths came in 1986 when, because of the onset of the AIDS crisis, the city shut down all bath houses in the city for health concerns.
A renovation completed in 1988 resulted in stores and wholesale showrooms throughout the building.
photographs by the author