The Oakland Avenue Bath House, whose official name was the Oakland Health Club, was built in central Detroit in 1930. Still in business, it is today known as the Schvitz Health Club (or Shvitz). At this establishment one can get a plaitza (or platza, or pleytze), which is a rubdown (massage) that takes place inside a steam room, utilizing an oak leaf broom soaked in hot water (sometimes hot soapy water). After the plaitza, one may indulge in a huge meal.
We, and by we I mean, me, Neil, Ricky, Jeffrey and Dick Brown, first visited the Oakland Baths (its original name) as teenagers in the late 1960s. Our fathers frequented the baths years before us. Our heyday though, was the early part of the 1970s, and this Website is about those days. During that time we made the trip to Oakland (as we referred to it) almost daily to partake in the quintessential Russian bath. The majority of black and white, and color photographs that accompany this Website were taken by me in 1974 using a slim-line Kodak Instamatic camera (110 cartridge film). A few additional photographs were obtained from various sources.
Throughout its history, the clientele at the Oakland Health Club has remained 50% Jewish. Oakland never discriminated in any way, other than being a men-only health club, and in a long tradition of tolerance; all races, creeds, persuasions and colors were welcomed, as long as you had the entry fee ($25 today, $4 back then). Whenever riff-raff appeared at the door, its private club status was always invoked. I often wondered how they could tell the difference!
Until 1977, the bathhouse was owned by Harry Meltzer, whose father Charles originally built the place in 1930. Harry seemed like a stern and cautious businessman; he reminded us of our fathers and he certainly knew them since he grew up with them. He was the law at the bathhouse, and some characters there, had a natural aversion to authority figures. Nevertheless, we respected and admired Harry, mainly because he made it all possible--he owned the bathhouse and we recognized the hard work that came with owning a bathhouse. Harry would usually show up at the bathhouse in the afternoon and stay until the dinner crowd settled in. The rest of the time, the general management of the bathhouse belonged to Toots--who helped dig the basement in 1930 and since then, has achieved legendary status.
Toots Johnson was the cook/manager at Oakland, and this Website is really his story. The bathhouse was in essence, Toot's establishment. Although he did not own the bathhouse, he ran it, cared for it, fed us, and most importantly, handmade the oak leaf plaitza brooms that we used in the steam room. He could be gruff as an angry bear if you overstepped your bounds by getting in his way in his kitchen, but he was mostly caring and affectionate in keeping with his kind and friendly nature and he was, given the opportunity, someone from whom you could learn quite a bit about life. We loved and respected Toots.
In 1976, when Harry Meltzer sold the Oakland Health Club, the club's new owner undertook a half-million-dollar facelift of the main floor. This makeover covered all of Oakland's beautiful 1930s early bathhouse architecture, some of which has been captured in this Website's photographs. The tile floors were carpeted over, the painted walls were covered with brick and dark wood paneling, but very nice brick, the carved plaster ceiling was hidden with a drop ceiling, etc. The change to the main floor was immense. Fortunately though, the downstairs pool and steam bath area remained relatively intact.
The bathhouse that I write about in this Website is the bathhouse we enjoyed from 1970 to 1975. Today, and several owners later, the steam is just as good as it ever was, and under the guidance of the latest owners, the interior of the building has begun a welcomed trek back towards its 1930-1976 appearance. Visit the bathhouse today for steam and dinner. This is the steam that made Detroit. Page 9 of this Website, provides details.
Page 2 - Toots Johnson (1909-1987)
Page 3 - The Neighborhood
Page 4 - Upon Entering the Bathhouse
Page 5 - The Pool Area
Page 6 - The Steam Room / The Plaitza
Page 7 - After the Plaitza
Page 8 - Changing the Rocks / Picking Leaves
Page 9 - Bathhouse Exit & Wrap-Up
This Out! A Visit to the Toots Johnson Grave Site
Oak Leaf Plaitza Brooms For Sale!
Shvitz Prose by Dr. Robert Besler
Steam Room Etiquette
Review of this Website
Article about the Author