The Steamy Side of Detroit
By Sharon Luckerman
rom the late 1960s till the mid-1970s, then-teenager Gary Sosnick of Detroit and his buddies Neil, Ricky, Jeffrey and Dick followed their fathers' and, for some, their fathers' fathers' footsteps for a daily shvitz (Yiddish for steam bath) at the Oakland Avenue Bath House in Detroit.
The Detroit Jewish News - July 27, 2001
The young men prepared for dates as well as life itself under the influence of "shvitzing," in this men-only haven. The "procedure" took a couple of hours and included a rubdown-like massage called a plaitza, several trips in and out of the steam room, along with a dousing of cold water.
"I have wonderful memories of those times," says Sosnick.
So as Detroit approached its 300th birthday, Sosnick, a Web designer and producer, looked for a way to "contribute to the party."
He combed his personal archives for material. Three months later, he completed a Web site about the history, the place and especially the colorful people he met at the Oakland Avenue Bath House (now called the Schvitz Health Club). His site includes nine pages of text, photographs and links to related subjects, including the names and descriptions of three other Russian-style bathhouses in the United States, that earn "our stamp of approval.
"My motivation," says Sosnick, "is a desire to see the Oakland Avenue Bath House become a part of Detroit's birthday and a link to the city's forgotten social and architectural past."
His site succeeds in capturing a rare blend of physical pleasure, a spirit of camaraderie, and a lively history of a time and neighborhood now gone.
Threaded throughout his text, Sosnick weaves the adventures he and his friends had taking breaks from their studies at Wayne State University in the early 1970s to spend time each day at the shvitz.
But beware of his descriptions. They can lead to a strong desire to try one immediately.
Patrons, 50 percent of whom were Jewish, he says, steamed, then plunged into a cool pool of water, or were sprayed with cold water, steamed again, and if lucky, had a plaitza with an oak leaf broom soaked in hot water. All for $4.
After all that, you could also indulge in a huge meal prepared on the premises.
A Steamy History
The story of the bathhouse begins in 1930, when Charles Meltzer dug out the basement of a building with a dance hall. There he built a mikvah (ritual bath), a pool, and a steam room.
The main floor became a place to change and dine, while the second floor was converted into a rooming house. The mikvah was eventually sealed off before Sosnick's time, but it was resurrected as a whirlpool bath in 1980, after new owners took over.
In the early 20th century, bathhouses were not only social meeting places, writes Sosnick, but hygienic necessities for the immigrants, many from Eastern Europe, who lived in nearby cold-water flats and apartments.
European Jews needed public bathhouses, and more than a dozen existed in Detroit during that time.
"The Russian steam room tradition was decidedly a Jewish one," he adds. "And the bathhouse on Oakland Avenue remains as its last and finest example."
Until 1977, Charles' son Harry Meltzer, owned the bathhouse. But the most interesting figure on the Web site is Toots Johnson, the cook, manager and sometimes bouncer, who really ran the bathhouse for 45 years.
By the time Sosnick and his buddies ventured into the 20- by 25- foot steam room, it supported a clientelestill half Jewish who were a rare mix of "everyman," sitting alongside judges, politicians (like Detroit councilman Jack Kelley) and members of the Purple Gang (Jewish gangsters). Together they sweated, wearing only a wet towel wrapped around their heads as the temperature climbed to 180 degrees.
"It eases any physical or mental pain," says Sosnick.
His bathhouse tale continues, filled with a variety of personal accounts, including the time Sosnick didn't go home one night. After a steam and a meal prepared as usual by Toots, Sosnick decided to lie down for a short time in one of the sleeping apartments upstairs. He didn't awake until he heard Toots firing up the gas jets for the steam room at 4 a.m. the next morning.
Sosnick awaits more stories and photographs by other bathhouse patrons to add to his archive. He says more than 50 people have already responded to his site, some with congratulations, and others with items he missed and will add to his site.
After 1975, Sosnick's interest in playing squash moved his daily shvitzing to the Franklin Fitness & Racquet Club in Southfield "where I find a steam room to be entirely adequate for my after-squash purposes."
However, he still returns to his old haunt in Detroit three or four times a year when out-of-towners visit. Sosnick says he accompanies his friends and now supplies the plaitza oak leaf broom that he also has for sale on his Web site.
"Oakland [bathhouse] was the best part of our day" for about five years, writes Sosnick. "In case you are wondering, we had very little money, but we made the best of it."
And one of the best parts, he concludes, was the camaraderiewhich must have also been the attraction for his and his friends' fathers in their day.