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TNT Health Club, Detroit’s longest-running gay bathhouse, has recently shuttered its doors. Located at 13333 Eight Mile Road, TNT first opened in 1979 in the spot of a former Jewish schvitz bath. At that time, there were four other gay male bathhouses – the Club Baths, the Prudential Health Club, the Akron Health Club and the Park Avenue Baths – open in the city.
“For many gay and bisexual men, the baths have been a vital place of exploration and sexual freedom back to the early 20th century,” said historian and occasional BTL contributor Tim Retzloff, who teaches at Michigan State University.
According to Retzloff, gay bathhouses had their origins in public bathhouses and saunas serving immigrant populations, where some men would sneak homosexual activity.
“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, owners in Detroit and elsewhere in the U.S. began to create baths as spaces specifically targeted to a gay clientele, providing social and erotic venues for meeting largely hidden from the outside world,” Retzloff said. “Their investments paid off handsomely.”
By the mid-80s, as the AIDS crisis exploded, all the other bathhouses in Detroit had folded and TNT was left as the sole game in town. For a while, owner Steve Daniels ran a bar inside the club and also a video rental business.
Before its closure, the bathhouse had a storied history. In 1992 a fire caused extensive the damage to the club. It reopened shortly afterward, substituting tents for the former private rooms for quite some time. Additionally, the Detroit Free Press ran an investigative piece on the club in 1995, but TNT weathered that storm as it had all others.
“Even at their height of their popularity not everyone in the community approved of the bathhouses,” said Retzloff. “Some saw them as impersonal or as dangerous sites of exposure for STDs and later HIV and AIDS. At the same time, some baths became crucial places of education about AIDS, especially for those who lived more closeted lives. They’re an important and complicated part of our history.”
This week, antique dealer Scott Utke will hold an estate sale of sorts at the TNT. The sale, which runs Thursday, Sept. 13 to Saturday, Sept. 15, will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at the club. For sale are the club’s exercise equipment, homoerotic art, holiday decorations, a washer, dryer and lots more.
“There’s a little bit of everything,” said Utke. “I just discovered a part of the building I had never been in before and there’s lots in there such as a snowblower, a lawnmower and lots of patio furniture.”