SF gay sex club Eros races to reopen in new location

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
Share this Post:
Ken Rowe, left, Douglas Hingst, front, and Loren Bruton, the co-owners of Eros, sit in the locker area of their new facility on Turk Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Ken Rowe, left, Douglas Hingst, front, and Loren Bruton, the co-owners of Eros, sit in the locker area of their new facility on Turk Street. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco's last remaining gay sex club is racing to reopen its doors in time for Pride weekend. In doing so, it is reviving a historic location in the Tenderloin once home to a bathhouse that catered to men who have sex with men.

Eros SF, the sex club for queer and trans men, is now located at 132 Turk Street. After vacating their former space on upper Market Street in December, Eros's owners began remodeling and moving into their new home, where the gay Bulldog Baths had operated in the late 1970s and 1980s.

As of Wednesday, June 22, the business was still working with the city's Department of Building Inspection on getting the final sign off it needs to be able to welcome customers into the new location. Eros co-owner Ken Rowe was set to have a zoom meeting that afternoon, after the Bay Area Reporter's press deadline, with a building inspector to go over the paperwork that he resubmitted last week.

"The language he used was to go over the things we can do for being code compliant," said Rowe. "The issue is because it is a multi-purpose building, while it has been a commercial space for quite a while having apartments above it puts it in a different category than kind of what we all assumed," said Rowe. "But, yeah, there is movement."

As for being able to announce its opening in the next several days ahead of Pride Sunday, Rowe told the B.A.R. it is a "slight possibility" at this point. Patrons should check Eros' website and Facebook page for updates, as Rowe will be announcing the opening date via them as soon as he is given the go ahead to do so.

"I am not extremely confident, but it could happen," he said. "It is possible we could be open some portion of this weekend."

Christine Gasparac, DBI's assistant director, told the B.A.R. Wednesday that she had "reached out to the plan reviewer, and he confirmed that he has a meeting scheduled with the owners this afternoon to go over their permit application. There is still additional information DBI needs to ensure the project is in compliance with the San Francisco Building Code, which they will discuss in the meeting this afternoon."

Having the business back in operation during Pride Month would not only be "very meaningful," said Rowe, but also a financial blessing.

"It would take care of our July expenses because Pride week is always huge in terms of income and attendance," said Rowe, who had formerly worked as a manager of Eros before buying the business in 2005 with two of his then co-workers.

He now shares co-ownership with Loren Bruton, who for many years has served as Eros' chief in-house artist, and Douglas Hingst. Over the past eight months the trio has had to deal with moving locations, overseeing renovations, and navigating the city permit process.

"It is always something," said Rowe, who also contracted COVID this month.

Eros is not a traditional gay bathhouse in that it does not have locked rooms. Such businesses are once again allowed in San Francisco, as last year the city rescinded rules that had effectively banned bathhouses since the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s. At this time, however, Eros does not have plans to offer rooms with doors that can lock in its new space.

The business operates similar to a "day spa" with daytime and evening hours and not as a 24-hour venue, as Rowe noted in April during a hearing on further zoning changes for the city's adult sex venues. It has a capacity capped at 49 people in the new space, which has several play spaces for patrons and a locker room area.

Since Eros opened in 1992, the business has worked "to exceed," stressed Rowe, any requirements the city has placed on such businesses.

"We have been able to weather the crises of AIDS and STIs, the drug crisis, and we find ourselves the only gay commercial sex venue to remain in business post the COVID imposed closures," said Rowe, referring to the closure in 2020 of SOMA sex club Blow Buddies.

As the B.A.R. has previously reported, city leaders this spring removed prohibitions that kept such establishments from opening their doors in the city's historic LGBTQ neighborhoods. They did so at the urging of gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who had led the earlier push to allow bathhouses to again operate in the city.

Mandelman told the B.A.R. this week that he would be "very disappointed" if Eros can't open by Pride weekend.

While Rowe would have liked to have submitted Eros' paperwork to the various city departments months ago, he said he was told he could not do so until the latest zoning changes went into effect.

"I wish we had been able to do the paperwork while the zoning stuff was going through but that logically wasn't going to happen. The city doesn't recognize the zoning change until it happens," said Rowe.

The latest zoning code update officially went into effect June 12. It paves the way for gay bathhouses and other adult sex venues to open in the Castro, Tenderloin, and most of South of Market without the need to receive approval from the planning commission. The oversight body does need to sign off on adult sex venues that want to open in eastern SOMA, the Mission, Dogpatch, and Bayview.

Approval would also be needed from the commission if an adult sex venue wanted to operate between 2 and 6 a.m. in those locations. Such adult businesses, however, remain banned in the Chinatown Community Business District.

Eros had been waiting on the city's Department of Building Inspection to sign off on its change-of-use request it made May 13 in order for it to reopen in the Turk Street storefront as an adult sex venue. A dog groomer and kennel using the name of the old gay bathhouse had operated in the space followed by an artist collective prior to Eros taking over the lease.

Due to the recent zoning changes, approval of the new usage for the storefront should be "a really minimal thing," said Jacob Bintliff, a legislative aide for Mandelman who previously worked as a city planner.

"There really shouldn't be any problem. It should be totally perfunctory," Bintliff told the B.A.R. June 15 in terms of Eros' request.

Due to it being closed but having to pay rent since late last year on its new location, Eros has been crowdfunding to help it cover its costs. So far it has raised close to $6,000 out of its goal of $15,000.

"We really are short for our June rent and need the next 2/3s of our goal. We went 6 months without income and would rather not take on anymore loans," wrote Rowe in a May 15 note on the fundraising page.

He had also promised the next update would disclose the opening date for Eros.

"We are getting close! Zoning is changing. We applied for our permits. Extra furniture is being removed. We set our opening date (next update)," wrote Rowe.

According to its website, Eros is allowing anyone who had a membership with it that expired December 15 to bring in their membership card to the new location to receive a free, new membership good for six months.

"We are hoping we can survive this month," Rowe told the B.A.R. ahead of Eros's return to operation. "We need to be open in July."

Eros' new space is located at 321 Turk Street in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Now, just as the sex club reopens, its owners have to contend with the additional headache of a global monkeypox outbreak mostly in men who have sex with men. Many cases have been linked to a Pride event in the Canary Islands, a fetish festival in Belgium, and saunas in Spain and Montreal.

As of June 14 five possible cases of monkeypox had been reported in San Francisco residents, according to local public health officials. While anyone can contract monkeypox through close personal contact, health officials are urging the gay community, in particular, to be alert ahead of this month's Pride events.

On its Facebook page that Tuesday, Eros had shared an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the monkeypox outbreak that noted, "the risk for getting monkeypox in the United States is low, but it's important to know the symptoms."

It added that, "Anyone who has a rash that looks like monkeypox and has had potential exposure to the virus should talk to their healthcare provider. A monkeypox rash may initially appear similar to pimples, blisters, or raised bumps, and it may be accompanied by fever and chills."

Rowe told the B.A.R. that he and his co-owners "are not really sure at this point" what impact this latest health issue could have on their business, which was forced to close several times over the last two years due to COVID. He added that, "We are not too worried."

He noted that health officials have advised that anyone old enough to have gotten the smallpox vaccine should have a fair amount of protection from monkeypox.

"So that is like 50 years old and older, which is a good chunk of our customer base," said Rowe, adding that tourists also account for a large pool of their patrons. "With tourists, tourists are always a wild card, but we live in a touristy city. We are not overly worried. There is no evidence for us to be worried about it anytime soon."

As for seeing a traditional gay bathhouse again operate in the city, it does not appear one will be opening any time soon. Bintliff told the B.A.R. he is not aware of anyone currently seeking permits for such a business in the city.

One interested bathhouse proprietor, Curtis Chude, had contacted Mandelman's office and spoke with the B.A.R. last year. He was eying the former 24 Hour Fitness site at 2145 Market Street between Sanchez and Church streets that permanently closed in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. But it has since been leased to Live Fit Gym Wellness Club, which is set to open this month.

"I am not aware of anyone since we passed it who has specific plans moving forward," said Bintliff, referring to the bathhouse zoning change. "One person was interested in the 24 Hour Fitness space, but this new gym beat them to that. We are happy to have the gym coming in and we are happy to have that vacancy filled."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.