Fate of gay bathhouse chain Steamworks hangs in balance amid ongoing legal fight

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 21, 2023
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The Steamworks bathhouse in Berkeley is involved in a complex civil lawsuit pitting two companies with ownership stakes against each other. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
The Steamworks bathhouse in Berkeley is involved in a complex civil lawsuit pitting two companies with ownership stakes against each other. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

The fate of the Steamworks Baths chain hangs in the balance, as two companies with ownership stakes duke it out in a court battle that includes allegations of impersonation, attempted poisoning, and requested drug delivery.

The suit, Steamworks Management LLC v. Great Works Inc., was set to have a case management conference in late April; however, this has been pushed back to August 23.

The Steamworks chain is a group of five gay bathhouses in the United States and Canada with locations in Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. It was founded by the late Rick Stokes in Berkeley in 1976.

The Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, and Vancouver Steamworks locations did not respond to requests for comment for this report. The Toronto location declined to comment when reached by phone.

Stokes, who died in 2022 at the age of 87, is perhaps better known as the other gay man who ran for the seat that the late Harvey Milk won on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Stokes was backed by the more moderate Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club (now known as the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club) and was portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie "Milk" by Italian actor Stephen Spinella.

In about an hour Tuesday evening, a B.A.R. reporter spoke with 13 men leaving or entering Steamworks Berkeley. Only one agreed to speak, but did not give a name. He said he hopes the gay bathhouse industry survives in spite of the challenges it's faced in recent years.

"All but one in San Francisco shut down over the last 20-30 years," he said, referring to the Eros sex club. "So, this is the spot, and it's been an integral part of the sex-positive community, since it's a gay bathhouse."

Bathhouses still not open in SF

Milk's current successor in representing the Castro on the board, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, successfully championed legislation opening the door to allowing bathhouses in San Francisco to operate more freely.

In 1984, a few months after the United States government announced the discovery of HIV as the necessary cause of AIDS, a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order that shuttered nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs in the city.

In late November of that year another judge lifted the restraining order but imposed new rules on how the bathhouses and sex clubs could operate: no longer could they rent private rooms, unless they secured a hotel license, and employees had to monitor the sexual behavior of patrons. These were codified by the health department in 1997. Some sex clubs have been able to operate in the city over the years, like Eros (formerly in the Castro, now in the Tenderloin) and the now-defunct Blow Buddies (South of Market). Neither provided locked rooms for rent, a policy Eros has maintained in its new location.

In recent years, Mandelman helped steer to passage an ordinance asking the health department to change its policies, which it did in 2021, and another changing zoning rules to allow for bathhouses to open in some historically-LGBTQ neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin, South of Market and the Castro.

Mandelman told the B.A.R. in May that he knows of at least two groups looking to open a bathhouse in the city.

"I believe people are mostly looking in SOMA," he said. "I'm hopeful, but only time will tell."

Mandelman said he doesn't think that either of the two groups are Steamworks proprietors.

Ken Rowe, co-owner of Eros, told the B.A.R. that San Francisco is a particularly difficult market, in spite of demand.

"I have always said that traditional bathhouses will have a hard time in SF because real estate is so high," Rowe said. "Last year, there were supposedly two to three interested parties, who once it was reported in the press, they backed out. Yes, Eros is still the only seven days a week club for queer men. We are open to all queers, but generally it's men who have sex with men."

Regarding the Steamworks suit, Rowe said he had been "wondering why they were operating with two distinct websites, with some clubs on one, and some on the other."

"At least Steamworks is more transparent than the other corporate baths," Rowe said. "Or maybe it's just because SF is closer to Berkeley, they are more on my radar."

Initial Steamworks complaint

The Steamworks complaint was filed in San Francisco Superior Court on August 3, 2018. Stokes was the president and managing employee of Great Works Inc., the complaint states. Laurence Hickey was the chief financial officer.

Ross Moore, a former lover and business partner of Stokes, is the co-manager and 50% owner and member of Steamworks Management LLC. Both Great Works and the Steamworks LLC have Moore and Stokes' estate as shareholders, but Great Works was in Stokes' sphere of influence and the Steamworks LLC is in Moore's, court documents state.

The complaint identifies Great Works Inc. as the corporation that owns the Berkeley bathhouse location but states that until February 2018, Steamworks Management LLC provided "all management, operational, and administrative services" for it.

However, starting that month, "Great Works interfered with and misappropriated Steamworks' prospective business advantage in continuing to provide management, operational, and administrative services" at the Chicago, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver locations," according to the complaint.

"Steamworks [Management, LLC] was the owner with the right of immediate possession of personal property consisting of intellectual property, trademarks, logos, physical assets including furniture, computers, office equipment, and physical files, and accounts receivable having an estimated market value of not less than $650,000, subject to proof at trial," the complaint states.

"On or about February 8, 2018, in violation of Steamworks' ownership and possessory rights in such personal property, defendants seized control of and converted to their own use said personal property. Defendants have continued to maintain their unlawful control over Steamwworks' personal property at all times since the foregoing date. ... Such acts are reprehensible and known to defendants to be reprehensible."

The Steamworks LLC claims Great Works converted all the employees from the Steamworks LLC to Great Works, misappropriated the LLC's business relationships, and converted its contracts with third parties from the Steamworks LLC to Great Works, causing damages not less than $1,784,000. The suit names Stokes and Hickey as the forces responsible.

At around the same time, Moore was fired as vice president of Great Works, though he retains a 25% ownership stake.

Alleged poisoning attempt

On September 25, 2018, Stokes and Hickey filed a cross-complaint against Moore and Dominic Paramore, identified as Moore's fiancé.

The LLC "was formed by Moore and Stokes solely to provide management, operational, and administrative services to five affiliated businesses owned in whole or in part by Moore and Stokes, namely, Steamworks Berkeley (aka Great Works), Steamworks Chicago, Steamworks Seattle, Steamworks Toronto Gym/Sauna, and Steamworks Vancouver. ... The LLC was not structured to nor did it generate positive net income," the cross-complaint states.

Prior to the complaint, however, "irreconcilable differences had arisen by and between the Steamworks LLC's two members [Stokes and Moore], the effect of which had rendered continued operations of the LLC difficult or impossible," the cross-complaint states.

These included the creation by Moore and Paramore of "false, fraudulent and unauthorized email accounts standing in the names of Stokes and Hickey" addressed to Great Works employees, which harassed and demeaned them, according to the cross-complaint.

These included "must be nice to be the most hated and FATTEST ASSHOLE in San Francisco," "You are a 'STUPID low-rent ASSHOLE,'" "you are a FUCKING TOOL I look forward to the day you have to move back in with you homophobic parents," "I was thinking of you and your disgusting body," and "You are a 'FAT FUCKING SLOB,'" the cross-complaint states.

On another occasion, the cross-defendants "intentionally, maliciously and dangerously spray[ed] Windex on trail mix that an LLC employee stored in his personal desk in an attempt to poison and harm him," according to court documents.

At another time, the cross-defendants demanded that bathhouse employees "deliver to Cross-Defendants significant quantities of illegal drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamines, for the use of Moore, Paramore, and their guests," the cross-complaint states.

And, just before the initial suit, $100,000 went missing from the Steamworks LLC's bank account, the cross-complaint states.

Since Stokes' death, the Toronto and Seattle locations are controlled by Moore, according to Xtra* Magazine, which first reported on the legal battle. The Berkeley, Chicago, and Vancouver locations are still managed by Great Works.

Steamworks Management LLC is being represented by the law offices of Charles J. Wisch and Great Works, Inc. is being represented by Anderson Poole, and Couche, P.C. Neither responded to requests for comment for this report.

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