12th Street Gym Is Great, But It Used To Be The Shvitz

 

Those svelte leotard-clad young women and muscle-building males at the 12th Street Gym are probably unaware that Center City’s most active workout venue was once filled with bald, paunchy, old guys who rarely touched a barbell. Until the mid-1980s the place was known as Camac Baths, the most modern and extensive of several such privately-owned Eastern European-style shvitzbads (sweat baths) in the city. Camac was the most popular of all of the baths among Jewish men, who simply called the place “the Shvitz.”

camac poster

Camac Baths advertisment | Author’s collection

Alexander Lucker opened Camac in 1929 at the tail end of an era when access to a bathtub and hot water was a luxury. At the beginning of the 20th century, a charitable organization surveyed the Jewish neighborhood around 4th and South Streets. Of 1,900 residents queried, there was a grand total of 11 in-home bath tubs, half of which were used to store coal or wood. The organization promptly built the area’s first bathhouse on the 400 block of Gaskill Street, which provided showers, soap, towels, and wash tubs to clean clothes (both men’s and women’s bathhouse buildings on Gaskill Street survive).

To say that Camac had a lot to offer is an understatement. Along with three steam rooms and a variety of massages, there was a lunch counter, a barber, a podiatrist, a small ice-cold swimming pool, a few weights, a half-sized basketball court, and a four-wall handball court. There were also beds upstairs where members too exhausted to go home could sleep overnight. In the early years there were also a dozen guys who administered anal irrigations. An enema was thought to be very healthy at the time. In addition to all of this, tables were available for a friendly game of pinochle and lounge chairs to relax, doze, or even smoke cigars.

The lower level of the 12th Street gym retains a good bit of detailing from the Camac Baths days | Photo: Peter Woodall

The lower level of the 12th Street gym retains a good bit of detailing from the Camac Baths days | Photo: Peter Woodall

There were other private bathhouses in the immediate area, like Abe’s and Kratchman’s, both on Monroe Street in Queen Village. Bershad’s Russian and Turkish Baths was on the 400 block of Lombard until it closed in the 1960s. Among them all Camac was the most popular and lasted the longest. Eddie and Arnold Lucker–the founding owner’s sons–kept the place open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for decades. In a 1982 interview in the Jewish Exponent, Eddie Lucker declared, “Christmas, Yom Kippur, New Year’s Eve, Pearl Harbor, we’re open.”

Members checked in at the Camac Street entrance, just off Walnut Street. There was no 12th Street entrance at the time. They were issued a locker key and a white sheet. Young guys might wear gym clothes for racquetball or basketball, but most men wore only their issued sheet tied toga-fashion or else just paraded around nude. Camac was primarily an all-male world, but there was a smaller women’s section open three days a week.

These marble benches date back to the Camac Baths | Photo: Peter Woodall

These marble benches date back to the Camac Baths | Photo: Peter Woodall

All of the sweating occurred in the building’s lower level. You could start in the “hot room” which held a dry heat of about 160 degrees provided by long rows of standard radiators. Wood chairs were much too hot to sit in without a thick lining of sheets. About every five minutes an attendant would arrive with glasses of ice water and wet towels. Few could last more than 15 minutes in this blazing Sahara. In the former “pine steam room,” patrons practiced the old-world detox custom of rubbing oneself down with salt before they entered. The room is still in use today, though the bucket of coarse salt no longer sits by the door nor do they use the peculiar chemical that emitted the pine odor.

The most unique sweating ritual was the Russian Bath, or playtza. Here was a room heated to more than 180 degrees by a furnace packed with tons of stone. The victims lay prone on a marble slabs while a hearty attendant hosed the man down and scrubbed him down with soapy oak leaves. The Russian Bath cost extra as did a wet, soapy rub-down outside the playtza, where the masseurs violently tenderized the customer like a cut of beef and expertly cracked every joint.

Those glazed subway tiles that are showing up in every hip coffee shop? Maybe they got the idea here. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Those glazed subway tiles in every hip coffee shop? Maybe they got the idea here. | Photo: Peter Woodall

A lot has changed in the past 30 years, but traces of the old Camac endures. Down in the basement level the tile walls, ceiling tiles, and floor tiles are all original. This is where the steam rooms were, and one steam-filled room remains untouched. The original lunchroom, which looked like an old-time soda fountain, has been replaced by a much larger, cleaner cafeteria. The menu now focuses on fresh juices and healthy eating.

The clientele has undergone three basic changes since Camac opened. The majority of guests began as mostly Jewish men. Then, when it opened as 12th Street Gym, the members transitioned to to mostly gay men. Now, the majority of patrons are straight folks and families. One family membership to the gym belongs to Mayor Michael Nutter. There is even a supervised kids play room to accommodate exercising mothers, says manager and owner Frank Baer.

Copper door to the elevator.  A bit narrow by today's standards | Photo: Peter Woodall

Copper door to the elevator. A bit narrow by today’s standards | Photo: Peter Woodall

One reason Eddie Lucker sold Camac was the cost of the 35 employees needed to keep the place running around the clock. The new gym requires even more employees these days. There are about 70 classes for members–everything from cycling to “warrior workout” to yoga to exotic power dancing. A virtual temple of well being, the six floors above the gym are currently occupied by the Camac Center–a collective space for health professionals that include psychologists, psychiatrists, a dermatologist, chiropractor, massage therapy, and more.

The old crowd would be baffled if they could see the place today. Camac Baths without the corned beef sandwiches, cigar smoking, and card playing would be heartbreaking. Though, what would really blow their minds is the Zumba lessons, therapy sessions, and kiddie playroom right in the middle of their old Shvitz.

About the author

Ron Avery is a native Philadelphian and a retired newspaper reporter, mostly with the Philadelphia Daily News. He has written three books about the city and created three one-hour video tours of Philadelphia.



12 Comments


  1. Great article!

    What’s also interesting about the old Camac Baths building at Camac/Chancellor is that it was built to be the “Power House” for the St. James Hotel and Annex. It was once connected by a tunnel under Chancellor Street to those two buildings. The building provided the heating, power, and water to the two hotels. The second floor was the laundry for the hotel, the 3rd and 4th floors were housing for employees. The fifth floor was a carpentry and upholstery department.

    For the record, there would be no Philaphilia blog or Shadow Knows column here on the Daily without Ron Avery.

  2. GroJlart, I’ve heard that the tunnel beneath Chancellor is still there, but I’ve never seen it. During World War II, according to his diary, when author Christopher Isherwood worked for the Quakers near Philadelphia, he and his boyfriend would come into Philly, get drunk and spend the nights at the Camac Baths. From 1990 until the beginning of 1997, the old baths at 201 S Camac Street also served as the home of Philadelphia’s Gay Community Center, now the William Way Center at 1315 Spruce St. Thanks for a great story, Ron!

  3. Thanks, Ron, great story that renewed memories of going to Camac Bath with my dad as a 10-year-old in 1964. The two still-vivid images are the small pool filled with naked men and the grunts, suggesting discomfort, from men being massaged on a row of large tables.

  4. Michael Greenspan

    Beautiful article, which brought back some interesting memories. My dad used to take me to the shvitz along with one of his friends. I was just a teenager at the time and, frankly, the Camac was a bit unnerving. First of all, the sight of all those old farts in sheets. Second, the bath attendants, wearing what looked like over-sized sumo-style diapers and, most of all, the incredible heat in the steam rooms, which made me feel faint. But, best of all was afterwards — after we’d supposedly sweated off a few pounds — when my dad and his friend, Leon (a rather corpulent old guy) would drive us to some steak sandwich place at the beginning of Wayne Avenue, near Wayne Junction, to scarf down enough calories to make whatever health benefits the shvitz experience held seem immediately and totally irrelevant.

  5. Thanks so much for this article. As an older guy (74) I remember being taken to Camac by my father. It was always the highlight of my week. Later we went to the Broadwood which was a little more sophisticated but not nearly as mysterious and fun. I’ve tried, in vain, to convey the spirit and concept of the place to my own kids but haven’t managed to get it right. This article does. Thank you.

    • Well great article and great memories! My dad Leon used to take me there when I was 10 . I was born in 1958 so this would’ve been 1968-ish. It was quite unnerving to watch these old man walking around naked . And that steam room as well. And I remember the icewater being brought around in these glasses and sleeping overnight a few times with my dad

  6. I was a Temple U student in the late ’60s, and some of my fraternity brothers and I would go to “Camac,” as we called it. We just did the hot rooms… no massages. That seemed just a little bit too gay for us. As stated in the article, I remember the overweight men looking like beached white whales getting bathed with large soapy sponges. Just not for me…I was skinny! Great memories.

  7. What a trip down memory lane. My 41 year old son sent the article to me because of the many stories I told about The Camac. I was a young kid when my father took me to Camac. He was a regular,every Wed. Later I became a member when in my late teens. I remember watching the Ice Bowl game after a shvitz.

    Also one of the funniest images i recall were the jock straps worn by the masseuses with their name embroidered on them. For sure I remember “Gus” who proudly wore his embroidered jock while giving a beating to the client lying on that marble slab. Then there was the the Russian bath where an attendant came in every few minutes and flogged you with some dense “bouquet” of long leaves!

    I can still hear the cry “locker” when you wanted to get into your locker. You then waited for the attendant in white pants and a wife beater to come over to open your locker. They were generally responsive because you tipped them at the end of your stay.

    Thanks for triggering all those memories!!!

    • Thank you, Larry. You brought back some memories that I had forgotten. I once asked where they got the leaves for the Russian bath. The answer was “Fairmount Park.”

  8. What great memories, first with my Dad when I was 12, and then with my fraternity brothers. One of the great nights was when a bunch of us dumped our dates and went to Camac about 12 am. a little hand ball, a little basketball, some sluffin and then to breakfast at the Ambassador at 7th & Girard. Dixie, Minnie Aaron & me

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