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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.