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.
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.
I have an original large double sided canvas banner with great graphics announcing the erection of Camac Bath House, Turkish baths etc; it says some benefits with a large finger pointing to the building.It is for sale $650
When we kids and dads would take us to Camac we drive the locker guys crazy.. always screaming Locker.
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!
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.
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.
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
Scott- my name is the same as your Dad’s- Leon Rosen. I was born and raised in Phila- grew up in Olney- went to Olney High- 1/57 grad- Temple 1/66 grad. I never met him. I was born in 1939. Me and the fellas went to the Schvitz- generally on Saturday nights- played baskets- went to Levis’ for crab cakes and a chocolate soda after leaving the shvitz. Ronnie Levitt was one of the guys and my dearest friend- he was known as the “Cream Puff” car dealer in Phila in the 60’s. I have a son and I wanted to take him to the Shvitz but now I see it is no longer there. Like lots of things nothing lasts forever- what a shame- what a loss.
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.
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.”
My father worked atCamac and did the Russian massage using the oak leaves. As a child my twin brother and I would climb the oak trees to collect the leaves my father would dry and use at Camac. We collected them from various places throughout Pennsylvania.
I too remember Gus. Started going there in 1963 at the age of 14. We always thought of the Camac as “the place of men”
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
Thanks for the nice note. Now I’ll have to write a story about about the Ambassador. My mouth is watering.
Ah- the Ambassador Restaurant. What a place for a great Yiddish meal. My entire extended family would end up there sometimes after a cousin’s club meeting- sometimes after spending time during a U.S. holiday like Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day in Fairmount Park and ending up invading the Ambassador with 50 or more of the aunts, uncles, cousins, mishpucka etc. What great loving memories I have of those days filled with wet kisses by adoring aunts and cousins. Thanks to all of you that have taken the time to restore those long ago memories- they were sweet, loving, gentle times.
I remember yelling “locker” and always having a guy named “Joe the locker guy” instantly and mysteriously show up and respond by opening the locker. Salami sandwiches in the “restaurant”- pinochle and poker games with the fellas after baskets and steam and the sun tanning room that was like going into outer space by putting on space glasses to protect our eyes- the shocking, overwhelming heatblast when opening the door to enter the hot rooms- the heat of the wood on the long recliners in the rooms- the testing of one another to see who could last the longest in the heat before running for the door- the camaraderie of dear friends growing up together and being tested in the heat of growing up at the “Schvitz”- just friends in their early adulthood and teenage years- dear friends just hanging out and laughing at everything. My son will miss that experience and never know what he missed- shame that the Schvitz had to die- I miss it. Someone entrepreneur that experienced it hopefully will recreate it in our lifetime so we can take our sons and grandsons there too. Remember and smile fellas- we were the lucky ones that experienced it.
I’ve tried many times to describe that strange mysterious underground world of the Schvitz. There’s a dreamlike memory of my time there surrounded by alter cockers in white sheets complaining about one thing or another. Furthermore, on the nostalgia front; A few years ago, that wooden block section of Camac street, in front of the Schvitz, was paved over with a layer of asphalt. Now, it too only lives on in our memories.
Thanks to all for the fond memories. Unfortunately, I was the last of three generations. My final days there were back in the mid-’80s when I met my father once a week after work for a Shvitz followed by dinner.
I remember the owner informing us that due to poor attendance, rising costs, and gyms ( Bally Total Fitness) popping up in the suburbs, he could no longer stay in business.
I’m only coming to this great description now, but it brings back many great memories ongoing to shvitz with my brother, father and grandfather in the mid & late 50’s. Gus and Moe in their labelled sumo outfits rubbed and bent us. They scrubbed us with HOT water and a stiff brush, then covered us in itchy coarse salt before we went to the steam room, followed by a shower. The hot room, with cold rags over our kid faces and cold water in plastic glasses, was without salt. We watched but refused the Russian beating with leafy switches. We kids couldn’t get into the cold pool, but would throw ice cubes in and watch them last for many minutes. Seeing the old, corpulent, naked guys, with scrotums down to their knees was disconcerting to those of us trying to hide our pre-pubescent bodies. But the goggles worn in the stand-up ultraviolet booth were fun. The end was a massage on the first floor with strong wintergreen oil. I can remember walking out into the cold air and feeling so loose that it felt like I was floating above the sidewalk. Thanks for bringing up these memories. I’ve just heard that the building is being replaced by a condo building.
I grew up at the Shvitz! My dad took my brother and I and we kept ourselves busy while my dad and his lodge brothers played pinochle. The Russian masseurs were killers. As for the Ambassador, the owner, Mr. Tygel, lived on Eastwood Street in the Northeast, just down the street from my grandmother. Thanks for the memories!
WOW!…I used to work there as a fitness instructor.My first job right out of college in1978. The club was owned by two Jewish brothers. The taller brother was all hands on operations in every area. The other brother was more calmer and social. The members were businessmen, upscale and people who were financially comfortable.
older, middle age and younger. Some brought their children.
The Camac was an extraordinary
place. A health club, bath house, fitness center, social club, and a hotel for the night. I remember the ice pool, the hot sauna ,the massage tables, those expert body men in large white diapers
I was told at the time that The Phila Camac Club and NYC were the only places on the east coast that you could get an authentic Russian, Turkish, or Roman bath.
Most members were very nice while others acted very privileged.
Also many members used the club as a needed respite or sanctuary. And during those times some were attracted to BATH HOUSES for other reasons..Yes there were gay members. A perfect environment to meet other men who are working out, showering, using the sauna, locker room and walking around naked. As a fitness instructor I was in those areas. Everyone was aware and it was not problematic. In summation I liked the job, plus I could workout free and meet very interesting people from all walks of life.
Today you would have to join 2 or 3 clubs to get what they offered there.
Great memories! Best times with my dad. Loved braving the cold pool. I really liked rubbing coarse all aver my body, then going on the little hot room where all the salt melted. Great memories of having attendants wrap a warm towel around me when it was time to go upstairs.
Came across this post after all these years. Brings back old memories. I worked nights at Camac for 4 years in the mid 70’s. Quite the unforgettable experience. The first member I met the first night on the front desk was none other than Angelo Bruno, only months before his demise. I possibly knew more of the South Phila. mafia than most South Phila Italians. Then there was Jack, the night locker attendant, Jim, the black maintainance man, and Richard, the daytime desk attendent and bookkeeper. As for Eddie and Arnold Lucker, the owners — well, will pass on that. Thanks for the post. I knew most of the building’s history but not all. The Camac, the so-called “straight baths” was easily the precusor to the Club Philadelphia which still sits just across the corner from the front entrance to Camac Baths.