The Fairoaks Project paints an unforgettable portrait of San Francisco's storied gay bath house scene

The Fairoaks Project

Part of me feels like they can tell us, but we’ll never quite understand. Maybe you just had to be there. As much as I’ve been told, and as much as the ’60s and ’70s have served as a boundless reservoir of inspiration for me, there’s still something elusive about it all. The sense of freedom, and exploration, and radical imagination that defined those decades is something our generation, and others, have tried to recapture, but could never really duplicate. There’s something about a photograph though–whether taken for artistic or documentary purposes, or just as a memento of a moment someone wanted to hold onto–that can communicate a feeling instantly, across decades.

I’d imagine Gary Freeman felt that pretty powerfully when his longtime friend Frank Melleno pulled down a dusty cardboard shoebox, and started to thumb through the treasure trove of Polaroids that would become The Fairoaks Project. In 1978, Frank, fresh off an adventure in Alaska, had found a gig as the night manager at The Fairoaks Baths in San Francisco. Owned and operated by a gay commune, The Fairoaks was known in the late ’70s as a hub for sexual liberation and experimentation, but also close-knit community. Unlike most gay bath houses at the time, also, The Fairoaks was situated on the edge of a largely black neighborhood, and welcomed a steady influx of young gay men who reflected back the city’s rich diversity. It was a place to stay, to find support, to find friends and to indulge. Openness, unabashed sexuality, interracial love, friendship, fucking and LSD: it would be hard to imagine another place so broadly embelematic of the progressive ideals that defined San Francisco during the ’70s. Fortunately, Frank found himself at the center of it all, with a Polaroid camera in hand.

The Fairoaks Project

“Tree Pose”
An employee strikes a yoga tree pose while smoking a cigarette. He was a personal correspondent with Anita Bryant, disagreeing with her ideas on homosexuality.

Over the next few years, Frank snapped a few hundred images of close friends and acquaintances, of costume parties and sexual encounters, of all he saw in his nights at the Fairoaks–and in doing so, created an invaluable document of a time and place unlike any other. During the glory days at The Fairoaks, Frank’s portraits were posted on the wall, though partygoers and patrons could feel free to take down an image if they didn’t feel comfortable putting themselves on display. The remaining images then, take on a sort of private-public dichotomy, a long-lost snapshot of a fringe community that was incredibly open in celebrating its collective lifestyle. Moreover, they capture a sense of wide-eyed optimism and freedom soon to be tragically extinguished in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.

Upon sifting through the long-stashed collection, Gary Freeman, who was himself in a handful of the pictures, recognized the need for these images to be seen. An artist and curator himself, Gary realized not only the historical significance of the pictures, but also their aesthetic value. Though Frank had hardly considered himself an artist, the pictures he captured radiated a certain candid beauty. In addition to a keen eye for composition, Frank clearly had a talent for capturing moments of deep intimacy, passion and wild inhibition. They’re the kind of moments you couldn’t stage if you tried, the kind most “professional” photographers dream of having the chance to capture.

In 2010, shortly before Frank’s untimely passing, his work was shown for the first time at Los Angeles’ Drkrm gallery, and self-published in the photography anthology The Fairoaks Project. The “project” refers, at least in part, to the curatorial challenge Gary Freeman took on, in selecting, restoring and presenting the collection in all their groovy glory. Luckily for us, the images are returning home to be displayed at The Center for Sex & Culture in San Francisco this month. Just in time for the June 7th opening (this Friday), Gary took a moment to offer up some insight into Frank Melleno’s life and work, his memories of The Fairoaks, and the era that spawned this historic collection.

The Fairoaks Project

Mirrors capture two couples reflecting alternate positions in the same room.

Below, a conversation between myself and Gary Freeman:

How did the Fairoaks Project get started in the first place?

The Fairoaks Project first started one evening when I was over at my friend Frank Melleno’s house, with my husband Nick. And Frank asked me, “Have I ever shown you the Fairoaks Polaroids?” And I said, no he hadn’t. He brought down a cardboard box, and we started thumbing through this series of photographs.

Nick and I had recently participated in an art show, as artists, and we were fascinated by the images. And we got pretty excited about it, and I told him that I’d like to give other people the chance to look at these images because they represented a piece of gay history that hardly anyone had ever seen.

Did Frank consider himself an artist, or was he just documenting this piece of his life?

He was more of a documentarian. I mean–he was a staff photographer during the Vietnam War–but what Frank did was keep a journal. He took photographs, he was documenting his life, and there was a real sense of nostalgia to it too. He enjoyed looking at pictures of friends, and particularly after the advent of the AIDS epidemic, it gave him the opportunity to have these visual images of people who had passed on. They were reverent and powerful information for him.

But he had never thought of himself so much as an artist, and the project began as a way for us to bring his work forward in that respect. He actually had an extremely good photographic eye. He framed many of the photographs so well, and especially with one-offs, Polaroids, you don’t get much of a chance.

The Fairoaks Project

Full Moon Parties were often costume parties. A patron poses in the office for a portrait.

What was your relationship to Frank? Did you know him well during the period when he was taking these pictures?

We’d known each other for forty years [when he passed away]. So we knew each other well before the photographs were taken. I knew a lot of the people in the photographs–I’m actually one of the people that was photographed. It was a very playful and open period of time, I have to say.

That’s definitely what it seems like. What kind of memories do you have of the bath house–friends, family, the general mood there?

It was kind of a party venue. They did a lot of promotion for things like full moon parties or costume parties. It wasn’t in the kind of typical location for a gay bath house in San Francisco at that time. It was in a neighborhood with a substantial minority population, so the bath house itself, which was owned by a gay commune, became much more integrated than most bath houses in the city.

The Fairoaks Project

“Fairoaks Knows How to Party”
A handbill and price sheet from The Fairoaks.

I was going to say, one thing that struck me about the images was the diversity of the people in them. And maybe that was the neighborhood it was in, but it seemed like the bath house was this space where certain cultural barriers or taboos didn’t have to apply…

Well, in the greater community itself, I’m sure there were, say, churches that were applying different standards all around there [laughs]. But there’s this way in which gay people were kind of outlaws, and in some ways, minorities were too, I suppose.

And this was a very clubby kind of place. During the afternoon they often had groups or Yoga sessions, and people would pay to come to those. But they would be given a free locker for the evening if they wanted to stay. So the ambience of the place was significantly different than other gay bath houses. It was a more clubby, friendly environment–people got the chance to spend time and hang out. Some people came and actually rented a room on a longer basis, and lived there–also pretty unusual for a bath house at that time.

The Fairoaks Project

“Gay Pride #1″
The Fairoaks float at the 1978 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco was a flat bed truck decorated with furniture from the Fairoaks lounge. The hood ornament is wearing a Fairoaks tee shirt and straddling protest sign about the Briggs initiative which would have banned gay and “gay sympathetic” teachers from classrooms in California, and did not pass.

It seems like it wasn’t exactly like the bath house was a microcosm for the city, as much as it was kind of a bastion of ideas that might’ve been even more forward-thinking than a lot of San Francisco at that time…

Yeah, well it was playing off some of the themes that had been generated there, like gay liberation and communal living–that there was an Aquarian Age that was dawning at that time.

What was San Francisco like more generally during the ‘70s?

Well it was really quite free, of course very liberal. It seemed almost like an island, at least earlier, when we had Nixon and Ford as presidents, and the Republicans were in ascendancy. Later on, when the pictures were taken, Carter was president and there seemed to be this rejuvenation of [more liberal ideas].

You told me in an email earlier this week, “It’s a little naive, but great fun to live in an optimistic age”. How do you compare that optimism with the general sentiment of today?

I think we’re a lot more cynical. I think we don’t really believe we can accomplish very much, whereas during that period of time, there was a general sentiment that major cultural advances could be made–and that, if enough people could pull their weight together, that major change would be forthcoming. And that included the Green Movement, the Sexual Revolution, the Gay Movement–it all came out of that feeling that things were going to get better, and we were going to be the ones to make it happen. So it was a very optimistic period.

If you look at today, in contrast, we now have a frozen federal government, essentially. And we’re restricted by cost considerations at every turn, whereas during this period of time, people often talked about humanitarian efforts in quite a different way.

…There was a certain enthusiasm, a certain emphasis on what was the right thing to do, vis-a-vis your fellow man. Now, if it doesn’t show some kind of cost analysis, or tie into creating jobs, you can’t even talk about it.

The Fairoaks Project

“Open Door Parties” when all room doors were removed, were great nights for exhibitionists and voyeurs. Note the rosy nub along the guy’s right flank.

When you look back at the progress we’ve made since then, do you see some of the things your generation was pushing for as having come to fruition?

Oh, I think so, of course. Particularly in the gay movement. Recently we’ve had incredible breakthroughs. And that would have happened in the ‘80s perhaps, if it hadn’t been for the AIDS epidemic, when the religious right took the opportunity to attack the gay community, and characterize us so poorly. That period of time set us back a couple of decades, as far as what we could accomplish.

What do you remember about the initial impact of the AIDS epidemic, and what that time period was like?

Well, [the photos were taken] around 1978, so the AIDS epidemic didn’t come until maybe five years later. Already by that time, the gay bath house scene, in some ways, was past its zenith. And there were already some problems in the community, I suppose, with too much drug use. And the AIDS epidemic came down on top of that, and it was frightening.

I would imagine.

People were dying without reason, and horrible things were happening to people: going blind, losing all their weight. Beautiful people who were in their 20’s and 30’s would become emaciated, concentration camp-like victims, almost overnight–and it was terrifying.

The Fairoaks Project

“Getting Ready”
Penis graffiti on a room wall mirrors the action within.

Damn. Given the gravity of that, but also the sense of freedom and optimism you spoke about, what’s something you would want a younger audience to take away from that time period?

Well, that sexuality–and sometimes even casual sexuality–can be associated with friendship, fellowship, a sort of playfulness. And it still happens, on a much more limited scale, but [at that time], it was the best game in town [laughs]. It was free. Essentially it was free, and it all belonged to you, and people were really just having fun with their bodies. It was really quite okay–I mean, it’s still okay–but at that time, there was really not so much stigma associated with it.

Right, right. I think that’s a pretty beautiful thing.

It was a great thing…the flowering that happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a great experience to go through, and we wish for this generation to have that same exuberance–you know?–to have that fellowship, and caring, and that sense of community that existed during that time. It was…a lot of fun, actually.

The Fairoaks Project

Stylized graffiti background sets off a uniformed guy getting serviced.

You could literally drive to a strange city, in the gay community, and go to a gay bar, meet a few people, find someone who would put you up for the night, take you out and show you the town the next day, and send you on to your next destination with a friend’s recommendation about where to stay there. And it was an easy life, in that sense.

That’s pretty incredible. So you found that that companionship was common to the gay community wherever you were?

Oh yeah, for sure. I did a lot of road trips through the West, and at the time, I was a graduate student at Berkeley and had no money at all. And it was great for me, you could drive anywhere, find a place to stay…meet new people, and have a great adventure, essentially for the price of the gas in your car.

That’s awesome.

It was pretty awesome [laughs].

The Fairoaks Project

A flamboyant pose during a costume party emphasizes a patron’s taut body. The string tied around his neck signaled that he was a versatile sex partner.

Some of these images give off this utopian feel, as if it was this space that was somehow separate from all the problems outside of the community. But what were some of the tougher realities facing the gay community at that time?

At that time, I was working at the Haight-Ashbury free medical clinic, and I was working on drug detoxification for heroin. so I saw a lot of that nihilistic, existential down side of San Francisco too. Some people would walk in the door with pretty sad life stories: “nothing I do matters”, “no one really cares for me”, “I’m a loser”…so that was certainly around.

In terms of the city itself, you had to watch out for the police department a little bit. The relationship between the police department and the gay community wasn’t as good as it is today. And of course there was still, even in San Francisco, the possibility to be queer-bashed during that time as well, but those were things you dealt with.

Sure, sure.

The Fairoaks Project

“Acid Punch”
A masked employee of the Fairoaks is showing that the acid punch container is now empty. Acid punch was often served free at Full Moon Parties.

But mostly I remember it as being a very happy time. One of the things about the pictures that I hadn’t told you before, is that some of those were on party nights there, and if you look around you can see lots of little Pepsi cups. Well, they handed out or gave away punch with LSD in it. So a lot of the people being photographed were having the time of their lives [laughs]…

I would imagine. Sounds like a party.

Yeah, in fact, one of the pictures you may have seen has a guy with a red mask on and he’s holding a jug…

Sure, I remember that one.

Yeah, well the story behind that, is that it was an acid punch container, and he’s coming around to show the photographer that it’s empty… [laughs]

So it must have been a good night!

It was a good night.

The Fairoaks Project

“Star Mask”
The photographer of the Fairoaks Polaroids has his portrait taken with a star covered eye patch and black face paint.

The Fairoaks Project

“Ass Exam”
A friendly patron leaning against a door shows off his butt to an admirer.

The Fairoaks Project

“Hard Hat”
Cradling his beer (and more) a graduate student at Berkeley becomes a silver construction worker on a night off from studies.

The Fairoaks Project

A patron waits for someone to join him.

The Fairoaks Project

A candid moment is captured between two guys in the hallway next to Room 10. One has a room key on his wrist and the other holds a paper cup generally used for the acid punch during parties.

The Fairoaks Project will be on display at The Center for Sex & Culture all month, with an opening ceremony this Friday, June 7th, and a closing celebration June 30th.

Special thanks to Gary for providing images, captions and most importantly, a little insight.