The Camac Baths started as “the shvitz,” a Jewish sauna or steam bath, in 1929. Today it’s “the shizzle,” the first—and only—property associated with LGBTQ history and culture listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
“Of the more than 23,000 historically certified buildings in Philadelphia, you know there’s got to be a number of them with historical ties to the LGBTQ community. It’s time they were recognized.”Oscar Beisert, Architectural Historian and Cofounder, The Keeping Society of Philadelphia
The Camac Baths has served as an important cultural site from the time of its opening as a shvitz for Philadelphia’s Jewish immigrant community under the ownership of Alexander Lucker in 1929. Located at the southeast corner of Camac and Chancellor Streets, 201 S. Camac Street holds the stories of generations of openly and closeted gay and bisexual white men who found sanctuary and a safe space for same-sex connections from the late 1930s to 1984.
Oral histories conducted by scholar Marc Stein for his University of Pennsylvania dissertation and later book City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 made note of the Camac Baths as an early meeting place for gay men. Novelist Christopher Isherwood wrote about such meetings in the diary he kept while living in Haverford during World War II. At a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense, the Camac Baths was a site of resistance for gay and bisexual men to learn that they were not alone and to begin to build a community among themselves.
Six years after the closure of the Camac Baths, 201 S. Camac Street became the home of Penguin Place, the predecessor to the William Way LGBT Community Center, from 1990 to 1997. Memories of Penguin Place—its library and archives, youth programs, peer counseling and cabaret that served the LGBT community in a time of vast need—remain vivid in the lives of many in the community.
The Philadelphia LGBT Mapping Project has identified more than 1,100 places in Greater Philadelphia of importance to LGBT history and culture. The Camac Baths was nominated for historic designation by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on April 12, 2019. Camac Baths is the first and only LGBTQ-associated property to receive historic designation by the City of Philadelphia.
The historic landmark is saved from Midwood Investment & Development’s wrecking ball, for now. For more information on the Camac Baths and the history of gay bathhouses, visit The Keeping Society of Philadelphia.