An historical sketch, steam baths in Portland, Oregon circa 1956

One hundred years ago, here in Portland, Oregon, what did people do to get clean if they didn't have access to a bathtub? It’s easy to lose sight of how Portland was a western frontier town and what this meant in the ordinary lives of someone living downtown. Even though we see (and some of us even use) the same turn-of-the-century buildings, how people lived in them has changed markedly.

In the late-1800s as downtown Portland grew, innumerable single room occupancy hotels (SROs) were built to house the droves of itinerant workers: farmers, sailors, longshoremen, miners, loggers, fishermen and cannery workers--who all needed a short-term place to live between seasons or jobs. The SRO hotel was a good fit for these working men. It was something more than a typical hotel room but not a full fledged apartment. 

A single room might consist of--depending on when it was built and what someone was willing to pay--a single corner sink, central heat and/or rudimentary electricity. Most came with simple furnishings: a bed, easy chair and table. If there was plumbing, more often than not these buildings had a shared commode down the hall and a separate shared bathtub room.  

With the older buildings, indoor plumbing was iffy. It was either too expensive when the hotel was first constructed or it came along shortly after completion. Plumbing may have been retrofitted after construction, with added supply and waste chases in a building's light well or in the back. Indoor plumbing, after all, wasn’t really established in new construction here in the West until around the 1890s and 1900s.

Even if a given SRO building was appointed with a shared bath it's a safe guess that it was either crowded or just plain too gross to use. What if lumberjack Sven was too dainty to wash up in a clawfoot tub coated with multiple other residents’ accumulated dirt and sebaceous grime? So where would a humble, honest and hard-working man go to clean up if he lived in a building that either didn’t have a bath or it was too filthy to consider?

Enter the public steam bath. What a public steam bath was exactly remains unclear but it was a business where a working man could go to get really clean, this probably included some age-old righteous sweating. Still what was it? Was it a steam room, sauna, or multiple bath tubs. 

Even if we don't (yet) know exactly, Portland had a number of bath houses to serve the itinerant working population. We know this because they were listed in the phone books.

I took a brief trip to the downtown Multnomah County Library to look in the phone directories to see what existed. From my first cursory investigation I looked up “steam bath,” “sauna,” and “bath house” in the Yellow Pages. I checked books from a few decades, 1956, 1963, 1973, and 1983. Everything I found was listed under "steam bath." So "steam bath" was the proper vehicular for a bath house sixty years ago and probably earlier.

In 1956 a number of steam baths from at least the 1920s were still in business. (Nothing listed in the 1983 directory is still open today.) Below I list everything from 1956. I figured by using this year there was a good chance that there would be a link between the original business/structure from the steam bath's heyday and a structure which would still be standing. Later I hit the pavement and sought out the original locations for the 1956 businesses. Surprisingly--with the exception of a "ladies" steam bath that listed an in determinant address--all of the buildings are still standing!

Here are they are:

Finnish Public Steam Baths, 304 NW Flanders, was in the basement of the Royal Palms Hotel.
The Royal Palms Hotel still exists as a hotel of sorts. It now serves low-income residents in a mental health program. The structure was built in 1913. 


At some point this brass plaque was installed in the sidewalk on Flanders just outside the old entrance. 



McMahon's Steam Bath, "Since 1906," was possibly the longest-running public bath house in Portland.
It was located at the corner of SW 4rd and Washington. By the 1970s it was a gay bath house, Olympic Steam Bath. The last year of operation was 1974. Later it became a restaurant, the Greek Cusina, famous for it's giant inflatable purple octopus on the outside of the building and flouting building codes. You can still see some purple paint on the corner of the building where the octopus was.

McMahon’s Steam Baths was at 509 SW 4th Avenue so the entrance was probably just to the right of the woman's head (in the foreground). 

The structure was built in 1898. It's presently for sale. It is supposed to have a number of building violations. Hopefully it can be rehabilitated. It's surprisingly modern-looking for 1898 and seems to be a fairly sound, but who can say?




Sanitary Steam Baths was at 1005 N Failing. The structure was built in 1924.
While it was not in downtown Portland, it's close and it was in the heart of what was originally Albina, a working-class city which in 1898 was incorporated into Portland (now inner North and Northeast Portland.)

Albina is remembered as an immigrant community. There was a large group of Volga Germans who came from the Volga region of Russia. It also had a sizable Polish community. The Volga region of Russia is the heart of banya country. It's a safe bet that Sanitary Steam Baths served immigrants who knew and loved banyas. 

Albina is often sited of a classic example of the disruptive effects of 1950s/60s urban renewal era--a time when planners ruthlessly drew plans on maps and mowed through entire communities. 

In this photo to the left in the background is the sound wall of Interstate 5. You have to wonder if Sanitary Steam Baths was part of the "social glue" of the immigrant community of Albina, a place where men and maybe even families would gather on a weekly basis to chit chat and network in the sacred ritual of bathing. I-5 represented progress and modernization. Implicitly, part of the "progress" message was to underscore how older ethnic traditions were no longer desired. The noise and sight of I-5, with cars racing to and fro, was probably a stark reminder to the locals that their bathing tradition was outmoded. This says nothing of the destruction of so many nearby houses and putting up a physical barrier to half of Sanitary Steam Baths customers.



Moving back into NW Portland, there was Luoma’s Steam Baths at 825 NW 16th Avenue (built 1904).
The building is still there. Initially, judging by it's appearance, I thought maybe the structure had been lifted and a new foundation added sometime more recently. The stairs for example are obviously much newer. I looked more closely (by sneaking a look at the side of the building) and the foundation seems original. I bet the steam baths were on ground level.

Luoma is a Finnish surname. Was this another Finnish sauna? Was Louma's in another ethnic working-class enclave? It's not too far from the Royal Palms Hotel, home of Finnish Public Steam Baths (as above). 

Looking at this photo, you can see the brick Radio Cab building (a fun place to buy gas downtown) in the back ground to the left. To the right is I-405, the business loop through downtown Portland that was constructed along with I-5. Louma Steam Baths is listed in the 1963 phone book but I did not find it in the 1973 book. Was it another victim of Interstate urban renewal?  


Thompson Mineral Baths (also called Any Hot Springs) was at 1524 NW 23rd (built 1908).
Even though this in now a high-rent district, gentrification was a relatively recent development. Prior to the 1990s, trendy Northwest 23rd was a decidedly working-class neighborhood, albeit more family oriented, with fully-appointed apartment buildings and single family homes instead of SROs. 

This building has an older retrofitted entrance from the front sidewalk to the basement. This was almost certainly where patrons entered to get a steam/bath. 
I went into the Headtrip Salon, the hair salon in the basement unit. I asked the owner if there had ever been a sauna in the space. She said that she took the property over from an Eastern European woman in the 1990s. I got the sense the space had been vacant for a while. The hearsay was that sometime before the space was reoccupied it had indeed provided spa sauna services. 

There were a couple of other entries from the 1956 phone book. One was Solvik Health Center located at 5736 N Greely. It's a ways out in North Portland. As with the other listings the building still stands and it remained listed under "steam bath" in the 1973 phone book so it was around for at least 17 years. (It could have opened much earlier than 1956 and closed later than 1973.) Solvik Health Center wasn't in the 1983 phone book.

The other listing was Alice Robertson "since 1919, ladies only." The address was rather ambiguously listed as the "Morgan Building." Was this in Morgan's Alley just off of Broadway? The fact that it was around for so long and that the location information is not so specific suggests that this was a place for prostitutes to go to unwind and get cleaned up.

Clearly more investigation is called for! Again this is just a snap shot of what there was in 1956. In the interest documenting this matter of vital historical importance more research must be done. I'm hoping that Tinygogo can access the inside of some of these buildings to see if any remnants of Portland's original steam baths remain.