12th Street Gym, a landmark in Philly's Gayborhood, to close

The 12th Street Gym, which has operated in the Gayborhood for more than three decades, will close at the end of this month due to financial troubles.

“Over the past year, we have been forced to evaluate the future of 12th Street Gym,” the gym’s management wrote in a Facebook post late Wednesday. “With heavy hearts, we must announce that 12th Street Gym will close its doors for the last time at 11 p.m. on January 31, 2018.”

Frank Baer, the gym’s owner, had said the gym would have had to pay at least $500,000 to address fire-code violations found by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. He also said real estate taxes on the property have surged in recent years. He was in talks in recent weeks with the owner of the building to determine whether the gym could continue to operate.

Whether the building and its mural of LGBT activist Gloria Casarez will remain — or be demolished — is unclear. Mural Arts has vowed to re-create the Casarez mural elsewhere, if necessary. The building also houses at least 20 small businesses, ranging from massage therapists to salons. (Until the 1980s, the site was a sweat bath popular among Jewish men; known as Camac Baths, its patrons called it “the Shvitz.”)

The mural of Gloria Casarez was added to the gym’s facade in 2015, a year after Casarez died of cancer. Casarez was a longtime activist and the city’s first director of LGBT affairs. Her friends and family helped design the mural.

The CEO of Midwood Investment & Development L.L.C., which took ownership of the building in December, said Thursday it plans to honor the leasing agreements of the building’s remaining tenants and cited a contractual “obligation” to honor in regards to the mural.

“People shouldn’t be worried about the mural,” John Usdan said. “But it’s way premature because we do not know what our plans are for the property.”

Midwood is one of Center City’s biggest landlords and owns swaths of retail on Chestnut and Walnut Streets, including the Cheesecake Factory at 15th and Walnut. Midwood also plans to buy the building that houses one of 12th Street Gym’s neighbors, Tabu Lounge & Bar, according to bar owner Jeff Sotland. He said Midwood has promised to honor the bar’s lease.

News of the gym’s closure disappointed current and former members, who described it as a community center where people built lasting friendships and felt open to be themselves.

“It has a lot of memories for people. It has a lot of significance,” said Sterling Johnson, 32, who lives in Philadelphia and joined the gym in 2013. As a gay man, he said he was comforted that many of its members identified as LGBT. He also felt less judged than he would at other gyms, where straight members may think gay men are just ogling and trying to check them out, he said.

12th Street, which has 4,000 members, still had its share of straight people. Meg Donahue Walker, 51, was one of them. She lived in Center City in her 20s, an age when she recalled that making friends could be difficult. The gym allowed her to form friendships that remain today, even as some of those friends have moved to California.

“It was just a great epicenter for that neighborhood,” said Walker, who now lives in Sewell, Gloucester County. Without centers like the gym, she said, “you lose opportunities to meet and connect, and gyms are really good ways to meet people who are like-minded and fitness-minded.”

Camera icon Frank Baer
Inside 12th Street Gym.

The gym has said current memberships will be honored at no additional cost at Philadelphia Sports Clubs’ locations at 1735 Market St., 220 S. Fifth St., and 2000 Hamilton St.

While 12th Street Gym has a good reputation among many members and residents, it has also faced accusations of sexual misconduct involving one of its massage therapists.

In a federal lawsuit, a 20-year-old woman from California said she was assaulted in 2014 during a massage at the Loews Hotel, where the gym was operating a spa as part of an agreement. The lawsuit says the woman reported the incident to hotel staff and Baer, but that they dismissed it.

Baer declined to comment on the case or on whether it affected the gym’s finances, citing the ongoing litigation. An attorney for Loews said the hotel had been dismissed from the lawsuit.