Miguel Agosto looked out the door of his tiny rented room at the Everard Baths in New York City and saw men across the hallway wrestling with a burning mattress. He heard people screaming, “Fire!” Elsewhere in the building, voices shouted, “This way down! This way down!” But 18-year-old Agosto had no time to find the stairs. A moment later, a deluge of smoke engulfed the corridor. Then the electricity cut out. For the 80 to 100 men trapped at 28 West 28th Street on May 25, 1977, panic quickly took hold.
Agosto remembered where a restroom was and made a run for it. Once inside, he told the New York Times, “I grabbed a bar outside the bathroom window and swung to the other roof.”
That quick thinking saved Agosto’s life. On the floors below, men began jumping. By the time the fire engines rolled up, around 25 men were perched on ledges or dangling from windowsills. “When we went in, we found more on the stairs,” Captain Barry Goldblatt later said to the New York Post. “We didn’t know whether they were alive. They weren’t moving.”
In 1977, the New York City Fire Department recorded 129,619 fires. Most didn’t make the newspapers. This one did. It left 9 dead, as well as 12 injured, including 2 firemen. But it wasn’t the inferno that kept this story in the papers for days so much as the building itself. The three-story Romanesque edifice was home to the city’s oldest continuously operating gay bathhouse, a haven for gay men at a time of rampant prejudice.
June’s designation as Pride Month honors the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in New York City’s West Village, fought back against a police raid. There can be no minimizing Stonewall: The protests gave rise to the LGTBQ civil rights movement. But Stonewall can also overshadow other events that bear remembering this month. The Everard fire is among them.
“Every social movement in American history has a body count,” wrote Robert W. Fieseler in Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, his 2018 book about the 1973 fire at a New Orleans gay bar that killed 32. “It is routinely through death that we reckon with violations of our basic liberties.”
The Everard didn’t start out as a gay establishment. The building opened as a church in 1860 and was used as a music and exhibition hall before beer baron James Everard converted the premises into a Turkish bath in 1888. At the time, no laws required bathtubs in New York City housing, so public bathhouses were a common destination for washing and socializing. Some, like the Everard, were surprisingly opulent. An 1892 advertisement depicted mosaic floors and wainscoting of Italian marble. Spigots shaped like dolphin heads spewed water into the pool. Above the front doors, a transom of stained glass bore an “E.B.” monogram in intertwined script.
As public bathing fell out of fashion in the early 20th century, the Everard started attracting a new audience: gay men, who frequented the bathhouse as early as World War I. By the 1930s, the Everard had become a sanctuary for gay New Yorkers—one that earned the venue the moniker “Ever-hard.” In the ensuing decades, prominent visitors included Truman Capote, Rudolf Nureyev and Gore Vidal, who in 1950 wrote a paperback novel under the pen name Katherine Everard. Insiders got the joke.
When the gay liberation movement rose from the broken bottles of the Stonewall Uprising, a new generation of gay men—experiencing a measure of sexual freedom for the first time in modern history—created a market for more bathhouses. The most famous was the Continental, which sprawled across 40,000 square feet in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side; it boasted a bar, a disco and a popular cabaret where a singer named Bette Midler and her piano accompanist Barry Manilow got their start.
The Continental’s principal draw was the same one that had attracted men to the Everard in earlier decades. In the 1970s, before the bleak years of the AIDS crisis reframed attitudes about gay intimacy, the ubiquity of sex was, for many men, a pivotal part of being gay. Reflecting on the era in a 1994 piece for Out magazine, writer Brooks Peters observed that “the baths [were gay men’s] Bastille, a hard-won symbol of fraternity, equality and liberty. The right to be a homosexual man without harassment from society was closely linked to the right to have promiscuous sex.”
Even so, sex is only one reason why the baths were so significant. “It certainly was important at the time to have a place where gay men [could] go and cruise and have sex with each other—but also meet each other,” says Eric Newman, a Los Angeles-based scholar and critic who has lectured in LGBTQ studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “What really mattered was having a place where you could be yourself, explore your sexuality and be with other men who were of a similar disposition.”
By the 1970s, the Everard had descended into squalor. Its steam room still worked, but management had illegally converted the building’s upper floors into a warren of 135 cubicles, each measuring 6.5 feet by 4 feet. Available for rent, these tiny rooms were rarely cleaned.
Within the gay community, the repellant conditions were legendary. Bruce Voeller, co-founder of the National Gay Task Force, called the Everard a “shabby, dreadful place—run-down and grubby beyond words.” In 1972, a reviewer for the newspaper Gay described the building as a “moldy domain” and a “Transylvanian crypt.” Decades after the fire, in a 1998 interview with New York magazine, the activist and playwright Larry Kramer recalled, “It was hideous, like Kafka. There were wire-mesh walls, and the floors were filthy and stank.”
The Everard’s poor state of upkeep posed safety risks, too. A survivor who would not give his name told reporters, “There were fire violations all over the place. … But the management would never put a dime into fixing the place up.” Inside the labyrinth of the upper floors, men sniffed a highly volatile liquid called butyl nitrite—poppers, as the type of drug is still known. The orange glow of cigarettes also pierced the gloom. An accidental brush between the two may have started the blaze, but no one knows for sure. What’s certain is that once the flames took hold, the fire devoured the flimsy plywood partitions separating the cubicles like kindling. It took 200 firefighters nearly two hours to extinguish the flames; by then, all three floors of the building’s rear section had collapsed.
Across Broadway, a reporter found a barefooted survivor staring in shock at the ruins of the Everard. “The rooms were so tiny, and the place was so crowded,” he said. “It’s no wonder some didn’t make it out.”
Back in their newsrooms, reporters and editors hammered out stories about the smoking heap that had “catered to homosexuals,” as the Times put it. And so it happened that the press broke the one promise the Everard had always made to its patrons: to keep their secrets.
The day after the fire, the New York Post ran a story titled “A Hidden World at the Baths.” The article took pains to explain why anyone, nearly a decade into the gay liberation movement, would want to patronize a place as run-down and dangerous as the Everard. “For some, the impersonality of the sex at 28 W. 28th St. was a turn-on in itself; for others, an occasional convenience or change of pace,” the story’s author wrote. “For still others, it was the only possible response to the schizophrenic knowledge that their deepest human needs could cost them their jobs or families.”
Men signing in at the Everard’s front desk invariably used false names. They also endured ridicule from the Everard’s employees, who used discriminatory slurs to their faces. “The management had absolute contempt for us,” said a survivor who declined to give his name to the press.
A physician whose colleagues and family had no idea he was gay explained it this way: “I was willing to put up with a lot in the way of dirt and mattress fires because I thought the place would never be raided.”
A prevailing rumor among patrons suggested the Everard was owned by the Police Athletic League, which told its members to look the other way in exchange for extra cash. (In truth, the owner was a 62-year-old man named Irving Fine with no apparent connections to authorities.) Guests’ belief that the right pockets had been lined created a sense of safety, a layer of protection from being outed—a scenario that carried real consequences.
“If you were in any kind of profession, having anybody else find out that you were gay would be disastrous,” says Charles Kaiser, author of The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America. “In 1977,” he adds, “it [was] only four years since [gay people] were officially declared not sick. Until 1973, anybody who was gay was, by definition, mentally ill under the rules of the American Psychiatric Association.”
For many in the community, the city’s failure to force the Everard to correct its safety violations—well known prior to the blaze—underscored a feeling among gay men that their lives were simply not worth much in the eyes of officials.
The city had, in fact, ordered the Everard to install a sprinkler system back in 1964. But management successfully appealed, and another order didn’t come down until 1976. Though a sprinkler system was in place when the fire began, nobody had bothered to hook it up to the water main on the street.
Reporters also revealed that the Everard’s certificate of occupancy dated as far back as 1921, that the building had no fire escapes and that the proprietors had sealed the windows shut with sheetrock.
How did such conditions remain unaddressed for so long? In a June 1 editorial, staff at the GaysWeek newspaper took aim at “gay bars and baths of questionable legality whose owners bribe and pay off for permission to ignore building, health and safety codes.”
The editors were careful not to specifically accuse the Everard of using cash-stuffed envelopes to make certain problems go away, but the message was plain enough.
“The wonder is that the gay community hasn’t suffered more such tragedies considering some of the firetraps in the area,” the piece continued. “Violations are hushed up, and because of a questionable legal status, gays crowd into establishments where lives are endangered.” This statement was no hyperbole. An earlier fire had gutted the Everard’s third floor in 1972, though no one was injured. In 1973, an arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans claimed the lives of 32 people.
What happened next at the Everard spoke to the climate of the times perhaps more than anything else. According to the Post, it took 30 hours for individuals to come forward to identify the dead—and those who did were predominantly friends, not family.
Twelve days after the blaze, readers of the gay magazine Michael’s Thing came upon a full-page ad appealing for donations to be sent to the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), one of the first congregations in America to openly welcome LGBTQ people. The MCC’s aim was to provide final rites for the deceased. “There are victims of the fire who could be buried in Potter’s Field if loving brothers and sisters do not show they care,” the ad read. Two weeks later, a benefit at the Mineshaft, a newly opened gay bar in Manhattan, raised additional money for the MCC’s fund.
Why would families fail to claim a dead son, brother or cousin? It’s possible they were too ashamed to come forward. But it’s more likely family members were estranged from the deceased, or the individual never came out to their loved ones, who had no idea they’d been at a bathhouse in the first place.
The facts laid bare by the Everard fire leave behind a complicated legacy. The successful fundraising effort “shows that, when faced with a tragedy, the gay community can actually come together quickly and effectively and lovingly—despite all of the homophobia,” says Michael Bronski, an activist, author and historian at Harvard University.
But the fire also demonstrated that gay liberation did not dispense its liberties in equal measure. While some men could be fully out to colleagues and family, a great many could not. In his 1978 novel Dancer From the Dance, Andrew Holleran described the Everard’s halls at holiday time, filled with “out-of-towners who converged there before going back to Ohio or Maine or wherever it was they must return to participate in the family ceremonies”—an oblique reference to the many patrons who were, by necessity, still in the closet. After the fire, Voeller of the National Gay Task Force told the Times that “you could often meet an off-duty cop or fireman at the Everard.” (These were two occupations where being openly gay was unthinkable at the time.)
“Most [members of the gay community] agree that Stonewall was a great thing and liberation was a great thing,” Bronski says. “But the mandate of gay liberation was ‘Come out!’—which is fabulous, but it didn’t take into account the people who were unable to come out. What gay liberation couldn’t do was make it safe for everybody to come out.”
The 1970s, in the words of novelist Michael Rumaker, were a decade “when male-male sexuality was being liberated from its centuries-long subterranean hiddenness”—even if that only meant “the twilit and claustrophobic ‘freedom’ of a bath house.”
Authorities apparently never determined the definitive cause of the fire, though both the Manhattan District Attorney and the New York City Fire Department promised to conduct thorough investigations. In response to Freedom of Information Act requests sent by this story’s author, the agencies responded, respectively, that no records could be found and that files from before 1981 were not available.
Surprisingly, the Everard reopened after the fire and stayed open until the city shuttered it in 1986 as part of a referendum to stem the spread of HIV. Today, what remains of the original structure stands on West 28th Street and is home to a wholesale beauty supply store. Aside from the pilasters supporting the Roman arch over the door, there’s little left of the bathhouse.
The long-forgotten Everard deserves both appreciation and contemplation, says Greggor Mattson, a sociologist at Oberlin College and the author of the 2023 book Who Needs Gay Bars? Bar-Hopping Through America's Endangered LGBTQ+ Places.
“Places that were relatively private—and this included gay bars with back rooms, bathhouses and public cruising sites—were important, and still are, because as gay men we don’t have a lot of models for what sex can be or what intimacy looks like,” Mattson says. “Queer people deserve choices. The Everard was a time when we didn’t have very many choices. We have more of them now.”