Opened at 955 Valencia Street over 40 years ago, Osento Bathhouse was a women-only, Japanese-style communal public bathhouse in San Francisco.
San Francisco was once rife with bathhouses. The institutions were ideated from plucked leftovers of the early American bathhouses that evolved out of traditional 1920s and 1930s Turkish and Russian baths, which offered communal hot tubs and showers to men. These male-centric places were conceived around comfort, relaxation, and same-sex socialization.
The kind of gay bathhouses that became synonymous with San Francisco — many of which opened up as early as 1950, but some in the United States can trace their origins much further back; the Ariston Hotel Baths in NYC had the first recorded raid of queer patrons inside a gay sauna in 1903 — distinguished themselves from these more relaxed venues by permitting sex among members. They also offered food (to fuel the sex), entertainment (to help enjoy the sex), and private rooms (to host the sex).
The city’s last gay bathhouse shuttered in 1984 as a result of public health officials at the time referring to them as venues that hosed “super spreader events.”
(Though never mind the fact that neither the CDC nor WHO have since described the HIV/AIDS Crisis as a “pandemic.” As of publishing, both government health organizations still consider the multinational health emergency as a lesser “endemic” — one that’s killed more than 37.3 million people, globally. Rant over [for now].)
But did you know that San Francisco was once home to a female-only bathhouse? One that operated for nearly 30 years, opening its doors sometime in 1980 and closing on August 1st, 2008?
Neither did I… until I came across this Instagram post from san_francisco_live.
People knew it existed. They’ve sequestered fondness of it. A lesbian companion of mine — this magnanimous cis-woman, now in her late-50s, who I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for some years, her periwinkle hair catching the early sunlight in warm curls during our morning coffee walks around The Castro — once frequented it. There’s a gorgeous, breathtaking, unfurling essay in healthyish (of all places) that was published in 2018 by writer Meredith Talusan, a trans-woman with a distinct silver tongue and strong pen, who waxes on meditations of true self-acceptance and radical understanding. The piece reads like warm honey poured over softened butter.
Yet, pragmatic information about the bathhouse remains scattered across the internet. But thankfully we live in a world where Local Wiki is here to make sense of these dispersed digital breadcrumbs.
Opened at 955 Valencia Street between 20th and 21st over four decades ago, Osento Bathhouse was a women-only, Japanese-style communal public bathhouse located inside the unassuming Victorian at the prior-mentioned address. During its run, the sauna was owned and operated by a woman named Summer, who created a welcoming, approachable hideaway that was admittedly dilapidated in some places but was luxuriated by the accepting clientele who frequented the space.
Inside, there was a hot tub — “hot pool” — capable of fitting six people in its 3-foot-deep water; two relaxation rooms with places to lie down were also created by Summer; a small kitchen was found inside where women could grab unfussy sustenance and beverages, like lemon wedges and water.
There is just a single bathroom with one toilet; it had one sink. There was only one shower — that you need to use prior to getting into the clothing-free tub.
Outside, the ambiance had a similar quaint, communal vibe, albeit a more spacious one. There was another showerhead (with soap and towel hooks), as well as two free small freestanding wooden saunas, each capable of holding at least four people at a time. Above the saunas was a redwood deck with a large bench and, at that time, was described as being secluded enough that the neighbors couldn’t sneak a peek — “it’s so very nice to sunbathe here […] such a neat thing to be naked in the sun in the middle of the city!
The then-opened bathhouse was, however, far from handicap accessible
There were apparently no handrails on either side of the hot tub; there was just a single handrail in the cold plunge tub outside. The entrance to the venue had several stairs — and even more outside. Getting into the saunas, themselves has been described as something of a fit of acrobatics with women ducking and contorting their torsos to fit under low clearances.
Regardless of the above-mentioned inconveniences, the Osento Bathhouse was not only beloved by many female patrons but deemed a jewel of the neighborhood, as well.
An update to the City’s business codes and zoning laws inevitably forced the bathhouse to shutter in 2008. The needed changes to comply with City requests would’ve also pushed the admission fee for the Osento Bathhouse — which had historically sat on a sliding scale, with some patrons being able to access the space for as little as $2 — well above the average $16 cost to enter. It was ultimately decided that the bathhouse’s last full day of business would be July 31st of that year.
Before its closing, Summer shared the below message with customers:
As of August 1, 2008, Osento will be officially closed for business. July 31st will be our last day open. On July 31st between 8 PM and 10 PM be my guest at the door (no charge) and bring some food and soft drinks to share with others.
Some of you have been wondering why I am not selling Osento and let someone else or others take it on. Reason one is: The moment the business leaves my ownership, everything, is out of compliance with the building, fire, health, and all other departments.
The interior would have to be stripped and rebuilt up to 2008 codes. The price of the building, plus the refurbishing would cost so much that it would be impossible to charge a reasonable door fee of $12-$20 or any amount close to that. Therefore it would have to be an upscale spa and no longer be the Osento you know.
Reason two is: I have never saved any money, but was fortunate and blessed enough to buy this building in 1979 for a reasonable price. Therefore, by converting the building back to it’s original 2 residential units I can sell the building for a percentage down from the buyer(s) to pay off what is still owed on equity loans and carry the mortgage myself and receive monthly payments just as a bank would. That is the only way I could ever retire.
I always thought I couldn’t retire because I didn’t want to leave San Francisco, but now I’m ready to leave the city and move to Lake County and be out of the hectic city life. I will miss all of you very much but I am looking forward to a slower pace and the calming waters and mountains of Clearlake.
Thank you for your letters, cards, and e-mails and personal expressions of gratitude for having Osento available for 28 years.
With great affection,
San Francisco’s bathhouses of yesteryears were more than places to palpitate one’s sexual urges or scratch a rather keen itch. They, too, existed as conduits for connection; they were literal baptisms into new social circles that could change one’s life for the better.
I do hope neighborly, high-quality saunas return, sooner rather than later. (Excursions to Steamworks with a man you connected with on Grindr only hours prior just don’t cut it anymore.) I really, really do.
The idea of disrobing inside an SF Victorian that’s colorful facade rivals that of the plumage seen on a Bird of Paradise only enhances that desire further.