THE ARENA HEALTH CLUB
The Arena Health club was a gay bath house founded, at least on the books, in 1968 in Pittsburgh’s Soho (or Uptown) neighborhood. There are a lot of names for this area, but it’s a small strip of land between a mountain and a cliff that overlooks the Monongahela River.
It really never stood out much in this neighborhood of tall and overpainted row houses. With a name meant to evade it’s true purpose, (a safe, discreet place for queer men to meet for sex) It was hidden away in an unassuming yet somehow stately three story house built in the 1890s. A massive, utilitarian concrete addition at least twice as long as the original brick house was tucked away behind the more domestic facade on Forbes Avenue and made up most of the view from my bedroom window.
Only when the building was being finally demolished in April of 2015 did I realize what this building really was. Within the debris were mangled metal lockers decoupaged with yellowed scotch tape and men in jock straps from glossy black and white magazines as well as hundreds of VHS tapes of gay porn. I’ve digitized some of these tapes and they all carry with them visual proof of the fire damage and decay they have endured.
The Arena Health Club ceased operation in 2002 after a fire, on Valentines Day, caused over $125,000 of damage, killing a young man. The building sat dormant for 13 years, passing from developer to developer, until it was finally demolished August of 2015.
I plan on meeting with men who used to frequent the club, taking them to the site where it once stood, and bringing them back to my studio, where I will interview them while they draw floorplans of the building from memory. These accounts along with relics I rescued from the debris will give us insight into how this institution functioned over it’s 34 year life.
How did this building go from upper class private home to boarding house to finally, a bath house. . . a building that had to hide its true purpose? Photography, film, memory, even physical materials can really only circle around an experience in the end really only pointing out that something is missing.
The Arena Health Club was established in 1968 in a large old house at 2025 Forbes Avenue. The structure was built in the late 1890s as a private home for an affluent lawyer, but the area quickly fell out of fashion as steel mills were built at the bottom of the Bluff, and suburban neighborhoods were opened up by new rail lines.
2025 Forbes then became a boarding house: a place of residence for several boarders, as well as the home to several small businesses, hosting at various times in its history a dress maker's studio, a veterinary office (for horses), among other things. At it's peak, the modest, yet stately home hosted 15 people in the 1940s in 9 rooms.
Somehow this building became The Arena Health Club in 1968, and while it advertised "Turkish and Steam Baths" its various lockers (small private rooms built for sex), "orgy room" and "dungeon" were evidence that this building was not a home grown version of a YMCA.
Three fires, the opening of a more modern bath house in the city, and societal and generational shifts in gay life in Pittsburgh hit the Arena hard, and the place closed in 2002. This tired building was finally demolished in 2015, and as of yet, I have found no plans for the site.
There is still much to research, and much to correct. This page will be updated as the project progresses.
WITH MEMORIES, EXPERIENCE OVERRIDES DATA.
WE CAN ONLY LEARN FROM THESE FAILURES.
THE REST IS SIMPLY TRIVIA.
Did you visit the club any time during its existence? Are you interested in being interviewed? (The process will only show your hands) Do you have anything you think I really need to know about the space? Are you interested in supporting the project in some other way? Reach out. We can't wait to hear from you!