HomeHistorical SettingPhotography ThemesPolaroid RestorationIn MemoriamGalleryContact Us
The San Francisco gay community in the late 1970's  
Fairoaks Hotel

The late 1970's was a dynamic era for the gay community bringing significant migration to San Francisco and increased awareness.  California had repealed its Sodomy laws in 1976.  Anita Bryant's crusade (Save Our Children) found an expression in California in the Briggs' Initiative (Prop 6) in 1978, which would have disallowed homosexuals to teach in schools.  It failed to pass. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in modern history. was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1977 and assassinated in 1978.  Large Gay Day Parades were being celebrated annually and the gay community in San Francisco was thriving, vibrant and sensual.

During this late 1970's, there were numerous venues for gay men to congregate, such as bars, social clubs, political action groups and perhaps a half dozen bathhouses.  Unique amongst these bathhouses was the Fairoaks Hotel which was located at the corner of Oak and Steiner in the Hayes Valley district.  The hotel was a converted apartment building owned and operated from 1977 to 1979 by a group of men who had formerly lived together in a commune.  These men infused the Fairoaks with a different atmosphere than was evident at other bathhouse at the time.  For example, all the rooms were normal scale (no cubicles), there were non-institutional furnishings, artists had been commissioned or allowed to decorate and paint the rooms, and it was generally lighter than a normal bathhouse. Most significantly, the Fairoaks was racially inclusive, and was promoted as a party location.   This party atmosphere fostered a lenient climate for informal photography.


A Photographic Record

Fortunately, many of these photographs have survived through the years.  These photographs were casual snapshots of the men at the bathhouse, engaged in typical activities.  Most often these pictures were taken with subject's permission and displayed in the lobby on a bulletin board for the next week. The subject matter includes parties, some of them in costume. These photographs capture an aspect of the gay community rarely seen in snapshot photography: a sexually playful, spontaneous, and often-affectionate gathering that was partially a product of the sexual and gay liberation movement in full swing at the time. The storm clouds of drug abuse and disease that will soon overtake the community are not at all evident in these images.

Purpose of the Fairoaks Project

The Fairoaks Project is a remarkable collection of historically significant images made by Frank Melleno in the spring and summer of 1978. These photographs depict the celebratory life that defined the Fairoaks. This Project serves as a unique opportunity to share these rare images with wider public and place them in the historical context of the gay community and the era itself. Many of these Polaroids have suffered the ravages of time and contain dust, scratches, cracks and other defects that must be dealt with to make them more accessible within the context of a gallery showing.  Efforts are ongoing to reconstruct these photographs to the greatest extent possible.

We are in the process of establishing contact with many of the men pictured in these photographs to hopefully identify other relevant photographs and artifacts and to obtain recollections and other important data such party handbills, posters, T-shirts, journal entries and oral histories. Some of the recollections thus far have included a concurrent correspondence with conservative activist Anita Bryant and information about the unforgettable arrival the disco diva Sylvester with his entourage at the Fairoaks.

Our goal is create an exhibition of original Polaroids and digitally restored prints, as well as artifacts. The most desirable venue for such an exhibition would be a gallery within the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community , which include in its mission the exhibition of materials that are relevant to the community.

For information or questions, please contact:

Gary Freeman

Home | Historical Setting | Photography Themes | Costume | Life in the Bathhouse | Affection | Polaroid Restoration | Cracks | Dust & Scratches | In Memoriam | Gallery | Contact Us