Russian Banya in Detroit - Social Club for Men in Detroit

Schvitz

Schvitz Health Club
8295 Oakland St
Detroit MI 48211

Phone: (313) 871-9707

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The Oakland Avenue Bath House, whose official name was the Oakland Health Club, was built in central Detroit in 1930. Still in business, it is today known as the Schvitz Health Club (or Shvitz). At this establishment one can get a plaitza (or platza, or pleytze), which is a rubdown (massage) that takes place inside a steam room, utilizing an oak leaf broom soaked in hot water (sometimes hot soapy water). After the plaitza, one may indulge in a huge meal.

We, and by we I mean, me, Neil, Ricky, Jeffrey and Dick Brown, first visited the Oakland Baths (its original name) as teenagers in the late 1960s. Our fathers frequented the baths years before us. Our heyday though, was the early part of the 1970s, and this Website is about those days. During that time we made the trip to Oakland (as we referred to it) almost daily to partake in the quintessential Russian bath. The majority of black and white, and color photographs that accompany this Website were taken by me in 1974 using a slim-line Kodak Instamatic camera (110 cartridge film). A few additional photographs were obtained from various sources.

Throughout its history, the clientele at the Oakland Health Club has remained 50% Jewish, and as for the rest, we never really cared enough to break it down. Oakland never discriminated in any way, other than being a men-only health club, and in a long tradition of tolerance; all races, creeds, persuasions and colors were welcomed, as long as you had the entry fee ($20 today, $4 back then). Whenever riff-raff appeared at the door, its private club status was always invoked.  I often wondered how they could tell the difference!

Until 1977, the bathhouse was owned by Harry Meltzer, whose father Charles originally built the place in 1930. Harry seemed like a stern and cautious businessman; he reminded us of our fathers and he certainly knew them since he grew up with them. He was the law at the bathhouse, and some characters there, had a natural aversion to authority figures. Nevertheless, we respected and admired Harry, mainly because he made it all possible–he owned the bathhouse and we recognized the hard work that came with owning a bathhouse. Harry would usually show up at the bathhouse in the afternoon and stay until the dinner crowd settled in. The rest of the time, the general management of the bathhouse belonged to Toots–who helped dig the basement in 1930 and since then, has achieved legendary status.
Toots Johnson

Toots Johnson was the cook/manager at Oakland, and this Website is really his story. The bathhouse was in essence, Toot’s establishment. Although he did not own the bathhouse, he ran it, cared for it, fed us, and most importantly, handmade the oak leaf plaitza brooms that we used in the steam room. He could be gruff as an angry bear if you overstepped your bounds by getting in his way in his kitchen, but he was mostly caring and affectionate in keeping with his kind and friendly nature and he was, given the opportunity, someone from whom you could learn quite a bit about life. We loved and respected Toots.

In 1976, when Harry Meltzer sold the Oakland Health Club, the club’s new owner undertook a half-million-dollar face lift of the main floor. This makeover covered all of Oakland’s beautiful 1930s early bathhouse architecture, some of which has been captured in this Website’s photographs. The tile floors were carpeted over, the painted walls were covered with brick and dark wood paneling, but very nice brick, the carved plaster ceiling was hidden with a drop ceiling, etc. The change to the main floor was immense. Fortunately though, the downstairs pool and steam bath area have remained relatively intact.

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