Club Houston has recently completed an 18-month renovation, and a celebration of the improvements was held in late January. Dennis Holding, a major investor in the club, says that Club Houston is now one of the showcase clubs in the country.
The club, which opened in 1973, has been a familiar gay social hub in Houston for nearly five decades, offering local gay men an alcohol- and drug-free alternative to the local bar scene.
The Club’s Early Years
Holding says the idea for a Houston club began in Cleveland, Ohio, where he had met gay entrepreneur Jack Campbell in 1971. Campbell had purchased an old Russian bathhouse in Cleveland and converted it into Club Baths, the first bathhouse for gay men in this country.
Holding became a Club Baths investor after meeting Campbell and becoming a part of his social circle that included many other gay men from across the country. At that time, there were 14 Club Baths locations, and several men visiting from Houston for one of Campbell’s parties voiced an interest in having a Houston club.
A group of Campbell’s investors eventually decided on a tract of land in the 2200 block of Fannin for their new Houston venture. The investors were looking for a location near downtown, but still close to Houston’s gay neighborhoods. After they leased the property for a year, with an option to buy, the building at 2205 Fannin was converted into a bathhouse. Holding says that there was sort of a cookie-cutter design that was used for gay bathhouses in those days.
The June 1973 issue of David magazine described the Houston grand opening: “Sunday, April 15, marked the grand opening of Club Houston. The elegantly appointed bath was the scene of a tremendous party, with more than 250 Houstonites welcoming the Club to Houston. The new Club Houston features a gigantic 8-foot square whirlpool, see-thru shower area (you’ve got to see it to believe it), exercise equipment, and a beautifully tiled steam room. Other facilities include large private rooms, television lounge, canteen, lockers, dormitory and outdoor patio.”
The club was successful, and after a year, the investors bought the property and soon added a swimming pool in the outdoor patio area. After a privacy wall was built, the club offered nude sunbathing.
The club appealed to a variety of local customers and visitors from out of town. It was especially popular after the gay bars closed on weekend nights, and it offered an inexpensive alternative to hotels for travelers.
Involving itself in the local community, Club Houston sponsored an annual Mr. Club Houston contest, held at a local bar. They also sponsored entries in Houston’s Pride parades.
On May 25, 1977, a fire broke out in the club, and the Houston Fire Department determined that the cause was arson. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the arsonist was never found, even after the club offered a reward of $5,000 for information leading to an arrest.
Except for the front check-in area, the club was gutted by the fire and had to be rebuilt. During the construction period, the club offered free admission to the pool and patio area.
Responding to the AIDS Crisis
The 1980s were a sobering time for the club, with the onset of the AIDS crisis. The club worked with local AIDS organizations to help keep customers educated about the growing epidemic by offering free condoms and educational brochures.
When HIV tests were developed, the club partnered with local health groups to provide free testing. Safe-sex posters were visible in the club, and health workers were invited to offer safe-sex presentations. The Club Baths group also toured adult film star Sgt. Glenn Swann, who appeared as Mr. Playsafe at bathhouse safe-sex programs around the country.
Holding says that the day after Rock Hudson’s death in 1985, business dropped to one-half of what it had been. The club worked to create a new image as more of a health club by building an expanded exercise area. The efforts were successful, and business picked up.
Although some critics felt that bathhouses were breeding grounds for AIDS, their educational efforts and HIV testing programs may have actually helped reduce transmission of the virus.
In the early 1990s, the club’s investors bought a tract of land to the north of Club Houston, feeling that they might need that land to expand in the future. A Victorian-era house was located on the property, and was nicknamed the “The Witch’s Hat House” because of its unique pointed turret roof. The investors offered the house to local preservationists, but the cost was too great to move it. In 1997, the house was demolished. The witch’s-hat roof structure, however, was saved, and now sits atop a gazebo in the City park at 901 Sawyer.
A New Building in 2000
By the late 1990s, Club Houston owners felt the current structure was no longer worth maintaining, with its outdated utility connections that were costing too much to upgrade for stricter City building codes. A new two-story building was then built on the empty lot to the north, just three feet from the existing structure. In 2000, the new 14,000-square-foot club opened and the old club was demolished so that a new pool could be built on the site.
The club’s new facilities, which included an expanded workout area, attracted a large customer base, and the pool area continued to offer nude sunbathing. Holding says that previous privacy walls had been lost during tropical storms, so the new wall is 16 feet high, built of steel girders and concrete slabs, and can withstand winds up to 160 miles per hour.
In the late 2010s, the owners felt that the building needed updating again, and construction continued for the next year and a half. Holding teamed up with Wayne Schrebe, Mark Craven, and Jason Schnegg to create the club’s current look.
Upstairs, an impressive new sauna was built, plus a new bathroom and shower area. The downstairs weight room area was reduced to make room for another bathroom that includes shower facilities for the handicapped. A new television lounge with tables and chairs was built, with a windowed wall that overlooks the pool area. Club guests can choose what they want to watch on the large-screen TV.
The jacuzzi, which had been inside, was replaced with a new one that is now part of the swimming pool. Overall, the traffic flow was redesigned to make moving throughout the structure easier.
Admission to the club is still limited to men only, and transgender men are welcome. Admission is determined by the gender marker that appears on drivers’ licenses.
Local psychotherapist Denis “Woodja” Flanagan believes Club Houston plays an important role in Houston’s LGBTQ community. Flanagan notes that the gathering place is not centered around alcohol or drugs, and it gives closeted individuals a place where they can relieve their feelings of rejection by finding other men who are receptive to gay sex.
After nearly fifty years of operation, Club Houston remains a popular meeting place for Houston’s gay men. HIV education and testing is still offered, and the recent improvements have made it one of the finest gay bathhouses in the country.
Dennis Holding, who has been a major investor in Club Houston since its beginning in 1973, was part of the project team that guided the club’s recent renovation.
Holding was born in Santa Monica, California, and says he was a thin boy who grew up with asthma. He’s always had an entrepreneurial nature, and he did well in his college accounting courses.
Holding worked for the Los Angeles Times, reporting on college sports and drag races. He then began working in the high-performance racing-equipment field, traveling across the country and giving seminars until his retirement in 2017.
Holding met Jack Campbell, founder of the Club Baths group, in 1971 while living in Cleveland. Holding soon became an investor, and is now a joint owner of the clubs in Houston, Orlando, and Miami.
In 1981, Campbell asked Holding to join the executive committee of the Gay Rights National Lobby, which later became the Human Rights Campaign. Holding worked with many of the early gay-rights activists of the 1970s and ’80s.
Holding now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with his partner of 24 years, Flavio Cavalcanti. The two were married five years ago during a Christmas trip to Hawaii.
Holding says he is impressed with Houston’s progressive spirit, and he has particular admiration for the Montrose Center and all of the programs they offer to the community.
He visits Houston every few months in order to check on the club and stay involved with Houston’s many LGBTQ organizations.
This article appears in the March 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.