Taking the Last Tour of Chicago’s Most Historic Gay Bathhouse
Before an estate sale, we checked out the trippy art, otherworldly cruising areas, and scraps of LGBTQ history inside Man's Country.
All photos by Brittany Sowacke
This New Year's Eve at Man's Country, a Chicago bathhouse open since 1973, hundreds of men, women, transgender and nonbinary people showed out for a dance party celebrating the last hours of a queer American landmark.
Appropriately titled "Loose Ends," the closing event was part funeral, part rebirth and all hedonistic rager. Patrons danced, cruised, drank, caressed, hallucinated, sauna'd and paid their respects from before midnight to well past 11 AM. It was both a throwback to the venue's heyday, before the internet made many bathhouses feel obsolete, and a glimpse at what could have been had they thrown more events like this, which balanced sleaze with sociability and made the place appealing to those beyond the aging gay generation for which it was once a mecca.
Man's Country wore its history on its walls, with portraits of famous patrons, nude men, and other artwork throughout reminding visitors that this wasn't some staid, humorless bathhouse. In the basement (dubbed "The Pit,") a huge sauna—once billed as the largest in the Midwest—sat opposite a shower and wet area modeled after Parisian sewers. In its past, part of the cavernous Man's Country space was transformed into a dance club called Bistro Too, where acts like Boy George, Divine, and major disco stars performed, shifting some focus away from sex in the wake of the AIDS crisis. It also played host to a leather bar called the Chicago Eagle, one of many titanic contributions its founder, the consummate leather daddy Chuck Renslow, made to the leather community.
After Renslow's death in 2016—following years in which Man's Country failed to turn a profit—its end seemed all but inevitable, as it has for many of America's aging LGBTQ venues. Following its final night, the owners held an estate sale for everything and anything inside, from architectural elements to artwork to the disco balls that patterned its dance floors for decades. Before the big teardown, VICE sent photographer Brittany Sowacke to tour the club and capture what made the space charming, otherworldly and utterly unique—the kind of atmosphere increasingly disappearing from antiseptic LGBTQ venues today.