Central Spa: the loss of another iconic institution - tidbits - MyGayToronto
Central Spa: the loss of another iconic institution By DREW ROWSOME 26 February 2018.
After reading Paul Bellini's ode to The Cellar and its demise, I thought to myself that I hadn't been to a bathhouse in a long time and I pulled up the Central Spa website with the idle thought of having a steam and a romp. Central Spa is a chain of four bathhouses across Ontario with the Toronto one, as I discovered to my chagrin on my last attempted visit, having extremely curtailed hours: basically it was only open for nooners and after work quickies.
As the blurb on their website says, "A large percentage of our bathhouse clientele are married, bisexual or men who are questioning. Central Spa simply caters to men who have sex with men. No label? No problem!" An ad they used to run in fab magazine used that as a selling point with a photo of a wedding ring being slipped off a masculine hand. It played to the discretionary needs of some of the clientele, and the fantasies of sex with an ostensibly straight (and therefore butch) man of another demographic.
The website had a surprise. The list of locations had a notice beside the Toronto location's link:
CLOSED FOR BUSINESS Thanks for a fun 20 years!
Clicking on the link earned a pop-up full of information:
Permanently Closed as of Jan 1, 2018
Apparently I wasn't the only one who hadn't visited in a long time. But it was sad and disheartening that somewhere where I had had a lot of fun had expired without my even knowing. I wasn't as shocked as I should have been, bathhouse culture has been in decline, hit by the triple whammy of HIV, hook-up apps and condo development. St Marc Spa, Club Toronto, Romans, Oak Leaf Steam Baths, The Barracks, and now The Cellar are all gone. But the memories live on. I learned a lot about myself and life, love and lust in those sex palaces, and they, particularly The Barracks, are missed.
The particular appeal of Central Spa has already been written about to near perfection by Todd Klinck in issue 341 of fab magazine in February of 2011. I cannot pretend to improve on his observations and still have hope that his book of collected "Trade" columns is published so that his literary flair in documenting gay sex in that time period is not lost. In "Roaming the Halls: Todd Klinck takes a new cruise through Toronto's bathhouse scene," Klinck writes,
Central Spa is an anomaly in the Toronto bathhouse scene. It's located way west in Little Portugal and it's not open 24/7. The small facility, located above a Portuguese sports bar, has 15 rooms, two porn rooms and a recently added maze area with glory holes and curtained doors. The showers were renovated a couple years ago and they are gorgeous. The steam room is functional and so is the dry sauna. When I visited at 7pm on a Sunday there were only a handful of guys in the place: one in his late 20s, a couple in their 30s, and a few guys above 40. I found one I liked, did my thing and, as I was leaving, I bumped into an incoming cruiser. "Anything in there?" he asked. Without hesitation, I said, "Yeah, about four or five." "Oh, so it's not worth going in."
Working at an event at Central Spa about a year ago, I came to adore its vibe. It's a genuine neighborhood bathhouse that receives a fair volume of traffic over the course of an entire day, even though there may be only five to 10 people at a given time. The design of the place is very conducive to relaxing and waiting. It has a living-room-like TV lounge (which plays regular TV) and a free Internet terminal. The clientele is very diverse in age, race and body type. If you want some booze (and you're brave enough), you can always go to the sports bar below to grab some shots while you are waiting.
My experiences were similar. The space was small but friendly and even at capacity it couldn't have contained more than a few dozen men. But, as Klinck notes, it only takes the right one. Or two. Or more. I personally met a beautiful Brazilian boy with limited English but limitless charm. One of Canada's foremost theatrical performers who proved to be just as worthy of an ovation when offstage and between the sheets. A much older man who proved to be spry and possessed of the stamina of a 16-year-old. A paunchy hirsute man with a seductive smile and a most extraordinary uncut cock that also seemed to smile. During post-coital cuddling, he confessed his undying love and wanted to meet again but it had to be two weeks hence as his wife was getting suspicious.
I met a handsome public relations flack who was obsessively concerned that his clients would learn about his penchant for rough sex. He often rented the room in the centre with the windows that could be left open for voyeurs or to entice more participants. There was a contractor who apologized for the paint flecks on his muscular hands though the rest of his physical charms rendered that minor flaw moot. A couple looking to spice up their relationship and uncertain if they were doing the right thing - they went on to host may dinner/sex parties that I was privileged to be invited to. Men across a varied spectrum: shy, exhibitionistic, seductive, arrogant, desperate, disdainful, flamboyant, flabby, muscular, macho, etc, etc, all reduced to their basic gay humanity, clad in a towel and driven by an, also varying, degree of horniness. Or curiosity.
And that's the great thing about a bathhouse and about Central Spa in particular. Sex is the great leveller in the gay community. Desire, in its purest most naked form, knows no race, age, social class or physical form. It all depends on that spark, that involuntary twitch of the cock, a clever remark or a flirtatious grin. Relative anonymity leads to more opportunities, an expansion of limits and preconceptions, a freedom to express the flesh rather than assumption. In its own small way Central Spa did that particularly well. It will be missed.
(shortly after this piece was posted it was discovered to be inaccurate. While it usually humiliating to have to post a correction, in this case it is good news: Central Spa has reopened as Splash, which can be read about here)
Splash: the resurrection of an iconic institution
Just a day ago we accidentally posted some fake news. Fortunately readers immediately alerted me to this - much thanks to Philip Cairns and Steve Laflamme who have their fingers and their . . . on the pulse of Toronto's gay sex scene - and I was able to quickly remedy it. Venerable bathhouse Central Spa did close on January 1, 2018, but it reopened on February 1, 2018 under new management and a new name: Splash.
I was unable to confirm anything beyond a twitter account - @splashtoronto - that contained minimal content beyond the re-opening announcement and hours. Having no intention of offering any more misinformation, I set out to the fringe of Parkdale, deep in the heart of Little Portugal, to investigate.
The signage still reads "Central Spa" but there is a new logo "Splash" slapped on the doorway to the staircase leading to the second floor pleasure palace, and a sign giving the hours. The neighbourhood is gentrifying rapidly, there are more shiny new buildings than ramshackle storefronts; there are more hipsters smoking in front of salons, galleries and coffee shops than the formerly ubiquitous old men in front of social clubs and watering holes.
I am five minutes before opening but the door to the street is unlocked and after climbing the stairs, I am buzzed in. The cashier is still counting the till but another man, clutching a cup of coffee, invites me to have a seat in the bright and cheerful lounge and they will be with me in a minute. He is very affable so I prepare to start asking questions. A compliment on the paint job that is new to me - I have already confessed that I hadn't been there in a long time - elicits a shrug. The paint job was the previous owners' work. "We just did a lot of cleaning."
He then explains that the Central Spa chain was losing money at this location, even though it was the first and ostensibly the flagship. When they closed, the new owners managed to reach an agreement with the landlord and then had 10 days in which to open. It is still too soon to tell how business will be but he is happy to see the regulars returning. I, after explaining that the only information I could find was that they were closed, ask about advertising or a website. There is a website ready to go but there are problems with the hosting company. "Coming soon," he assures.
Advertising is a different question. During his explanation he uses the word "discreet" in every sentence. Sometimes twice. He is sounding out the customers because many of them are closeted or married. "We're a long way from the Gay Village out here," he says. He's not sure if advertising for more business is more important than maintaining the delicate balance. Though the heating/air conditioner on the roof is going to need some attention soon. Splash appears to be more a labour of love than a business.
The cashier is ready and he apologizes for the cash only policy. He offers an unsolicited explanation about the internet still being tied up with the previous owners. He is familiar and smiles when he is recognized, yes, he has worked here "Forever." They both tell me to "Have fun" and I head into the dim hallway.
Everything is the same as it was and is scrupulously clean so the previous review/memorial is still accurate. There are 17 rooms, lots of lockers, two dark rooms (one with a giant bed and porn, one with a jungle gym-like gloryhole structure), an open shower area, washrooms, and two steam rooms. And very quickly I am no longer the only customer.
The man at the front who was functioning as a greeter is everywhere. He helps a man on his first visit find the light switch in his room (it is very dark in the hallways when the rooms are empty) and fluffs the pillows in the orgy room. And personally greets everyone who arrives. The disco music switches on and the cruising begins.
Though, in the hour and a half spanning the lunch rush that I spent there, about a dozen men came and came and went. They skewed younger than I expected and the mood was very relaxed but with a tasty sexual undertone throbbing beneath. And despite the smorgasbord having less choices than the larger competitors, the quality is just fine. And as Todd Klinck noted, "It only takes one." There is beautiful manboy with a huge toothy smile and a floppy uncut cock who is lathering in the shower while his eyes glisten with excitement and invitation . . .
Splash is at 1610 Dundas St W and is open daily from 11am to 9pm.