Steve Ostrow, Manhattan Bathhouse Impresario, Dies at 91

Steve Ostrow, the founder of the Continental Baths — an extravagant gay men’s sex club and performance space that flourished at the turn of the 1970s in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, a Beaux-Arts landmark on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and launched the careers of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow — died on Feb. 3 at his home in Sydney, Australia. He was 91.

His death was announced by Toby Usnik, a friend.

Mr. Ostrow’s business plan in 1968 was to create a gay fantasia, a palace devoted to hedonism. The Ansonia, built at the turn of the century by a copper heir named William Earl Dodge Stokes, was perfect for his venture.

Occupying a full block on Broadway, from 73rd Street to 74th Street, it is a florid wedding cake of a building, with cupolas, balconies and gargoyles. When it opened, there were Turkish baths and an enormous pool in the basement, billed as the world’s largest; seals in the lobby fountains; and, on the roof, an urban farm with goats, chickens and a bear.

Its illustrious tenants included Babe Ruth, Florenz Ziegfeld and Theodore Dreiser. For decades, even as the building’s fortunes faded in the post-World War II years, performing artists and music teachers called it home. (The seals and the farm had been gone since 1907, by order of the Health Department.)

The Ansonia Hotel, which encompasses a full city block on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was the perfect setting for Mr. Ostrow’s expansive vision.Credit…Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times
The Continental Baths included a mirrored disco and a black marble steam room, as well as a restaurant, a chapel, a gym, a travel desk, a boutique and a V.D. clinic.Credit…via Steve Ostrow

Mr. Ostrow, an aspiring opera singer and the cantor in his local temple, was on his way to a voice lesson at the Ansonia when he discovered that the building’s massive basement, with its pool and baths in disrepair, was for rent.

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