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Historic Club San Diego isn’t your granddaddy’s public bath



It’s the one building in Hillcrest that people are probably the most curious about, that is if they even notice it. It’s called Club San Diego and whether you have been there or not, The doors have remained open for over three decades. 

In the past few months, the club has been in the news, starting in May when fire crews were called to the  Fourth Avenue location after a blaze broke out inside, and people had to be evacuated.

Then more recently the building underwent some renovations and its exterior was painted two shades of bright blue with lime green doors. The plan was to get locals to notice the usually modest building and it seemed to work. 

San Diego Gay and Lesbian News talked to Club San Diego’s manager Richard Watts about what’s in store for this Hillcrest landmark and how it’s changed since it opened in 1982.

San Diego Gay and Lesbian News: For those who are curious, what kind of business would you describe Club San Diego?

Richard: To put it simply, Club San Diego is a health club where men can enjoy and connect with each other in a safe environment permitting nudity, fantasy and feelings to be explored. Always remember, we can host!

Why do you think Club San Diego is important to San Diego’s history? 

Public baths have a rich history in the culture of many societies. One of the more prominent civilizations to adopt this practice was the Romans in which crowds of men all bathed naked.

It was the primary place to gather and socialize and Club San Diego wants to keep this tradition alive! Being a staple for the gay community since 1982 as the sole bathhouse in the city, we want to reinvent what CSD means to the public.

And in an effort to connect more with the gay community, we are currently putting a monthly calendar together to incorporate and welcome men from all parts of the gay community.

After the AIDS epidemic hit, it’s well noted that bathhouses had to shut down. Are they making a come back in your opinion? Why? 

I can’t answer the “they” part of your question but I can give you my opinion on Club San Diego.

We can’t make a come back since we never left.  But we can change what people think about what a bathhouse is.

We provide a safe clean drug-free environment.  

A place where you can meet up with someone you connected with online or meet someone new.

With the increasing popularity of online meetings (think Grindr), Club San Diego is a great place in which WE CAN HOST. It’s a place where you can make a friend for an hour or a lifetime.

We offer free HIV testing through the Family Health Centers of San Diego and are always advocating for safe sex practices.

So, if bathhouses are becoming more popular, we hope to welcome our new members with open arms and give people a place where they can really relax and feel comfortable.

Some people look at the site a sex club; what would you say to that? is there a stigma?

Yes, there is a stigma and unfortunately, there will always be a stigma, I think every bathhouse has this issue. However, we do our best to celebrate sex and I think a very good way to be sex-positive is to establish a connection with the younger generation in which this stigma seems to be the strongest.

If we can get through to them, I think we can dampen the stigma for the future and reinvent the club for what it truly is, a social gathering place for men to connect with other men in a safe and secure environment. We need to get Club San Diego on the same level as Grindr in terms of public perception, sex is sex and we all have it.

There was a small fire at Club San Diego a few months back, what happened?

Spontaneous combustion.  That is a real thing.  Here’s what happened:

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019.  A three-day weekend was coming (memorial weekend) and I [Richard] was replacing the old carpet on the back staircase. 

Instead of putting down carpet or painting, I decided to stain and use an oil-based polyurethane on the wood steps because this looks classier.

I finished putting the first coat on about 6 pm and I needed to wait 12 hours before putting on a second coat.  At 2 am on the 24th, I received a call saying there was a fire.

When they told me which room caught fire I, immediately, knew. The inspectors confirmed my suspicion and the rags used to apply the polyurethane spontaneously combusted. Yes, it was an accident. I still feel terrible 5 months later.

I appreciate the love and respect that Omar and everyone has shown me after explaining what happened and accepting full responsibility.  

But, from those ashes, a phoenix will rise.

What is the future of Club San Diego? I read that an exterior paint job had to be redone? What happened? 

I heard stories around the neighborhood and read people’s concerns about the future of the club with people thinking we would be closed forever. 

So, we painted the outside of the club in such a way that it got people talking and we wanted to let people know we are still here and listening to you. 

Your amazing feedback is being acknowledged and we did ultimately decide to refinish the colors of the building to establish a more modern aesthetic that falls in line with what we have created on the inside.

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