Thursday, December 14th, 2017

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Cleveland’s last male bastions provide rare opportunity for men to bond

by Sarah Jaquay

Women know where to bond with each other and recharge: book clubs, gal pal getaways and spa dates are frequent choices. But where can men go when they want to escape the estrogen? Cleveland was once dominated by male-only organizations such as the Union Club, the Cleveland Athletic Club and the Mid-Day Club, but there aren’t many left. Since this is Currents’ annual issue devoted to men, here’s a summary of Northeast Ohio’s remaining male citadels:

Cleveland’s Rowfant Club has been attracting bibliophiles since 1892. Located in what was once the George Merwin House on Prospect Avenue, the Rowfant is an Italianate-style building with impressive marble fireplaces and dark woodwork. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, the house was built in 1838 by architect Charles Heard. The Rowfant Club acquired it in 1895 to further their mission: “…the critical study of books in their various capacities to please the mind of man.”

“We’re book collectors — not a literary club,” a former board member explained. Membership in this group that revels in book culture, publishing, paper and bindings is by invitation only and Rowfanters eschew publicity. Women are invited as guest speakers and to events where spouses are welcome, but the Club remains loyal to its origins as a place where men can indulge their passion for books.

The Tavern Club is also housed in a vintage mansion on Prospect. Designed by Architect J. Milton Dyer and built around 1904-05, it has a brick and timber exterior and is described in a 1903 issue of The Ohio Architect and Builder as “Old English tavern style.” That same publication depicts the architectural plans showing a picturesque building with a steep gabled roof that will have club and grill rooms on the first floor, plus card rooms, a racquet court and two squash courts on the upper floors.

The group is so guarded no current member would proffer its purpose or history, yet one can deduce it has social and recreational foci. Some say its members occasionally break into song during meals, which is reminiscent of Hermit Club members who dine in a Jacobean Revival style structure on Dodge Court behind the PlayhouseSquare Theatres. (The Hermit Club celebrates the performing arts and used to be all male but now admits women.)

The anti-spa

“Carnation Willie was a big Schvitzer,” his nephew confided. Carnation Willie is long gone. But in his prime he had a prosperous law practice, wore a carnation in his lapel and, like many professionals, knew how to unwind: Go for a steam and a steak at the Mount Pleasant Russian-Turkish Baths — better known as the Schvitz. “Schvitz” means to sweat in Yiddish and this rustic bath house off of E. 116th in the Kinsman neighborhood is a legendary lair that’s been in business since the 1920s. It’s popular with the Jewish community, but was also frequented by the mob during its heyday, civic leaders and sports team owners. If it sounds like something out of a Damon Runyan novel, it looks like something out of “The “Sopranos.”

“There’s nothing spa-like or fancy about it,” remarked a civic leader whose father-in-law introduced him to the Schvitz when he married into a large clan from the Heights. The leader’s brother-in-law had his bachelor party there in 1965. Although the bachelor wrestled for Cleveland Heights in his younger days, he usually gained weight at the Schvitz (instead of sweating it off) because of the food. After taking a steam in the huge sauna, then dipping into the chilly plunge pool, Schvitzers can get a massage or a “pleytse “ — a rubdown traditionally done with a broom of soaked oak leaves. Afterwards patrons can go into the dining room and order a steak, swordfish or chicken dinner. Schvitzers dine in their sheets and may bring their own booze. Many veterans wax on about the creamed herring and dark rye bread that’s served in abundance along with about an “inch of garlic on the entrees,” the civic leader says.

While some think the food delicious, the real attraction is its uniqueness. Once upon a time, travelling salesmen could get a steak and steam in almost every American city. Now there are only a few left. “People come in from Los Angeles, Greenville [South Carolina] and other cities just to experience the Schvitz,” explained a Northeast Ohio technology czar who organizes monthly outings to the Schvitz. His e-mail list is a roster of about 150 people who’ve been nominated as potential appreciators. The czar notes the Schvitz’s eclectic customer base makes for interesting conversations. “It draws university people, civic leaders, doctors and Russian mobsters.” Reducing the Schvitz to a single sentence, he dubs it “a mythical urban gathering.”

To find out more about these organizations, you must be male!

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