‘The Fairoaks Project: Polaroids from a San Francisco Bathhouse’ By Frank Melleno
Author: Raymond Cranfill
January 23, 2012
The Fairoaks Project almost wasn’t. Frank Melleno’s collection of photographs documenting life at San Francisco’s short-lived Fairoaks Hotel was consigned to a shoe box for almost three decades and would have remained there to this day had Melleno not shown them to his friend Gary Freeman. Freeman, a photo restorer and gallery owner, was immediately struck by their beauty and historical significance. Out of that meeting in 2007 grew the Fairoaks Project, the aim of which was the restoration, digitization, production and exhibition of Melleno’s work. The Fairoaks Project includes the selection of fifty-one restored images that were exhibited under the same name in June of 2010 at the drkrm/gallery in downtown Los Angeles. To a casual viewer, this slim volume of candid, provocative, often sexually explicit images might come across as some sort of soft core fluff. It is not. To crack the spine, leaf through its pages, and examine its images is to open a portal onto a secret place lost long ago.
It is our good fortune that Frank Melleno found himself employed as the night manager of the Fairaoks Hotel during 1978, and that he began taking Polaroid pictures of the clientele and staff which he posted publicly as a way of fostering a sense of community. As he comments in the afterword, “The guys enjoyed having their images shown much as people do nowadays to see their photographs shown in magazines or on Facebook. It was celebratory and liberating.” As you may by now imagine, the Fairoaks Hotel was somewhat different from the City’s other gay bathhouse establishments. One part residency hotel, one part bathhouse, and one part social club, the Fairoaks was a nexus of the gay male experience. Racially inclusive, dirt cheap and broadly popular across the otherwise often disparate segments of San Francisco’s gay scene, an ethnically diverse group of young gay men in their late teens and twenties found the Fairoaks particularly welcoming. Reflected in many of the pictures were the management’s attempts to try different things to please its regular patrons and attract new visitors, including theme months, costume parties, nude drawing classes, massage therapy and support groups. Simply put, the Fairoaks was fabulous. In his introduction, Mark Thompson observed:
A day and a night at the Fairoaks could mean a lot of things. The acrid smell of popper fumes and stale marijuana smoke. The clank of an eight ball in a rear pocket, the rattle of chains. Low moans and orgasmic shouts heard over an endlessly played Sylvester tune, “Do You Want to Funk With Me?” Giggles. Grunts. And whispers. The passing drifts of another cool fog spied through a curtained bay window. The happy laughter of good friends getting together. The slapping flesh of one-time lovers lustily gettin’ it on.
Like Crawford Barton and Daniel Nicoletta, who documented the public face of gay life in pre-AIDS San Francisco, Mr. Melleno had the luck to be in the right place at the right time, as well as a careful eye for photographing gay men at love and at play in their private, secret spaces. The Fairoaks images are vibrant, provocative, often whimsical and always beautiful, a distillation in paper and pigment of the qualities and the spirit of the men he photographed. The raw sexual energy and sheer exuberance of young men frolicking and fornicating practically leap from each page. At the same time, Melleno’s images exhibit both a sense of tenderness and playfulness as groups of men lie tangled together, smiling, gently holding, and softly caressing one another. Nor do we ever feel like voyeurs, such is the empathy that Melleno has for his subject matter. These are not mere mechanical images populated with stiffly posed models. They are candid shots of real people he knew, illuminated by fellowship and affection. Melleno makes wonderful art from what could have easily devolved into tawdry images under the hand of a clumsier, less sensitive photographer.
An acquaintance of mine who used to frequent the Fairoaks fondly recalls many of the men in these photos as “rare angels, each and every one.” Sadly, few if any of the men depicted in these photos survive today. Provocative, empowering and beautiful as these images are, they evince something of perhaps deeper importance: The Fairoaks Project helps us to remember.