Steve Ostrow, founder of NYC’s Continental Baths, dies at 91

Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths in the basement of this building at 2109 Broadway.
Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths in the basement of this building at 2109 Broadway.
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Steve Ostrow, the out bi founder of the famed Continental Baths in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, died on Feb. 4 at the age of 91.

Ostrow set out to open the bathhouse in 1968 after identifying a vacant space in The Ansonia, then a hotel at 2109 Broadway. The bathhouse became a sprawling venue that would go on to serve as both a bathhouse for gay men and a nightlife space that attracted people of all walks of life — including celebrities. Yet another element was incorporated when Ostrow rented out the rooftop and transformed it into a beach-like environment with chairs and sand from Riis Beach, according to the New York LGBT Historic Sites Project.

The bathhouse was relatively short-lived — some reports say it closed in 1976; others say 1977 — but it left a lasting legacy. It is perhaps best known for paving the way for the careers of stars like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, who performed there and ultimately attracted a straight crowd, too — but its core purpose was to serve as a dedicated social and sexual space for gay and bisexual men. 

Ostrow already envisioned opening a gay bathhouse when he spotted an advertisement in the New York Times seeking investors for a men’s health club and steam bath, leading him to seek out space to embark on his steamy venture. He borrowed money from his father-in-law to open the bathhouse, the New York Times reported.

Ostrow faced adversity almost as soon as he launched the bathhouse during an era when LGBTQ people remained legally and socially ostracized from the mainstream world. The bar was raided 200 times in its first year of operation, Ostrow said in his 2022 memoir, but that settled down once Ostrow set up an arrangement with the police to pay them 10% of his profits.

The bathhouse featured a disco, steam room, restaurant, chapel, gym, travel desk, sexual health clinic, and store, in addition to 400 hundreds of rooms and thousands of lockers, according to the LGBT Historic Sites Project. The bathhouse ultimately went downhill after straight patrons started to take up space and drug use became a nuisance, the Times reported. The Ansonia Hotel was subsequently converted into a condo building and the former space of the Continental Baths is now a parking garage.

Ostrow, a Brooklyn native and the son of Louis and Nettie Ostrow, studied at Henry Street Settlement and planned to pursue a career in opera, a plan that was derailed at 18 years of age when he was forced to take on extra work in the family due to his father’s death. But when he joined a small opera company, he went on to meet his future wife, Joanne King, and opened a loan company before opening the bathhouse. The couple divorced in the 1980s. Ostrow had two children, Scott and Maria, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

Ostrow moved to Australia in the 1980s and lived there until he died.