The famed Le 456 Sauna in Old Montreal – open around-the-clock since 1979 – has closed its doors to make way for a new 14-storey condominium building.
The historic bathhouse at 456 Rue de la Gauchetière Ouest was among the city’s oldest gay businesses.
“The sauna was still very nice inside,” says Le 456 Sauna owner Dany Rathé. The bathhouse boasted a gym, pool, steamroom and jacuzzi with 74 smaller rooms and seven double rooms on two floors.
“But the building was very old and if there were [only] 50 customers, the place [was so big] it looked empty,” Rathé says. “So I’m very happy that it will be rebuilt. It’ll be better.”
The historical importance of the building predates Le 456 Sauna, however. The building’s first bathhouse, the Neptune Sauna, was opened in 1973 by André Laflamme and Lorne Holiday. At the time Laflamme and Holiday also owned the Crescent St Aquarius Sauna, which was firebombed in April 1975 when Montreal’s gay village was still downtown, before the exodus east after the 1976 Montreal summer Olympic games. Three customers died in the Aquarius fire, and two of them — found burned to a crisp by the second-floor fire exit — were buried in paupers’ graves because their corpses were never identified or claimed by their families.
The Neptune was then raided by Montreal police on May 14, 1976. “They yanked off people’s towels and threw everybody together and took pictures and charged them all with being in a common bawdyhouse,” says Henri Labelle, who worked as the cashier at the Neptune that night (Labelle is now a lecturer at Concordia University).
“There was a former mayor’s son there, a government minister, a secretary to the Catholic Archbishop and a couple of cops, but they were ushered out the back door while everyone else was thrown in paddy wagons.”
Eighty-nine patrons were arrested and police confiscated the Neptune’s 7,000-name membership list.
“The police were mad about collecting people’s names during that period,” says author and award-winning historian Ross Higgins, who also co-founded the Quebec Gay Archives. “I was part of the group that called for a meeting at the student centre at McGill University after the Neptune raid. There were over 100 people there, and they were very angry. That was the beginning of modern gay organizing in Montreal and led to the creation the Association pour les droits des gais du Québec [ADGQ].”
The Neptune later closed and the Continental Sauna opened in 1977.
“But it was short-lived,” says Higgins.
Le 456 Sauna opened there two years later.
Interestingly, two buildings over, developers are tearing down the 494 Rue de la Gauchètiere Ouest building at the corner of Beaver Hall Hill that was home to Montreal’s infamous Sex Garage police raid on the night of July 14, 1990, a raid that many call Montreal’s Stonewall. That building is now making way for a new 35-storey condo tower called the Altoria.
Rathé says he began working as a staffer at Le 456 Sauna 25 years ago before buying the business in 2006. Nothing from the bathhouse will be saved for the new place, not even the second-floor wall art by iconic Montreal artist Zilon.
“I’m the person who commissioned Zilon’s work in 1993,” says Rathé.
But, Rathé adds, this is not the last we’ll see of Le 456 Sauna. Building owner Federico Bizzotto has invited Rathé to open a new sauna in the new 14-storey building on the same site.
“I approached Dany to run Le 456 [in the new building] because it has a cultural value, serves a niche market and is part of the heritage of that building,” says Bizzotto.
Bizzotto says his new Le 456 Sauna Industriel building is “based on an award-winning design that we hope to open by mid-2013. And we’ve decided to give the new 456 Sauna a separate address and entrance.”