It's long baffled me that Seattle is not a bastion of hot tubs, standard issue for all backyards. But if it were, the women of the area wouldn't get to experience the Hothouse, the new public bathhouse for women on Capitol Hill.
Although I expected such a place to exceed more commercial settings in terms of cleanliness and personable warmth, I wasn't prepared for the hospitality and sheer loveliness of the Hothouse. You don't just get water to take in with you, it's filtered water with a lime in it. It's not just a steam room adjacent to the huge tub, they've added a bit of scent that wafts out to you when you open the door.
"They" are Julia LeFleur and Matria O'Hora, proud proprietors who undertook a four-year labor of love to create a simple, affordable setting for relaxation and warmth. No sterile tile or white porcelain here; instead, it feels both cozy and elegant. "I see it as Julia's art installation," says O'Hora. "Everything has her touch on it, the warm colors, the flow of the rooms themselves, the ventilation pipes angled just so."
After you soak you can go over to an oddly pleasing corrugated aluminum area and pull a big handle down for a shot of cold spray. (It's like hosing off at the beach after a good swim.) Then you can slide back into the tub, take a steam, get a massage, or chill out in the relaxation room.
"We usually give first-time folks a tour of everything," says O'Hora. That means the shower room, lockers for your stuff, the sauna, the steam room, and the pi裥 de r鳩stance, the tub—a big, generous, eminently inviting place to sink deep down into.
About shyness, self-esteem, and nudity: I thought I'd take a quick tour in my clothes and be out of there; the thought of parading around in such close quarters with other women did not appeal to me. But as masseuse Carol Tiebout said, "there were no calendar bodies," and after a few steps I realized she was right and jumped right in. To my relief, I didn't find myself forced into idle chat with the other women, but neither did I feel isolated from their conversation. It was, simply, comfortable. And when you think about it, comfortable is a hard thing to find sometimes. Besides, clothing is optional; you can wear a swimsuit if you want.
LeFleur and O'Hora were inspired by Osento, a women's bathhouse in San Francisco. LeFleur visited there four years ago, called O'Hora, and said, "We have to do this!" They didn't realize how long their dream would take, but they kept going because, as LeFleur says, they "had no choice." She was the project's general contractor, and while they planned for every contingency, they couldn't have foreseen that the electrical, ventilation, and plumbing systems in the old building were in dire need of replacing. Just when they'd figured out how to do the electricity (an ingenious gas-fired boiler does the hard work) they found they had to rip out the entire ventilation system—after they'd already designed the beautiful ceiling and internal wiring.
"Summer, the owner of Osento in San Francisco, was so wonderful," O'Hora says appreciatively. "She just kept believing in us, she was incredible."
After presenting their business plan to a bank, they were told repeatedly that they needed more: more money, more plans, more everything. Then they discovered the Community Capital Development Organization, which took one look at their business plan and said, "We'll back you completely." Says O'Hora, "We went from 'just not adequate' to 'you're wonderful!' in one day. It was great. Even Eileen Hennessey at the public health department said 'What a great idea' and helped us get through all the paperwork."
It's not hard to see why. The place just oozes "great idea." And the two owners welcome you the second you step over their threshold. All you have to do is soak.