History of Manhole (Page Two)

Sun. September 21, 2014 3:18 PM by Anthony Morgano

After Spin Nightclub abruptly closed this May, the vacant space at the corner of Belmont and Halsted was taken over and divided into two new venues that premiered in time for Pride just a month later: Whiskey Trust Tavern and Distillery and Chloe's. Just last month, owner Jason Zilderbrand announced that he was enlisting the help of LKH management to run the two spaces, praising their experience, knowledge and success in the community.

"When looking at Chloe's, and especially the entryway created by Homo Riot, the concept of Manhole was screaming at us," LKH managing partner Sean Kotwa told ChicagoPride.com. "It was the only choice we had for Chloe's and we are excited to be bringing it back to life."

"It wasn't till we decided that we were going to open Manhole again that we agreed to enter into this agreement," Liberson added. "The space is perfect for the Manhole with very little in the way of changes."

The greatest difference between the original Manhole space and the Chloe's space, Liberson says, is the size. The new Manhole is split across two levels, so they created the "Den at the Manhole," a U-shaped upstairs bar and lounge which can be accessed through Whiskey Trust and will be open everyday from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays). AK MIller -- who will be running the new Manhole alongside fellow LKH veteran Tyler Rathje -- describes the Den as "a billiards and darts lounge that offers an option away from the dance floor, while still allowing people to enjoy a similar atmosphere." While the Manhole dance floor, located in the basement, will always require dress code or shirtless to enter, the Den is open earlier and the dress code isn't required for entry, similar to the front room at the original Manhole.

"The original Manhole was known for its sound and mix of industry workers, leather men and late night club goers," Miller said. "Led by DJ Mark Vallese and DJ Mark Hultmark, it was also a place where people could get lost in the music and enjoy letting go of their inhibitions... When LKH Management approached me about what Boystown was missing, taking the original Manhole concept and combining it with the updated ideology was a natural decision."

The basement dance floor, which can be entered from the Den or a separate street entrance, has been transformed into a larger version of Manhole's old back dance floor. Initially it will be open Thursday-Saturday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays) and will be enforcing Manhole's dress code, denying admittance to any not shirtless or dressed in fetish gear. A poster on Manhole's Facebook page advertises "Fetish Fridays," which will rotate themes every weekend -- the next four are Leather followed by Underwear, then Pup Play and lastly Rubber. Decked out with Tom-of-Finland-esque artwork featuring musclebound, scruffy men and vintage ads for bars like the now-closed Eagle, the former Spin space is definitely darker, rougher and sexier than ever.

"Although Manhole had a well deserved reputation for being a place where men could meet men, it was by no means a sex club. It was a sexy club," Miller says. "It was a unique combination of the leather, biker, punk rock and rave cultures. It is that energy that we are trying to create with this new venue. I feel that there is a need for a place in Boystown where older men will feel comfortable on a dance floor, where the leather and fetish communities can gather, and a younger class of gay men who will be introduced to the house, industrial and trance music styles that made Manhole so popular."

The team plans to continue Manhole's tradition musically, featuring DJs who spin the kind of deep house music pioneered by the performers at the original club. They believe Manhole caters to an often overlooked demographic in Boystown and are proud to be bringing back a club they can be proud to call home. Like the original Manhole, LKH hope their club will attract from all segments of the community, encouraging folk to explore new things and lose their inhibitions while bringing the community together. Unlike the original Manhole, however, they say their dedication to the club, and to the success of Boystown in general, is what will make this Manhole a success.

"When we create a place for our community, we create it to have a future," Kotwa said. "As you can see at Hydrate, we continue to invest in our businesses and the community. We evolve and change programming as people evolve and their needs change."

"The biggest difference is that while the Manhole was inherited by people who were not part of the gay community and unaware of what was occurring in our community, we are very involved and an active part of the community," he continued. "Across our company, we work with almost every charity organization, support sports teams, as well as theater companies, political initiatives and everything else that we can to help make our community healthier and more vibrant."

For many like Harvat (who spun in the basement this Saturday for opening weekend), Manhole is a chance to slip back into the past -- to a time when you didn't need to ask for a face pic because it was right there in front of you (unless, of course, it was obscured by a leather hood). This is also the appeal for younger clubgoers, who seek a taste of the gay world as it was in the heyday of the original Manhole and the feeling of liberation and community it came with that they've only heard spoken of by the previous generation.

"Obviously, the progress we are experiencing in the LGBT community is amazing and powerful, but 15-20 years ago, there was more of a sense of community. You planned on going out -- no, you HAD to go out so you could actually meet people and be amongst other gays," Harvat said. "Social media, for all the good it does, has definitely taken the 'hunt' from a natural human interaction to more of a 'hey, I'll just text/cruise from the comfort of my own home'. I can remember when I worked for Crobar and they had 'GLEE Club' every Sunday, we would have between 700-900 people through the door on a random, non-holiday Sunday night because that's what everyone did. Same for Manhole and the other bars in Boystown."

If the throngs of bodies that flocked to Manhole over opening weekend are any indication, the club is indeed fulfilling a much-felt gap in Boystown's nightlife. If the sultry atmosphere, pulsing, innovative music and chance to get undressed to the nines aren't enough, then curiosity -- about both the new and the old -- is certainly fueling interest. While we've made strides as a community and there are some things about the past that may be best left there, LKH saw an opportunity to move forward by bringing back something lost in time. So head on over to 3208 N. Halsted and see what all the fuss is about.

Welcome back, Manhole. You were missed.

(Return to PAGE ONE)