Plunging into a hot tub into which countless strangers have already dipped their grubby, entirely naked bodies didn’t bother the scores of travelers and Bay Area denizens who frequented Deward Hastings’ Berkeley tub for nearly 50 years. Hastings, a free-speech advocate and former hippie, opened his all-hours, word-of-mouth Essex Street backyard jacuzzi to all, and they visited in droves.
The news that Hastings had been found dead in his infamous hot tub on Sept. 17, aged 78, came as a shock to the many people who had experienced this special under-the-radar spot that had earned something of an outsize reputation.
“You felt so much [gratitude] every time you are in a space like that, the love and understanding you feel between you and the tub, the backyard, the plants, the platforms, the wood chips and leaves at your feet, the slosh of the tub, the smell of sage and the redwoods, the rain falling on your naked, steaming body, the cats on your wet lap,” hot tub regular Sydney Palmer, a third-generation East Bay resident, told Berkeleyside. “I felt [more] human in that space than I did anywhere else in default society.”
Palmer visited the calm space at least once a week for nearly a decade. “If I needed to cry, if I needed to stretch, if I needed to get out of my head, if I was in pain, if I was bored, I would go to Essex,” they said.
“[It’s the] end of an era,” wrote Michael Tertes on Facebook. “I’ve been going to the Essex St. Hot Tub since the early 1990s. Deward was generous in sharing his beautiful, native plant backyard garden and very, very, very hot tub.”
“Thank you for providing this sanctuary in the concrete jungle,” wrote Ni Cole, also on Facebook. And Ali Maida chimed in: “Thank you for the incredible gift of the Essex Hot Tub in Berkeley, a healing space for our hearts, minds, bodies and souls for many many years. Deward Hastings was a treasure.”
Hastings built the four-foot-deep wooden hot tub in his tree-covered backyard with the help of friends and a how-to book from the library, the then 55-year-old Hastings told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2000 interview, the only one he is known to have given. A backpacker who loved hot springs, he was motivated to build his own after most of the natural springs shut down. It is estimated that after he opened the ramshackle jacuzzi to the public in 1975, it played host to more than 30,000 pleasure seekers from around the globe.
“I remember hearing rumors of it way back in high school,” said Berkeley native Eden Teller, who lives in Minneapolis. Teller made regular middle-of-the-day trips to the hot tub in their college years. “Everyone talked about it in superlatives, all of which were well earned.”
Hot tub rules included ‘no talking’
Hastings did not make his address public or advertise the tub, so its popularity spread through word-of-mouth. The jacuzzi had few rules, most of them designed to ensure a relaxing environment. To prevent groups of men convening there, who might prove intimidating to women, men were invited in only if they’d been vetted by a female guest. Talking was not allowed, and those who visited speak of how the silence, along with the steam, contributed a meditative, dreamy feel to the experience. There was also a “no drugs or smoking” rule. A serene vibe shielded from the outside world was the space’s ultimate goal. “I saw some people doing yoga there once or twice,” Teller recalled.
Hastings maintained a very high temperature for the water in the tub — 113 1/2 degrees to be exact. “Some say the heat is unbearable, but the owner likes the radically high temperature because it is more sanitary and keeps people from lingering,” noted the 2000 Chronicle article.
“It was scalding,” said Teller, who could spend only five to 10 mintues in the tub’s searing waters. “The whole process of lowering yourself in, wincing and lifting up a little bit, and then lowering yourself back in was difficult but also really nice because your whole body temperature was raised when you got out.” Teller especially loved the moments after escaping the aquatic cauldron to sit on one of the nearby cedar platforms to cool off and reflect.
The hot tub was free-of-charge, which made it an option for those who couldn’t fork over cash for one of the area’s private spaces.
“When I was in my early 20s, I couldn’t really afford to go to Harbin Hot Springs [a nonprofit, clothing-optional space two hours north of Berkeley] or pay for a hot tub place,” said Kitty Stryker, a writer and 20-year East Bay resident. “The Essex place was a really nice and accessible option.”
Stryker credits the hot tub with helping ease her chronic pain caused by being born with smaller L5 vertebrae. “Having access to a hot tub was vital in keeping me moving,” she said. “I couldn’t fit easily into my bathtub at home and some apartments I lived in didn’t have hot water, or I was living with a bunch of roommates. Being able to go to a hot tub that was local, and easy to get to, was a really nice option.”
Passcode for entry to hot tub was sought-after
By the 1980s, once word had spread about the intriguing hot tub and it was becoming a destination, Hastings installed a keypad, requiring potential visitors to enter a passcode. He was parsimonious with the codes, keeping the bathers to a comfortable number and weeding out unsavory guests, including those who might be looking for casual hookups. Nevertheless, as Hastings told the Chronicle, men on their own and the occasional booze-infused group of revelers — “the Telegraph Avenue dregs of society,” as he put it — would find their way into his backyard oasis.
“Deward was very concerned that the space not become sexualized or a party spot,” Mark Lemaire, who had an 18-year friendship with Hastings, told Berkeleyside. “One thing he always told me was that he wanted his space to be safe for a single woman going there at 3 a.m.” He went on to describe his friend as a “loveable curmudgeon.”
One of the select dudes who did make it past the vetting process was Jay Barmann, Editor-in-Chief of SFist (who also penned a thoughtful piece on the tranquil space). “I never got my own code so I was never vetted per se, but I sometimes went with another male friend and we were never questioned,” he said. “Basically if you kept silent and weren’t ogling anyone you could come and go as you pleased.”
A semi-regular user who visited the Essex Street spot once every other week over the course of a year, Barmann stopped going once he moved from the East Bay to San Francisco in 2002.
Hastings himself was a regular fixture in the tub. “I soaked with Deward a handful of times, but never had direct conversation with him,” said Palmer. “I never really felt like I could approach him with it being a silent space — we were complete strangers and that was part of the beauty of it all.”
Not everyone was welcome in the sanctuary
There is a chilling blemish to Hastings’ bathing beneficence, however, as not everyone was welcome there. According to a 2018 Reddit thread, Hastings, who even a friend noted could be something of a curmudgeon, at one point posted a flier near the gate to his yard letting patrons know that only cis-women were allowed in. In part, it read:
“The Essex offering is/was to (sic)/for women (per Webster’s… woman: an adult female person). People not comfortable with that intention are entirely welcome to go somewhere else. Female: of, relating to, or being the sex that typically had the capacity to bear young or produce eggs; female: a person bearing two XX chromosomes in the cell nuclei and normally having a vagina, a uterus and ovaries.”
Stryker said the note, and frustration she heard from her trans friend who didn’t feel comfortable in the space, really “upped the creep factor” for her. “This note really made it explicit that trans women were not considered women. … It really narrowed down who he wanted to be there.”
“It’s blatant transphobia,” said Teller, who identifies as nonbinary. “Yet it’s complicated because I have so much gratitude for [Hastings] for creating this kind of space, and I have a lot of empathy and understanding for folks who are part of an older generation who aren’t part of the queer community, but who are trying to do what they feel is right.”
Palmer, who grew frustrated at Hastings “essentially reducing women down to bio-essentialist qualities,” said that “Essex was an imperfect space, a highly imperfect space.”
Before gaining a reputation for his hot tub, Hastings, whose identity was publicly revealed after his death by his estranged wife, was active in the free speech movement while an undergrad at UC Berkeley.
“In the mid-1960s he was a press operator, putting ink on paper for the movement, first for UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement and later at the Berkeley Free Press,” said archivist and former UC Berkeley librarian Lincoln Cushing. Hastings helped produce hundreds of thousands of printed leaflets for left-leaning groups in the Bay Area during the height of the ‘60s civil rights era. Hastings also worked as a musical engineer.
Hastings’ death, first reported by Berkeley Scanner, is being investigated but foul play is not suspected, according to the Berkeley Police Department. He was found in the hot tub by a guest who was also soaking there that day, his estranged wife, Sippa Pardo, 73, confirmed to The Chronicle.
The hot tub’s future is up in the air. Hastings had no children and Pardo calls Oregon home. If by some whimsical chance the hot tub does live on, Stryker says she’d love to see it continue to soak Berkeleyans and visitors, but in a more open manner.
“If I could have my dream situation happen, I would love to see it run by a co-op,” said Stryker. “In part because I think anytime one person has control over a space, there really isn’t any accountability for any problems that arise in that space.”
Palmer reflected on the quiet radicalness of the hot tub, especially in today’s less-than-serene era in which we live: “The act of not only opening private property back to the community, but of allowing such radical ideas as accepting no money, clothing being optional, and no phones or talking allowed serves as a reminder that we can, and should, be able to engage in these deeply human and natural concepts in a world pushing that feeling further and further out of reach.”
Hastings’ next-door neighbors Greg Callahan and Julia Tate are in the process of organizing a memorial service. You can request more details about the service by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.