Baltimore’s New/Old Leather Bar is a Home for All Types by Kelly Louise Barton
Reborn from the ashes of its former incarnation as a 1990s Levi’s and Leather Bar, The Eagle has returned to Baltimore in full force; embracing its history while fully submitting itself to the 21st century. Both traditional and unconventional, to call The Eagle simply a “bar” or a “club” is a severe understatement. Perched on the block of 22nd and Charles, the simple sans-serif type that adorns the clean brick building is relatively unassuming. Despite it’s outward appearance, the Eagle can really be described as a compound for all things fetish: a one-stop shop to grab a drink, have a dance, see a show, visit the leather shop, and even check out local art.
One dreary afternoon in March, I met with Greg King for a tour of the space and instead got an intriguing history lesson and insight into the restoration process. Unlike the original Eagle that first opened its doors in 1991 and lasted until 2012, this revamped version utilizes almost every inch of the building including three bars (soon to be four with the addition of the patio), a kitchen, leather shop that offers an in-house barber chair, art gallery, and soon, a packaged goods store that will include the sale of liquor (and yes, it’ll be open on Sundays!). Owners Ian Parrish and Greg King have succeeded in creating a space that feels both familiar, brand new, and unique, but not without Herculean effort.
After facing liquor board drama in 2015 and substantial structural issues, it is incredible to see what Ian and Greg’s team have managed to accomplish in their year and a half rebuild. Upon first entering the space, you can either enter the downstairs bar or head upstairs. What Greg describes as a sports bar is known as “The Tavern,” with granite bar-top and industrial style-chandeliers. It sits up front facing Charles Street, and on this particular day I was greeted with upbeat 80s pop music that made it difficult not to dance.
Unlike the bar’s previous wall that blocked those on the street from seeing inside, the space now boasts full floor-to-ceiling windows facing the busy street. As overtly symbolic as it gets, the window speaks volumes to the change in popular culture that the leather bar scene has experienced over the several decades, practically shouting: We’re not hiding anymore.
Similar to the founding notions of leather bars everywhere as a sanctuary for those whose tastes veer well beyond what is considered the norm, The Eagle gives the sense that that this is, in fact, a place for all to call home at whichever bar you choose. Whether you’re there to see a burlesque show upstairs, catch happy hour in the well-lit sports bar, or enjoy a more traditional leather bar atmosphere in the dimly lit back bar, there is literally something for everyone here. In the hallway behind the bar is what Greg calls the Eagle’s “Little Community Museum” which serves as host to memorabilia and retired club colors. Outside this case there are also leathers hanging from clubs still in existence. “[These clubs] consider this their home bar,” Greg explains, “or their home away from home bar.”
As overtly symbolic as it gets, the window speaks volumes to the change in popular culture that the leather bar scene has experienced over the several decades, practically shouting: We’re not hiding anymore.
One of the most impressive remodels of the space is the gender-neutral bathrooms that are so incredibly beautiful, it’s enough of a reason to go to check out the space in the first place. With dark tile lining the floors, elegant sink fixtures, and wooden doors for each stall, these bathrooms could be straight out of the Belevedere. “Normally you wouldn’t get a tour of the bathrooms,” Greg smiles, “but we’re proud of the fact that we have non gender bathrooms, with the stalls that are private. Not bad for a dingy leather bar, huh?”
At this point in the tour it started to feel as if I was being taken through a labyrinth without any end to the potential debauchery and fun. The back first floor space, known as the “Code Bar,” is closer to what you’d expect if you’re looking for just that “dingy leather bar.” Filled with a large cage in a garage-esque room, with a wall of tires providing an adult jungle gym and erotic art on the walls, the Code bar sets the perfect tone for your classic leather experience. It also has a few rules: no phones or shirts allowed in the low-lit haze.
If instead of entering the downstairs bar you choose to head up the stairs, you’ll enter what is known as “Nest”— a separate and very red ‘Moulon Rouge- styled’ space generally used as a nightclub on Saturdays that is also prepared to host to events like viewings of Rue Paul’s Drag Race, actual drag shows, or even quartets. “There are days when we have three events upstairs and five events downstairs,” Greg explains, as if running through the rest of the week’s schedule already in his head and planning for the next time the room needs to be prepped three times in one day.
Although the amount of activity happening in this space is overwhelming, it’s a testament to how hard the team running the Eagle is working to create an experience unlike anywhere else. It’s almost like an LGBTQ+ inspired mini-mall (if mini-malls were awesome). After checking out a drag show or sipping a cocktail at the traditional leather bar, you can take a quick trek upstairs to the bright retail space full of leather chaps, shirts, and an eclectic assortment of festish-ware that Greg calls, “toys, tools, and implements.”
But even with such a variety happening on a daily basis, one of the most unique aspects to the space is not the leather shop, but the mini-art gallery that hangs inside it and up a flight of stairs. While it might seem out of place at first, the art gallery is far more rooted in the space’s history than the packaged goods. Part-owner Ian Parrish says, “The Eagle’s been tied to the art world since its inception.” Referencing the work of Tom of Finland, an artist notorious for his work depicting the masculine form in a fetish-light (work that, had he not destroyed, would have had him killed)—it’s no wonder the Eagle has made a space to include artwork next to leather whips and chaps.
Like the Eagle’s inception, this gallery space happened organically and has been broadly embraced by artists and patrons. “Well when we started out we thought, ‘Let’s invite some folks we know who are artists, to hang their art for sale in the space,” Greg says. “We thought, you know, that’ll just be a little thing on the side…” But what was originally something they just planned to be little, has since taken off within the Eagle, to the point where there is more art to display than they know what to do with.
During this specific tour, the current exhibit on display was The Baltimore Drag Project, a series of portraits of drag performers that were both vibrant and exhilarating. Shortly after the visit Greg was set to swap out the exhibit with another photography series, with plans for other exhibits in the works that are completely unsolicited. “I’m inundated,” Greg says, a sense of shock and a bit of pride in his voice. “I have a dozen artists who want to hang their work in this space.”
While the gallery is still a learning process for The Eagle’s team, they intend to maintain that the art will be primarily fetish or LGBTQ+ related art. Taking only a 35% commission, The Eagle seems incredibly genuine in their mission behind this gallery of sorts, making it all the more appealing. “I really want to do right by the artists and get traffic through the building,” Greg says.
This dedication to the LGBTQ+ community is even more pertinent now than ever, as we face our current political climate, and the loss of safe haven spaces like the Hippo; Baltimore needs The Eagle now, more than ever. And for those who still haven’t gotten over the loss of the Mount Vernon legend, you’ll be pleased to know that The Eagle is actually a chimaera of sorts, combining elements of the original Eagle along with the Hippo.
“We bought the contents of the Hippo when they closed. If it wasn’t bolted down we loaded it up in a tractor trailer,” Greg remembers. After the Hippo shut down in late 2015, many patrons watched the demolition of the club, teary-eyed and defeated. Almost perfectly timed, once The Eagle’s renovation began, the team soon found people showing up to help rebuild.
“On weekends and sometimes through weekend evenings, volunteers would come in and help us. At first it were perplexing because we were like, ‘This is a business…and they’re volunteering…’ and then it dawned on us one day they were building their own community center,” Greg marvels. “This was a community center back in the day and they wanted it back—so they were going to do whatever they had to do to make it happen. As I like to say, we were just the lucky bastards who got to say, ‘Welcome Home,’ when it was done.”
The result of such immense effort is an engrossing, inviting, and reminiscent experience for those who remember the original and are new to this rebirth. The dichotomy of embracing the past but also leaving it behind as the city ushers the space into the future, is perhaps the most beautiful part about The Eagle. The space exists on a middle-plane, both accessible to those too young to have lived through times even more painful than those today, while remaining true to the roots of those who have adorned some of the original colors that line the back hall of the sports bar.
“There are all these little stories, rebuilding and continuing this legacy,” Greg says, on one last final note. Not only does this speak to the kind of harmony and environment The Eagle originally established, but why it will always be remembered.
Keep an eye out for new programming, gallery openings, and the final touches of the restoration this spring before this year’s PRIDE moves into Station North and breaks in the new Eagle space once and for all.
Baltimore Bear Friday Photos courtesy of The Eagle Baltimore with additional photos by Cara Ober.