Since 2007, Town has been the largest entertainment venue in the nation’s capital catering to the LGBTQ community. Those who came this weekend said it was a space — no, the space — where they felt welcome.
“They’re just accepting of everybody,” said Hunter Young, an architect out to celebrate his 26th birthday. “I’ve come here dressed as masculine as possible and in drag. I’ve had eye makeup done up. I’ve come in all facets and they’re like, ‘Yes, come on in, you’re welcome here. Just be you.’ ”
Wendy Fox, a 38-year-old sales director, said she most appreciates that Town welcomes “every genre of life.”
“Men, women, trans, drag, art, culture: Everyone kind of co-exists beautifully,” she said. “Whether people come every night or once in a blue moon, this place is a staple. It’s important.”
On Friday, the club’s final “Bear Happy Hour” — a weekly tradition targeting Town’s hairier, more rugged male clientele — gave way to a performance by its longtime drag queens, with a sign-language interpreter positioned behind them onstage.
A performer named Ba’Naka strutted in a white dress to Miley Cyrus. Later, backstage, she gabbed with Blair Michaels, another one of Town’s original drag queens, who had traveled from Buffalo and walked with a cane after recent hip surgery.
“To work in a drag show for 10 and a half years, that is saying something,” Ba’Naka said. “Drag queens get fired left and right, and clubs don’t last that long.”
Fueling a transformation
The first time nightclub owner John Guggenmos saw the 18,000-square-foot space in the 2000 block of Eighth Street NW, it was abandoned, with persistent dripping water that allowed mosquitoes to breed in the middle of winter.
The building had housed another nightclub, Kili’s Kafe, that became a symbol of the neighborhood’s seediness. It was shut down after a shooting in 2005, and then-D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) had famously stood in front of the building and vowed it would never become a club again.
“Even after we opened, I’d come back to U Street on Sunday morning, you’d see 13, 14 piles of glass from cars that had been broken into in the area,” Guggenmos said.
But together with Nellie’s, a gay sports bar that opened the same year up the street, Town started bringing a different crowd — whiter, wealthier, more professional — that was drawn in by the “blank canvas” the club seemed to offer.
“Town transformed that area into a really hip spot where people would want to live,” said Theo Greene, a Bowdoin College professor who is writing a book about gay urban life in the District. “It’s now this post-queer area where you see a lot of businesses flourishing that are not specifically gay, but gay-friendly,” Greene said.
Guggenmos and his business partners always leased the space. The property passed from one owner to another four times before Bristol Capital accepted a $25 million purchase offer from the Jefferson Apartment Group in 2016.
“Gentrification is a great word until it happens to you,” Guggenmos said.
Leaving a void
He said he and his business partners have owned a dozen nightclubs in the District over the past 28 years, closing old venues and opening new ones as neighborhoods shifted and changed.
But with the District increasingly built out and rents ever more expensive, they so far have not found a location for a club to succeed Town.
“It’s the first time I don’t know what’s about to happen next,” Guggenmos said. “You know how you go to a movie and suddenly it’s over? This is it. The lights are about to come up.”
On the club’s expansive patio Friday night, Patrick Kane, 23, recalled coming to Town’s 18-plus nights as a freshman at George Washington University. One weekend, he brought his older sister, who did not yet know he was gay.
“She ends up loving one of the dancers, this guy named Kieran, and ‘Kieran’ becomes this code word between us,” Kane said.
When the siblings returned to Town four years later, Kane’s sister realized the nightclub had been her brother’s way of coming out. Other 18-year-olds, Kane said, will no longer have the option.
“Where can they come to say, ‘This is my Kieran. This is my moment to tell you what and who I am’?”
In the backstage area on the first floor, littered with feather boas and sequins, Ba’Naka took her poofy red wig off one final time at Town.
“What are they turning this into? Condos? Cause that’s what D.C. needs,” she quipped, dabbing with a cotton pad at the thick coat of foundation on her face. “Let’s do it, girl, more glass buildings that are ugly.”
She started to cry. Her makeup stayed on.