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The club was opened by Larry Levenson in 1977, and was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was located in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, an ornate-19th century building on the corner of Broadway and West 73rd Street (230 W 74th St, New York, NY 10023) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Prior to Plato's Retreat, the building housed the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse where Bette Midler provided musical entertainment early in her career. Plato's relocated to 509 West 34th Street in 1980.
Plato's Retreat, a members-only establishment, required everyone to follow the club's numerous rules. Levenson, determined not to permit his nightspot to become infiltrated by male homosexuals, insisted that only straight couples – and women, escorted or otherwise – be allowed to enter the premises, and once a woman left a room after a sexual encounter, her male companion had to accompany her. This rule was intended to ensure that women nearly always outnumbered men – Levenson strictly prohibited sexual activity between males but welcomed lesbianism. Drugs, including alcohol, were not allowed, though they were frequently used despite the rule. The club had a disco dance floor, an in-house DJ, sauna rooms, and a swimming pool with waterfalls.
During its heyday, Plato's Retreat was considered the world's most infamous sex club and was popular with many celebrities, porn stars, and well-to-do couples. The clientele was described as "an assortment of kinky types from the suburbs: dry cleaners and their wives or fat men in toupees with their heavily made-up girlfriends."
In 1985, New York City Mayor Ed Koch backed the New York City Health Department's decision to shut down the city's gay bathhouses, in response to concerns over the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, in closing the gay bathhouses while allowing the heterosexual swingers' clubs – most notably Plato's Retreat – to remain open, the city found itself in a dilemma when it realized such action would be a violation of the newly adopted anti-discrimination law. The Health Department, with Koch's approval, reacted by ordering the heterosexual clubs, including Plato's Retreat, to close as well. The club's Manhattan location was shut down on New Year's Eve 1985, ostensibly for violating public-health ordinances.
Plato's Retreat relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it reopened under the name Plato's Retreat 2. Located at 321 West Sunrise, the new location was in operation until 2006 as an on-premises heterosexual swing club, open Monday through Sunday from eight p.m. until the last person left. Saturday night was for couples only. Plato's Retreat in Fort Lauderdale was a BYOB (bring Your Own Bottle) Club, and no liquor was sold on the premises; however, it provided complimentary mixers, soft drinks, juices and ice.
In 2006, Plato's Retreat closed, and then reopened, keeping the same location and BYOB Club format, but as a sex club for men only. The club is currently operated under the business name Plato's Retreat 2 / The Slammer.
The 2009 documentary American Swing tells the story of Plato's Retreat with archival footage and interviews.