H alf a century ago, European immigrants and shipyard workers would head to a half-brick, half-wood building at 81 Copeland St. in Quincy and trudge up a flight of stairs to Finland Steam Baths on the second floor, to clean themselves of the dirt and grime from their hard labor.
The shipyard closed in 1986, and the echoes of workers’ heavy boots on those steps are long gone, replaced by the patter of the polished shoes of business executives and young professionals looking to sweat out the stress of their modern lives by sitting in those same quiet rooms, surrounded by hot steam.
While much has changed in Quincy over the years, Finland Steam Baths remains a local institution, a throwback to simpler times. Family-owned and operated, the business has been around since 1928, and today is the last of its kind in the city.
Seppo Johannes Pakkala, the 65-year-old owner of the establishment, who sports a white beard and a laid-back attitude, greets every visitor with a warm and welcoming smile. He is happy when newcomers arrive at his door, and loves to see their rosy cheeks and smiles when they leave, refreshed and rejuvenated.
“If you don’t try it, you’ll never know,’’ he said. “You can’t get any cleaner.’’
Public hot baths have been around for ages, and working up a good sweat is an old tradition practiced within many cultures. The Finns and Swedes have their saunas, and people have used Turkish baths, Native American sweat lodges, Russian banyas - all for similar purposes.
Traditional steam baths and saunas share similarities as sacred spaces of communal cleanliness, with one distinct difference. Steam baths are extremely humid, with the temperature staying around 120 to 135 degrees. A traditional Finnish sauna (pronounced “sow-nah’’ by Finns), on the other hand, is wood-fired and produces dry heat that can reach over 200 degrees. Pakkala said the immigrants who built public baths in Quincy most likely chose steam baths because they are not as intensely hot as saunas.
The handful of steam baths built in West Quincy in their heyday, explained Pakkala, were the “American version [of sauna] for many of the Finns’’ who settled in the area.
One of the oldest surviving public steam baths in the Boston area today is Dillons Russian Steam Bath in Chelsea, established in 1885. But most have disappeared.
Pakkala said his parents bought Finland Steam Baths from another Finnish family in 1969. “It was a mom-and-pop operation, and still is,’’ he said.
Back then, there were many native Finns in West Quincy. Bob Bloomberg, a researcher with the Quincy Historical Society, said the biggest wave of Finnish migration to Quincy occurred between 1890 and 1920, and the city’s Finnish population reached some 1,200 at its peak. The number of Quincy residents born in Finland slowly declined over the years, and today there are very few native Finns living in the city, he said.
At Finland Steam Baths, the dressing rooms haven’t changed much since they first opened: The paneled walls are dark and polished, and constructed solidly of fir wood, which was commonly used in 1920s construction. There are six steam rooms, with two dressing rooms attached to each. Five hooks adorn the walls of each dressing room, along with a small mirror. An old-fashioned skeleton key pokes out of the keyhole in a side door that leads to the private shower and steam room. The baths aren’t segregated by gender, and there is no limit on the number of people who can use a steam room. (The most they have held is nine people.)
“Steamers’’ can bring their own soap, shampoo, or anything else you’d normally use in the shower (except for oils; those aren’t allowed because they are difficult to clean, according to Pakkala.) After you finish steaming, you return to the dressing room and shut the door, and turn the skeleton key to lock the door. Then you press a buzzer on the wall, which alerts Pakkala that you’re out of the shower and steam room, so he can begin cleaning it for the next person. If you stay past the time limit, he’ll signal that it’s time for you to get out by flickering the light.
The steam room itself is a cozy space, painted sea green - measuring about 5 by 7 feet - with two wooden planks where you can sit or lie and rest your feet against the wall. A furnace stands in one corner of the room, and above it hangs a pipe from which water streams. When you pull the lever on the side, water sprays down onto the hot furnace with a whoosh, creating clouds of steam. A thermometer and hygrometer on the wall shows how hot and humid it is in the room; humidity can get close to 100 percent.
Visitors are given a white terrycloth towel, a face cloth, and a blue bucket to fill up with cool water that can be used for washing, or cooling down. Some people run the steam full blast, with the door shut, while others take breaks from the heat in the adjoining shower room.
“Pay attention to the body,’’ said Pakkala. “Find what your body likes.’’
Sitting alone in a steam room can be a meditative, spiritual experience. It’s relaxing, calming. Besides the steamy furnace, there is virtually no other noise. You can hear yourself breathe.
“For a Finn, it’s place of quietness,’’ said Pakkala.
Occasionally, a novice will inquire about this level of tranquility. Pakkala’s wife, Nicki, recalled the time when someone asked, “Do you have music?’’ She laughed as she recounted how she replied with resounding “No!’’
Since Pakkala took over the business from his parents in 1991, he has added a variety of holistic therapies to the menu of services. It now has a website (www.finlandsteambaths.com) and a Facebook page. Prices have gone up, too: In 1991, a steam cost $8 per person; today, it’s $30 per person for up to an hour (or $50 per hour, for couples).
It’s not an easy business to run; Pakkala said the costs of oil for the furnace, water for the steam, and laundering the towels can run high. Besides that, much has stayed the same, and Pakkala said he has no plans to change anything.
Finland Steam Baths is open four days a week, and is closed in the summer. Every summer, the Pakkalas put new coats of paint on the shower and steam room walls and varnish the benches. During those warmer months, in their free time, the Pakkalas can be found at the Uljas Koitto Temperance Society, a traditional wood-fired sauna retreat in Pembroke. His family started going there in 1958, and he continues the tradition with his family today.
As it enters its 84th year, the steam baths on Copeland Street continue to draw a loyal following of customers.
“People tell us they’ve driven past for years’’ and not stopped in, said Nicki Pakkala. But once they do come in, they almost always come back for more. They usually say, “Ah . . . OK . . . We get it now,’’ she said.
Among the regulars is Keith Buckley, 54, a risk management consultant in the insurance industry, who has been coming for the past year and a half.
“I had seen it for a few years,’’ said Buckley, who lives in Braintree and had driven past the two-story blue wood-and-brick building many times, wondering what it was like inside. “It took a while to make the plunge, so to speak.’’
Buckley is now a convert, and steams once a week. Since he started, he said, he finds that he has less pain in his joints, sleeps better, and can recover more quickly from workouts.
“I was used to going into [steam rooms] at gyms. This is something else. It’s private, so it’s different here. You’re not getting people coming in and out. It’s much more comfortable,’’ said Buckley.
“It’s a place to get away from things and clear your head. It gives me time to relax and get away from the day.’’
Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.