01 February 2019

Forgotten History: Pittsburgh's Natatorium

Pittsburgh Natatorium, postcard early 1900s


A century ago you could take a dip in a massive swimming pool near the banks of the Allegheny River.

Popularly known as the Phipps Natatorium, this pool and bathing complex was between Penn Avenue and Duquesne Way (now Fort Duquesne Boulevard) near the old Sixth Street Bridge.

Hopkins Map 1923 with Natatorium marked in white.

Municipal pools served various purposes for the urban population. At their most basic, they provided places to get clean. Nineteenth century Pittsburgh was hella dirty, after all, and the prevailing social gospel of the day held that cleanliness encouraged moral behavior. But genteel sensibilities were offended by nekkid working-class Yinzers bathing in the three rivers -- so much so that in 1895, such public scrubbings were outlawed during daylight hours within city limits.

While a cleaner population was desired so, too, was a more cultured one. Beginning in the 1890s, the national public bathhouse movement seemed to provide a solution to promoting cleanliness and the cultivation of good character. Many would come to be built in Pittsburgh's industrial neighborhoods, reflecting national trends.

Natatoriums were a little different. Part cleansing facilities, part recreational centers, they sprang from the intersection of multiple social needs. It was deemed necessary to provide socially acceptable opportunities to fill expanding leisure time among the working class, lest those folks seek, erhm, disreputable ways of amusing themselves. And the era's reform philosophy dictated that it was an obligation of privileged classes to provide morally and physically uplifting opportunities for the laboring masses.

In April 1889, the Pittsburgh Post lamented the lack of local recreational options and called for civic improvements that would not only improve quality of life but save lives:
What, then, is left to mortals here below?....If you want to lengthen....human lives, spend a million for boulevards, public natatoriums and pleasure boats, parks where pale-faced people may take rejuvenating romps; concert gardens in which whole families may comfortably sip soft drinks to softer music. Will a million be spent? Hardly. But a million may die.
While steel baron and philanthropist Henry Phipps might have balked at personally spending a million dollars to provide basic and recreational amenities to the industrial class that had made him rich, he did help develop Pittsburgh's Natatorium. The section of town where the pool complex was built would eventually become a de facto Phipps Row because of several prominent buildings he later constructed along that riverfront, which faced his childhood home of Old Allegheny.

Postcard showing Duquesne Way with elevated rail line & three Phipps-built buildings, 1920s.
Natatorium is in last building. Only the arched Fulton Building remains today.

Many public bathhouses would be built in the coming decade, but the Natatorium on Duquesne Way was a private commercial endeavor from its start in 1888. That's in contrast to the municipal conservatory that Phipps had personally funded a few years earlier in the City of Allegheny, and unlike the one he would fund a few years hence in Oakland.

The Natatorium project was incorporated for profit with multiple shareholders. A few months before its opening in 1890, the Pittsburg Press detailed the new complex and how it came to be:
Though Pittsburg is not entirely without bath houses at the present time, none of them are large enough to accommodate the public on the scale contemplated....When the idea was first broached by Mr. Goodwyn, while the business men were willing to admit that it was a good thing, none of them felt like fathering or pioneering it. After some hard hustling a leading politician, who is also a capitalist, was persuaded that there was some merit in the plan, and he placed his name on the subscription list for $4,000. After that it was comparatively easy to boom the project, and some of the very men who at first refused to take stock came around and requested that they be allowed to come in on the ground floor.The backers of the institution are from among the most prominent and professional men in Pittsburg. Among them are Jno. B. Jackson, C.L. Magee, Andrew Carnegie, W.G. McCandless, H.H. Byram, Wm. Thaws' estate, Chas. J. Clarke, H.W. Oliver, H.C.Frick, Calvin Wells, Harry Darlington, Jas. B. Scott, Col. Schoonmaker, and about 150 others.
The "leading politician who is also a capitalist" might be a reference to Christopher Magee, one of the earliest stockholders and a member of the Board of Directors. It is curious that Henry Phipps' name was not included in this litany of supporters but perhaps he wanted it that way. Phipps famously shied from interviews about his philanthropic efforts, and seemed to derive satisfaction from and was certainly at his most interpersonally effective when maneuvering behind-the-scenes. But he played an integral role: when he leased his valuable downtown property to the Pittsburgh Natatorium Company for an initial period of ten years, the project moved forward. That property had been occupied by the Duquesne Way Horse Market for many years, and prior to that a saloon had stood on the site.

Incorporation announcement, February 1889
Phipps might have been reticent about publicizing his business dealings, but Mr. Fred Goodwyn was not shy. He was described in the Press as "....having a reputation as a hustler second to none hereabouts." He was known locally as a former newspaper man, but in recent years had worked as an advertising agent for the late Jacob M. Gusky, founder of Pittsburgh's first department store and a philanthropist (and Jewish Santa to orphans) in his own right. Goodwyn was also an avid sportsman, and he began advocating for a large downtown swimming complex in 1888. It took a year of "hard hustling" but with the backing of private capitalists, crucial political and public support, and the all-important securing of land from Phipps, the Natatorium project took off in May 1889.

For his efforts, Goodwyn was appointed as first manager of the complex. He and his family lodged in a "cozy little flat" on the top floor of the new building.

Grateful, grotty Pittsburgh rejoiced in the papers. From the Post:
While this is no longer the dirtiest city in the land, it cannot claim to be the cleanest. and yet the public need of a swimming bath has not been supplied. This is more of an oversight than the result of any negatory conditions. The health and growth of Pittsburgh depends as much upon its sanitary condition as any other in the land, and yet it has been more backward in this regard, perhaps, than than any of its sisters.
From the Dispatch:
Yesterday one of the wealthiest and best known local philanthropists subscribed $2,500 toward the enterprise. In forwarding his check he said "I do not subscribe as a business venture, but I do it for the good of the city. A natatorium, such as is proposed, is what Pittsburg has been in need of for many years.   

The new building was 60x100 feet. It was constructed of blue Amherst stone quarried in Cleveland (thanks for that, Cleveland) and brick. It was three stories high in front, and one in the rear to accommodate the 45x67 foot swimming pool. The Natatorium's design was credited to Pittsburgh architects William M. McBride and his partner Gray.

Phipps Natatorium illustration, 19 January 1890 Pittsburgh Post article

The pool was filled with salt water from indoor wells and the water "....in the tank was so clear that every movement of the swimmer could be seen." (And thanks for that, legendary Pittsburgh aquifier). Lined with "the best English Portland cement", the pool was kept at a consistent temperature via steam heating, and featured a gradual slope from three to six feet. Flagstone flooring surrounded the pool. A gallery extended ten feet above and along the building's length, where some 55-60 dressing rooms could accommodate 1000-1500 bathers per day.

Phipps Natatorium illustration, 19 January 1890 Pittsburgh Post article

The Natatorium boasted of its innovative swimming lesson equipment:
In order to facilitate the swimming teachers' instructions a steel rail will be put in position extending the length of the tank, on which will run a three-wheel traveler or pulley, by means of which the instructor can readily raise or lower a pupil in the water whom he is teaching to swim. This is a great improvement over the old method, where the teacher suspended the pupil by means of a fishing rod passing under the body.
Really, it's a wonder anyone learned to swim back then.

If the exclusive press preview of the Natatorium in May 1890 for local news reporters is any indication of his skills, former newspaperman and current facility manager Fred Goodwyn did know a thing or two about how to hustle good PR.

Pittsburgh Post, 7 May 1890


The Natatorium officially opened to the public a week later, on 15 May 1890. It was a pricey thing to swim there, though, and at first its existence probably didn't do much to keep Pittsburgh's poorest out of the rivers. Annual family subscriptions could be had for $50; individual tickets for $1 or six for $5. Prices eventually dropped.

The facility, of course, had its rules. Pittsburghers were assured of "....objectionable persons being rigidly excluded from its portals" and "....refused admittance." Presumably what counted as objectionable was deemed to be such at management's discretion -- and we must also presume that racial segregation was enforced.

Each bather was "....required to wear a swimming costume, which will be provided free of cost by the management."

Perhaps something like these sexy numbers? Illustration of swim suits for sale at a local store in 1892, ranging in price from $8-12.

Liberty's bathing suit ad, Pittsburgh Daily Post, August 1892

Of course, ladies with money and time to spare could always make their own bathing suits from patterns ordered for 10¢ (plus postage) from local papers.

Pattern excerpt, Pittsburgh Post, July 1895


Thankfully the Natatorium was willing to supply suits so folks could look as stylin' as this smug trio did. (CAUTION: probably not Yinzers. Image is from a random eBay auction):



Pittsburg Dispatch, 3 April 1890

Ladies could visit Tuesdays 8-2 and Fridays 8-6, when female attendants were on site. They were encouraged to try therapeutic effects of Turkish (hot air) or Russian (hot vapor) baths: "Ladies who are anxious to conceal some physical defect or defects need have no fear, as there is no more exposure in any of the different processes than she is accustomed to see on the street every day in the year."

Pittsburg Press, 7 September 1890

The papers couldn't print enough news about the complex, regularly publishing bits about swimming records, contests and events. The Natatorium did booming business, even surviving some complaints from the ladies. In August 1892, the Dispatch printed gossip about how designated Ladies' Days were not well-attended because attendants were mysteriously not actually attending to or welcoming the ladies: "Such things as ladies need for their toilet after bathing are either totally lacking or are in such condition that they cannot be used. The attendants....do not endeavor to teach them to swim or in any way make them to desire to return." A petition was submitted in 1893 from female members who "felt they were being discriminated against and contend that they should have all day Tuesday as well as Friday to themselves." The papers are silent about whether or not these issues were resolved. There was always a whiff of condescension when writing about women's sport in this era. When the Natatorium opened, for example, an article in the Dispatch commented that when ladies were there "....it is needless to say the building will resound with the usual scream that always accompanies a woman when she learns to swim."

By August 1894, a new manager was in place at the Natatorium, asr Fred Goodwyn moved to St Louis, Missouri to hustle advertising again. But regardless of who was in charge, the Pittsburgh Natatorium thrived. An estimated 130,000 people used the pool in 1906 alone, which was the year the building was demolished to make way for a modern update.

Original Natatorium, April 1906, Pittsburgh Gazette


Pittsburg Gazette, 2 November 1905
Henry Phipps, whose leasing of land was the final piece needed to construct the Natatorium in 1890, made national news in November 1905 with the following statement: "I am tired trying to wash the great unwashed of Pittsburg. They don't seem to appreciate it." This quote was reproduced across the nation, though not attributed to a source. The context was an alleged conflict and potential lawsuit over Phipps' non-payment of the $11,000 balance for construction of Phipps Public Wash and Bath Houses on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. One report elaborated that "....according to Mr. Phipps' agents, there has been petty troubles which have grown to such proportions that Mr. Phipps is thoroly disgusted and does not care what becomes of the project...." A few months later in March 1906 the Press reported that Phipps had indeed paid $15,000--for the balance and then some--and that the situation was but a misunderstanding.

Mistaken communication it may well have been, but the alleged comment by Phipps afforded a Scranton newspaper the opportunity to get in a dirty dig at Pittsburgh:

Scranton Republican, 12 November 1905
 
Seriously? No thank you. That was uncalled for, Scranton.

Righteous burns aside, it's interesting to consider this episode in the context of what Henry Phipps was doing in the early 1900s. Flush with his considerable share of proceeds following the 1901 sale of Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan, in 1903 Phipps established the Institute for the Study, Treatment and Prevention of Tuberculosis in Philadelphia. He followed up in 1905 with a TB dispensary at Johns Hopkins. Also in 1905, he was deeply involved with planning and constructing model tenement houses in New York City. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, he was seeking to improve and build along his extensive downtown properties on Duquesne Way, and the existing Natatorium was surely an impediment to those plans. It was not a competitor for his philanthropic dollars, however, as the Natatorium had long been a commercial success.

So Phipps apparently decided to build a bigger, better bathing business.

When completed in 1908, this second, updated version of the downtown Natatorium was the pride of the city. Phipps had first razed the original Natatorium and an adjacent building to make room for a 14-story steel structure known as the Manufacturer's Building. Phipps intended the building to serve for "storage and light manufacturing purposes" for its tenants. It joined its sisters along "Phipps Row" beside the raised railroad on Duquesne Way. All three monumental buildings in the center of the photo below (Fulton, Bessemer and Manufacturer's) were designed for Phipps by noted architect Grosvenor Atterbury.

Zoom of photo, circa 1910, Shorpy archive: "Pittsburgh waterfront, Allegheny River." showing Natatorium

In this photo, a large sign for the Natatorium can be seen atop the sturdy Manufacturer's Building. In fact, the four-story bathing complex is immediately behind that building; both have peaked roofs. The Natatorium had its own separate entrance but patrons could also enter from Duquesne Way via the Manufacturer's Building, as seen below.

Natatorium's Duquesne Way entrance through Manufacturer's Bldg, April 1915
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh

Close-up of Natatorium entrance, April 1915. Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh


Duquesne Way under construction, July 1915. Shows relationship of Manufacturer's Bldg & smaller Natatorium behind.
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh


Another 1915 view of Duquesne Way Natatorium entrance in Manufacturer's Bldg, right.
Bessemer Bldg on left. Separated by Mentor Alley.
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of PIttsburgh

The sturdy four story stone bathhouse behind the Manufacturer's Building didn't look like much from the outside. But what mattered was inside.

Pittsburgh Natatorium, 1911 architectural trade magazine ad for Atlantic Terra Cotta Company

From a contemporary description:
....as a bathing establishment its architectural features are modern and of magnificent proportions. A grand staircase leads to a balcony that overlooks a swimming pool ninety feet long and thirty feet wide, with arches and domes of selected Italian marble and tinted tile. The Natatorium contains every convenience for comfort. The pool holds 135,000 gallons of water, supplied by artesian wells on the premises. The Turkish bath department, on the second and third floors, is luxuriously furnished, containing a cooling room, hot and steam room, shampooing room, all built of white marble and thoroughly equipped. There is a large dormitory containing one hundred single beds and private single rooms.
The building's interior featured skylights and was clad with famed Guastavino tile. Atterbury's copious use of the stuff was so striking that images and descriptions showed up all over the country in architectural and trade digests.

From Architectural League of New York Yearbook and Catalogue, 1909

From The Brickbuilder, Vol 18, 1909


An article in The New York Architect applauded Atterbury's use of the tile, noting that it was "....an interesting example of vaulted tile construction in which the color of materials employed evidently played an important part." In fact the Guastavino tiles Atterbury chose for the Natatorium included glazed green pieces, which would have heightened the aquatic experience for bathers. Marble used in the building also had a greenish cast.

Pittsburgh Natatorium from Architecture Magazine, March 1909

Few fixtures from the original Natatorium were reused in the new version, although the wooden diving board was recycled since "...it excels in pliancy and width compared to others that had been tried." Most other fixtures were sold at auction. Nearly everything at the Natatorium was brand new and state-of-the-art, including showers and needle baths (a water therapy treatment featuring a coil of perforated pipe which surrounded the bather and strategically shot sharp pressurized jets of water); hot and cold plunges; and salt rubs for exfoliation. There were even, improbably enough, leather-covered doors installed in the swimming baths.

But at first, this public bath house was anything but public. As the structure was nearing completion in January 1908, it was announced that the Fort Pitt Athletic Club would lease the first two floors of the newly constructed building for its 165 members and had committed $120,000 for building improvements. Things changed, however, and that group took over the top floors of the adjacent Manufacturer's Building while another private club snapped up the Natatorium. Initially known as the "Duquesne Bath and Physical Culture Club", the 600-member Duquesne Athletic Club claimed the $1,000,000 "marble palace" for its exclusive clubhouse. 

Pittsburg Press, 8 March 1908
These private affiliations probably represented appealing ways for Phipps to monetize the whole operation, as opposed to dealing with a solely public (and potentially less lucrative) enterprise. Instead of enticing the great Yinzer unwashed from bathing in the muddy rivers, as the first Natatorium had done for nearly 20 years, this facility was set aside for monied members to join water polo meets and indulge in "physical culture" in the gymnasium, billiard rooms, handball court, bowling alley, and the "unsurpassed cafe." Wives and daughters were also invited to bathe privately on Fridays from 10 AM until 4 PM.

The club was under the management of a Mr. R.L. Wanger, described in newspapers (probably by himself, since it was common for papers to print verbatim such grandiloquent press releases) as "....acknowledged the world's greatest instructor in physical culture without the use of apparatus." He placed ads to solicit new "preferred members."

1908 Duquesne Athletic Club new member solicitation

Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 27 December 1908
Wanger might have been a good physical fitness coach, but his advertising and managerial skills apparently weren't so hot. Two months after opening, the Natatorium was shuttered. Bankruptcy claims were filed and it was revealed that Mr. Wanger, the world's greatest instructor in physical culture, owed Henry Phipps money for rent, lighting, and other claims. The posh goods of the club were sold to meet expenses.

The Natatorium officially re-opened as a public facility in February 1909 under the management of James R. Taylor, "....one of Pittsburgh's best known water experts." Taylor was a popular guy around Pittsburgh, a bona-fide, record-setting aquatic sportsman who had taken over management of the original Natatorium back in 1894.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1916
Prices were much more reasonable than in 1890. A tub bath and a dip in the new Natatorium pool each cost 25¢, while Turkish baths would set you back $1. Victorian England had imported the Turkish bath practice from the east, and it spread to the United States after the Civil War. These were modeled after the Greek and Roman systems of alternating hot and cool baths. Turkish baths were considered healthy for the skin and blood flow, designed like modern saunas and steam rooms. Bathers would first hang out in a hot steam room, then move into successively cooler rooms, and finally entered bathing rooms where they might be soaped, rinsed, scraped, and even massaged by attendants (depending upon the facility). There were various levels of communality and privacy involved. Although no photos could be found to illustrate the specifics of the bathing interiors of the Pittsburgh Natatorium, usually the areas for Turkish baths were quite posh. In the first Natatorium, the lounging spaces included "luxurious couches" described as "....Oriental, and the whole apartment....as delightful as a a pasha's dreaming room in the palaces of Stamboul."  The new improved facility was probably even spiffier.

Like its predecessor, the complex was open to both genders. Thursday was Ladies Day. 

Pittsburgh Daily Post, 3 October 1909

Swimming lessons were popular, and the complex continued to host all manner of diving, swimming and water polo competitions. Throughout its history, the Natatorium was used by countless organizations for swimming outings.

Pittsburgh Press, 19 February 1928

It could also be rented for private events. The newspapers occasionally reported on convention and private "stag" swimming parties for gentlemen where swimsuits may have become, well, optional.

Dormitory-style rooms at the Natatorium could be rented starting at $2 a night, weekly for $12. These accommodations sounded comfy, at least according to this February 1909 Gazette Times description. The rooms would come to serve various spa purposes over time.
On the third floor in addition to 14 private sleeping rooms are three large cooling rooms which will accommodate 100 persons. Two of these are provided with enamel iron beds and the other, the green room, is fitted up with leather and reed couches, mohair lounging chairs and other chairs of the inviting sort; in all the rooms being soft ceiling lights. Adjoining the green room is the reading room where writing desks and telephones are provided and where lunches will be brought in to those desiring. Beside this there is the barber shop where, in addition to the barbers, expert male manicurists and chiropodists are in attendance.

Bathing in pools was generally recommended for exercise, as well as relief of fatigue and other ailments. But those health benefits were overrated in some instances: during the influenza epidemic of 1918, the Natatorium advertised that its Turkish baths could help Pittsburghers build immunity and resistance to the flu. Despite what were the best of intentions, swimming in a public bathhouse kept at a uniform 84 degrees probably did more harm than good during that period of rampant contagion.

While the papers regularly featured stories about the various competitions and records set at the Natatorium, there were also tragic tales about drowning fatalities and other bathing-related injuries like accidental scaldings. Flood waters might have sullied the exterior of the building, located as it was near the Allegheny River, but newspapers reported that "....pumps kept the engines comparatively free" of encroaching river water.

Flood waters reach Natatorium's Duquesne Way Manufacturer's Bldg entrance, January 1913
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, University of Pittsburgh

The Natatorium had a good run for 45 years. As knowledge about germ theory evolved, commingling one's Pittsburgh grit in a heated common pool in the name of exercise came to have less sanitary appeal. Plus, tenement house reforms and general technological advances meant that more dwellings came equipped with internal plumbing that allowed for private home bathing. The downtown Natatorium, while fancy, came to be less of an attraction as nearly every neighborhood counted among its amenities one or more public baths or indoor pools. And certainly in the 1930s, few Pittsburghers had spare change lying around to pay for a leisurely swim at the Natatorium.

The complex tried to make a go of it by enticing folks to come in where it was warm during winter months, get a massage, and maybe take an electric bath. The latter were not exactly torture devices, but rather fads that weren't much different from today's tanning beds. Electric light baths were part of the light therapy fad that became fashionable in the early 1900s to treat, eh, pretty much anything. The man credited with inventing electric baths was Harvey Kellogg, who promoted holistic health treatments of various levels of quackery at his Battle Creek Sanitarium (along with his signature cornflake cereal). Light baths like the one he invented in 1891 could treat conditions including but not limited to gout, indigestion, constipation, obesity, anemia, scurvy, typhus, diabetes, and melancholia. In his 1910 book about phototherapeutics, Kellogg prescribed two to three weekly electric light bathing sessions to the point of building up a sweat, and noted "Tanning the whole surface of the body by means of the arc light will be an excellent means of improving the patient’s general vital condition."

The general vital conditions of 1930s Yinzers were probably ripe for improvement, so the Natatorium invested in at least two Burdick Light Cabinets.

Excerpts, Pittsburgh Press, 2 March 1930
Also available at the Natatorium were ultra-violet light baths, which simulated the benefits one might get from actual sun bathing, and "infra-red radiation treatments for relief of pain. The treatments consist of a concentrated of infra-red rays that result in penetrating heat."

Light therapy has its proponents, then as now, but such spa treatments weren't enough to save the Natatorium. Henry Phipps died in 1930, and the facility limped along for a few more years offering novel treatments and experiencing management turnovers. But finally in October 1935, Phipps' estate announced that the Natatorium would close its doors forever. It had seemingly passed its point of civic usefulness, and was providing "insufficient income" to meet expenses and property taxes.

Pittsburgh City Council was approached with myriad requests to acquire and manage the facility for the good of Pittsburghers, and letters to the editor were written to support this plan. But Council said it was "not interested" and flatly rejected the idea.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 October 1935

Pittsburgh Press, 4 December 1935
The building was demolished, and equipment and fixings sold in early December 1935 by John F. Post's Son, Auctioneer. Perhaps the saddest outcome from the closing of the recreational complex was the suicide a few weeks later of the Natatorium's night watchman, Harry Hartz. The 54 year old Northsider had worked there for 31 years, and was unable to find employment once the facility closed.

After it was demolished -- as is the Pittsburgh Way -- the site remained vacant for a long time and was used as a parking lot. In the 1950s, one of Pittsburgh's ubiquitous parking garages was built on the property.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 December 1935
Old St. Patrick's Church altar, Scala Sancta
But pieces of the Natatorium do live on, thanks to Pittsburgh labor priest Father James R. Cox.

In 1935, Cox's parish of St. Patrick's in the Strip District was erecting a new church following the fire which had demolished their previous house of worship. Father Cox called the timing of the Natatorium's demise "providential" because he was able to purchase $400 worth of Italian marble from the building to adorn the church's outdoor garden and interior Scala Sancta. A portion of the Natatorium's marble balustrade was to be placed outside the church "to form a Roman garden" and two pillars which stood at the Natatorium's entrance were to be placed on either side of the altar. While the garden and church interior have changed in the intervening years, it is quite possible that the existing marble altar railing is an artifact from the Natatorium, as are the pillars at the foot of the stairs.

While you can no longer exercise in a massive indoor pool along the Allegheny River, you can visit what remains of the early 20th century Pittsburgh Natatorium by climbing these marble stairs at Old St. Patrick's (please, on your knees).

Old St. Patrick's Church replica Scala Sancta stairs constructed from Natatorium marble

1 comment:

  1. You also want to make certain the pool is constructed with hand laid fiberglass as opposed to chopped glass.Aufstellbecken

    ReplyDelete