|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 located between Penn Avenue and Duquesne Way (now Fort Duquesne Boulevard), near the old Sixth Street Bridge.
|Hopkins Map 1923 with Natatorium marked in white.|
Nineteenth Century and Natatoriums
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 scrubbing was outlawed within city limits during daylight hours.
While a cleaner population was desired so, too, was a more cultured one. Beginning in the 1890s, the national public bathhouse movement offered a solution by promoting cleanliness and thereby the cultivation of good character. Reflecting such national trends, many bathhouses would be built in Pittsburgh's industrial neighborhoods.
Natatoriums were a little different. Part cleansing facilities, part recreational centers, natatoriums 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 disreputable ways of amusing themselves. The era's reform philosophy also dictated that it was an obligation of privileged classes to provide morally and physically uplifting opportunities for the laboring masses.
In fact, 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.
Pittsburgh's First Natatorium
Steel baron and philanthropist Henry Phipps may not have spent exactly a million dollars to provide bathing amenities to the industrial class that had made him rich, but 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 due to the prominent buildings he constructed along that riverfront facing 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.
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 in the Natatorium project by leasing his valuable downtown property to the Pittsburgh Natatorium Company for an initial period of ten years, which allowed the project to move 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|
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 an impressive 60x100 feet. It was constructed of brick and blue Amherst stone quarried in Cleveland. It was three stories high in front, and one story 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|
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." (Thanks for that, legendary Pittsburgh aquifer). Lined with "the best English Portland cement", the pool was kept at a consistent temperature via steam heating. It featured a gradual slope from three to six feet, and 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|
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. It was all a bit much, and 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? These are illustrations 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. (Note that these folks are likely not from Pittsburgh; this is a representative image from a random eBay auction).
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 Dispatch, 3 April 1890
|Pittsburg Press, 7 September 1890|
The Natatorium did booming business, although it did weather complaints from the ladies. In August 1892 the Dispatch printed gossip about how designated Ladies' Days were not well-attended because Natatorium attendants were neglecting their duties and not attending to or welcoming the female bathers:
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 a year later 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 screams that always accompanies a woman when she learns to swim."
By August 1894, a new manager was in place at the Natatorium after Fred Goodwyn moved to St Louis, Missouri to hustle advertising. 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|
Pittsburgh's Second Natatorium
|Pittsburg Gazette, 2 November 1905|
The second building had an inauspicious beginning. Henry Phipps, whose leasing of land was the crucial factor that allowed Pittsburgh to gain a Natatorium in 1890, made national news fifteen years later complaining about it. In November 1905 the following statement was attributed to Phipps: "I am tired trying to wash the great unwashed of Pittsburg. They don't seem to appreciate it."
Variations of this quote were reproduced in newspapers everywhere, though never actually attributed to a source. The alleged context was a conflict and potential lawsuit over Phipps' non-payment of the $11,000 balance for construction of another bathhouse, the 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 -- the balance and then some -- and that the Lawrenceville situation was only a misunderstanding. Mistaken communication there 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|
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. In Pittsburgh, Phipps sought ot elevate living conditions for workers by building a model tenement apartment building on Rebecca Street in Allegheny City. The complex consisted of 3 and 4 room apartments with rents of $3.35 to $4 per week. They featured steam heat, gas slot meters, sinks and water closets.
|Model Phipps tenement building on Rebecca Street. From Charities and the Commons, 1909.|
Phipps was also seeking to improve and build along his extensive downtown properties on Duquesne Way. The existing Natatorium may have been an impediment to his modernization plans but it was not a competitor for Phipps' philanthropic dollars, since the Natatorium had long been a commercial success. Instead, Phipps decided to build a bigger, better bathing business.
When completed in 1908 the second, updated version of the downtown Natatorium was the pride of Pittsburgh. Phipps had 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 that 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.
|Architectural League of New York Yearbook and Catalogue, 1909|
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.
Adult Swim Time: Group Bathing and Physical Culture
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|
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|
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.
A new pricing system was much more reasonable. A tub bath and a dip in the new Natatorium pool each cost 25¢, while Turkish baths would set you back $1.
|Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1916|
Victorian England had imported the Turkish bath practice from the east, and it spread to the United States after the Civil War. Modeled after the Greek and Roman systems of alternating hot and cool baths, Turkish baths were considered healthy for the skin and blood flow. They were 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. 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.
|Pittsburgh Natatorium post card, circa 1915|
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 Beginning of the End
The Natatorium had a good run for 45 years. But as knowledge about germ theory evolved, commingling Pittsburgh grit in a heated common pool in the name of exercise came to have less appeal. 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, became less of an attraction as nearly every neighborhood added public baths or indoor pools. By the financially-strapped 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, to get a massage, and maybe even take an electric bath. The latter were fads not much different from today's tanning beds. Electric light baths were part of a light therapy fad that became fashionable in the early 1900s to treat 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 allegedly 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 Pittsburghers 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. The facility limped along for a few more years, offering novel treatments and experiencing management turnovers.
Pulling the Plug
In late 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" and "diminished receipts" to meet expenses and property taxes.
Pittsburgh City Council was approached with myriad requests to acquire and manage the facility as a municipal facility for the good of Pittsburghers. Petitions were sent and letters to the editor were written to support this plan. Council unequivocally announced that it was "not interested" and flatly rejected the idea.
|Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 28 October 1935|
Equipment and fixings were sold in early December 1935 by John F. Post's Son, Auctioneer.
|Pittsburgh Press, 4 December 1935|
|Pittsburgh Press, 3 December 1935|
The building was gone by the end of December 1935, though bits and pieces laid about for a while. In February 1936 the Post-Gazette remarked on a lingering, languishing mermaid:
|Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25 February 1936|
|Natatorium mermaid sculpture on far right above marquee. Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 5 November 1935.|
An unintended tragic outcome occurred a few weeks after the building was demolished when Natatorium night watchman Harry Hartz took his own life. After working there for 31 years, the 54 year old Northsider was unable to find other employment when the facility closed.
Pieces of the Natatorium did live on, thanks to Pittsburgh labor priest Father James R. Cox.
|Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 12 December 1935|
|Old St. Patrick's Church altar, Scala Sancta|
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 the marble stairs at Old St. Patrick's (please, on your knees). The stairs of Natatorium marble were officially dedicated on 27 September 1936.
|Old St. Patrick's Church replica Scala Sancta stairs constructed from Natatorium marble|
You also want to make certain the pool is constructed with hand laid fiberglass as opposed to chopped glass.AufstellbeckenReplyDelete